A closeup of a glass carboy full of fresh new mead, fermenting. Some orange slices and blackberries are visible in the neck.

The Mead Diaries, Volume 1

Jake Robins - Personal

When I was a kid, my Dad tried his hand at making various wines and beers. I remember the complicated production taking over our kitchen every once in a while, various barrels and tubes and funnels sprawled across the counters and floors. It felt like a lot of work for something you can just buy at the store, but now that I'm an adult, I get it. It must have been a fun way to escape the normal patterns of life, pour your effort into a task, and make something. For a long time, I toyed with the idea of trying it out myself. I did all the reading and scoured the web and talked to people about what I needed to buy and what my first steps would be, but I never pulled the trigger. I'm one of those people who can suffer from analysis paralysis; I get too fixated on how to do something well, how to do it the right way, and understanding the difference between the various options. This of course takes a lot of energy in research, and eventually that energy runs out and you haven't started anything. Then I forget about it for a year or two until I hear about someone else trying it, start all over and repeat the cycle.

This is why I'm thankful to a friend here in Mérida. A few weeks ago, she gifted us a bottle of honey of mysterious origin.

A clear pastic bottle, about 1L, full of thick golden honey, sitting on a kitchen counter.
Local Yucatecan Honey

Language barriars are fun sometimes. I asked her where she got it from, and she said "my daughter got it". I clarified "no but where did it come from?" She replied, "my daughter?". I don't think her daughter is a bee but stranger things have happened in Mexico. Nonetheless, it was a nice gift. The thing about honey, however, is that I don't really have any use for it. It doesn't make regular appearances in my diet, and if we just tossed it in the cupboard it would probably slowly turn into a goopy block until we threw it out. I realized that this was the kick I needed to finally try making alcohol. You can ferment honey into mead!

With the pressure of utilizing the honey right in front of me now, I was able to re-approach the research with a more focused urgency. This helps me a lot; I grabbed the first decent looking recipe I could find, bought the first reasonably priced equipment results from Amazon and a local u-brew style store, and got to work. I often have to remind myself the value of just starting. The worst thing that could happen would be a shitty batch of rotten honey water and the loss of a few hours and a few bucks. But I could also have mead! I like mead.

Anyway, so here's what I did. In this first volume, I start and initiate what's called the primary fermentation stage. Later entries will cover racking, bottling, aging, and, you know, drinking.

The Stuff

Trying to keep minimalism in mind, this is the basic equipment set I began with.

A group of equipment and supplies for making Mead, including a glass carboy jug with rubber cap and plastic airlock, a funnel, a packet of EC-1118 Lalvin Champagne Yeast, a bottle of bottle of honey, and four bottles of water.
Mead Equipment

The glass carboy came in a set of two, and included the rubber caps with the plastic airlock on top. I thought this was a nice economical way to do it, since I wanted to use the second one for racking and allow me to move into a staged production line where one batch is fermenting while the other is racked. (See, there's that overanalyzer in me thinking ahead to my mead production line as if I have any idea if I'll enjoy this). You can use whatever ones you like, but I liked this one because it also came with a screw cap so you can seal and shake, too. We had the funnel lying around, and I picked up some Canadian Lalvin Champagne yeast to handle the fermentation work based on a recommendation buried somewhere in a comment thread of a reddit thread which is now lost to time. This will not be a well-documented blog post.

Sterilization

A key thing that I saw repeated everywhere I did research was to be festidious about cleanliness when fermenting alcohol. You're about to pack a whole bunch of sugar and water into a jar and leave it lying around for a while, which means it's a ripe environment for icky stuff to grow in. Avoiding that contamination, which can ruin a batch, is clutch. So what I did was pick up a packet of special food-grade sterlizing powder. This stuff is great because you don't need to rinse it off if you don't want to.

A foil package of sterilizing powder, branded 1Step.
1Step No Rinse Cleaner

NB: The corner is ripped off because I tried to open it using the so-called easy-tear openings which nowadays seem to never work? What's with that? Either it tears in some random direction like this, or you do a perfect tear right across but the glue seal goes all the way down to the ziplock part anyway so you have to cut it open and half the time you just ruin it? Can some billionaire please disrupt Big Bag Seal?

After a thorough scouring of my kitchen sink with Bar Keeper's Friend, I filled it with warm water and mixed it in, making a sterlization bath for everything that would come in contact with the brew. The carboys, the caps, the airlocks, the funnel, the thermometer and my dutch oven which I use to heat the mixture. I also got a fresh sponge and used this liquid to sterlize the counter and other surfaces nearby I might need, as well as the faucets, too, since I might be touching them.

Various brewing equipment bathing in a hazy liquid in a kitchen sink.
Sterlization bath

Following my recipe, I heated up some water in the dutch oven and then added the honey in to dissolve. Other recipes I've seen don't bother with this step; I think the point is to make sure the honey is well mixed, which you can accomplish via other means. I probably won't do it this way on the next batch because I ended up heating it too much and had to let it cool down before I pitched the yeast. I also weighed the honey so I could keep track of the mass to sweetness and make an adjustment for the next batch if needed. This was 1.3kg.

A dutch oven being heated on the stove while honey is being poured into the warm water mixture.
Wait, I thought a honeypot meant something different

While this was heating, I prepped the fruit. Apparently if you put fruit in a mead it's actually called a melomel but nobody has ever heard of that so I'm just using "mead" throughout this post. I put the orange and the blackberries into a quick vinegar bath to make sure there was nothing funky growing on the outside of it. Lots of people who live in Mexico, especially we extranjeros, are worried about the fruits and veggies you buy here and even buy a special kind of fruit sanitizer at the grocery store to clean off the dirt cooties. I've never been that paranoid and am happy with a quick rinse most of the time, but for the mead I figure you can't be too careful. Fruit is helpful as extra food for all the little yeast babies and also adds some flavour profiles. I also added a few raisins, for nutrients I guess? Some people on the internet think raisins are helpful to mead and other people are so passionate about not using them that they turn to song. We'll see how it goes and let science decide.

Afterwards, I combined the fruit and honey water together in the carboy, and topped it up with remaining water. Then, I pitched the yeast, just adding it in right on the top.

A carboy with orange slices, blackberries and raisins floating in honey water. Bottled water is being added via a funnel to top it up.
Adding water to the honey and fruit

At this point I capped the carboy and gave it a good shake. It's important to do this so you oxygenate the brew, which the yeast needs. I made the mistake of filling it up too full and this made my shake-shake-oxygenate process a little more difficult. It also caused my first couple days a little trouble because it kept fermenting up the airlock and making