I took my first sip of mead, the biblical honey wine, several years ago at a Renaissance fair up north in Maryland. For health reasons, I needed to control my sugar intake, so I was hesitant when my friends encouraged me to try it. “You don’t have to drink much,” they said. “Just taste it.”
That was my first mistake. Had I never tasted the smooth, liquidy, honeyed liqueur, I would never have become hooked.
I was in heaven. No wonder it was called the “Drink of the Gods.” I could almost taste the spring flowers, the bee pollen, the sunshine.
If Norse mythology claimed that the rivers of Valhalla flowed with mead, and Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, served it to her lovers, I just had to keep a bottle of the stuff in my back cabinet.
The problem was, I couldn’t buy it anywhere. The liquor store in my home state had a honey-flavored wine called “meade,” but it didn’t come close to the thick richness of my first sample. So I was destined to search for the ultimate mead recipe and make the stuff myself. It was Thanksgiving, and I wanted to have some mead along with Christmas dinner. Thus began my holiday mead-making tradition.
According to some sources, our European forebears were making mead before they were making wine and beer. But mead is not a big mover in the United States. Local wholesale wine distributor Lou Robinson has noticed some movement around the holidays and Renaissance fair time, but he doesn’t sell much mead at other times. In Tennessee, if you want to enjoy mead, you can ask your local liquor store to order it. But then you’d miss out on the adventure of making it yourself.
All that is necessary are a few supplies: bottles, tubes, corks, honey, water, wine-making yeast. You also have to pay attention to keeping everything sterile, and you need patience. If you start your mead now, you might achieve a good fermentation by the holidaysit won’t be a thick mead, but it will be mead still the same. (The thicker the mead, the more honey, and the longer it takes to fermentsometimes six months.)
The regular yeast for baking bread found at the grocery store won’t work because, over the centuries, different types of yeast have been isolated for specific purposes. Baking yeast is good for producing the gases that make bread rise, but it doesn’t work for making alcohol.
Don’t fret, though. You can get wine-making supplies locally at any hobby store that carries home-brewing supplies. Try Lil’ Ole Winemaker Shoppe on Charlotte Pike (615-352-6301) or New Earth Home Brewing and Hydroponics up in Goodlettsville (615-859-5330). If you like to do your shopping via home computer, you can find your first mead recipes through the CompuServe Home Brewing forum. Several other Web sites can be found with a simple search. (Try both “mead” and “meade.”) Among the good places to start are: http://www.homebrewmart.com/meadback.html, http://realbeer.com/brewery/Mhall.html, or http://www.highlander-brew.com/meadfaq.html. Another great resource is Making Mead (Honey Wine), by Roger A. Morse (Wicwas Press, P.O. Box 817, Cheshire, Conn. 06410-0817).
Most other home-brewing books also contain variations on making mead. Some even include a beer-like mead that uses hops and ale yeast. The folks at the local home-brewing stores are helpful and have copies of several different mead books. If all else fails, try Storey’s How to Books for Country Living, a great catalog for do-it-yourself, Mother Earth types (1-800-441-5700).
The next step, of course, is to find some good honey. I mean GOOD honey. To use the anemic supermarket-quality liquid called “honey” would be sacrilege. After all, our word honeymoon has its roots in the tradition of giving newlyweds a “moon’s” worth of honey wine to ensure fertility. And the word medicine comes from metheglin, a form of herbal mead. Surely, such a noble history demands that you spend a few extra pennies for good honey.
I suggest a visit to Sunshine Grocery (615-297-5100), where you can bring your own bottles to fill or you can buy your honey ready-packaged. Another option might be taking a relaxing Sunday drive to buy honey and apples at Breeden’s Orchard in Mt. Juliet (615-449-2880). But don’t wait; these folks are only open until Dec. 22. In any case, look for the good stuff. You won’t get the flavor of pollen and sunshine if you stoop to the brand-name, homogenized varieties.
The amount of honey you buy depends on how much mead you want, how soon you want to drink it, and how thick and sweet you want it to be. The honey-to-water ratio can range anywhere from one to five pounds of honey for each gallon of water. I use two of the big blue five-gallon water jugs available from bottled-water distributors. I use one for starting the mead and another for “racking” it. (Racking is the process of siphoning off the clear liquid and leaving the “silt” on the bottom, creating a clearer wine). If you use these bottles to make mead, be prepared to buy them. If you “contaminate” them with anything other than the water that came in them, the water company won’t take the bottles back. A better idea might be to buy a glass bottle called a “carboy” along with your other home-brewing supplies. At any rate, given the state of Nashville’s chlorinated tap water, it might not be a bad idea to buy bottled water for your mead-making anyway.
If you decide to rack, you will need some tubing for siphoning. The tubing must be long enough to reach to the bottom of the bottle. (You’ll want to get every last drop of clear mead.) It must also be long enough to reach into the bottle to which you are transferring. Obviously, the tube must fit through the mouths of the bottles, but the larger the circumference of the tube, the faster the flow of the mead. Your choice of tubing depends on how long you want to wait for the racking process to be completed. (I tend to be a little impatient.)
Whether you are racking or not, you’ll want to get a stopper-like device that will allow air to escape from your bottle without allowing too much outside air to enter. This device reduces the chance of airborne contaminants turning your mead into vinegar.
Other than that, no other special equipment is needed. You’ll need a large stainless steel or porcelain pot in which to boil the honey and water. (Boiling off the protein in the honey also creates a clearer product.)
The mead I make is lighter than the version I originally tasted. It tastes almost like a honey-flavored apple cider, but with a kickboy, what a kick. It can lead to a hangover of biblical proportions, probably because of the high sugar content. It is rumored that when the Hebrews attacked Holofernes they were suffering from a mead hangover and accepted “slaughter with gratitude.”
To get started with a quick mead, make yourself a list of equipment. Gather some bottles, tubing, and a strainer or cheesecloth. Pick up some wine yeast and a stopper. Mix five pounds of honey with five gallons of water. Bring it slowly to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Steep a few tea bags to add tannin. Then add some spices, perhaps a tablespoon of Angelica, available from Hyssop Hill Herb Farm in Franklin (615-794-7427).
Let the mixture cool to baby’s formula tepidnessit should feel neither hot nor cold when dribbled on the inside of your wrist. (The cooling process will take all day, so don’t hold your breath.) Skim off any foam. Add the yeast and yeast nutrient, as per package instructions. Strain any larger particles as you pour the stuff into a pre-sterilized bottle. (I use bleach for sterilizing and then make sure the bottle is rinsed well afterward. Special sterilization chemicals are available at home-brewing supply stores.)
Next, let the mead sit in a warm place. I keep it wrapped in an electric blanket, set at a very low temperature, and store it in my son’s bedroom. After 48 hours or so, rack the mead into another sterile bottle, using sterile tubing. Then wait for the fizzle to stop. Some people like the fizzle, since it suggests a carbonated beverage. But I was looking for high alcohol content, so I waited several weeks. After a taste test, if you like your mead, you can add a quarter-cup of grain alcohol to stop the fermenting process. The final step is to bottle the mead and cork it, so as to avoid any problems in case of further fermentation. Keep it in the refrigerator.
It’s a great hobby, and you’ll discover a new room freshener. When the mead was brewing, my son’s room never smelled better.
A word of caution: according to Danielle Elks, assistant director of the Tennessee Alcohol Beverage Commission, it’s legal for any citizen to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year. However, your mead may not be sold or given away as gifts to anyone outside your immediate household. I don’t know about you, but even with my love of mead, I don’t think I could possibly drink 200 gallons of it in a year.
Another warning: Under Tennessee law, it is illegal to purchase from suppliers other than your local retailers. That means it’s against the law to buy it over the Web. The state of Tennessee won’t be able to collect its taxes if you purchase mead via direct shipment from out-of-state breweries, and you have no way of knowing if out-of-state suppliers are licensed in Tennessee.
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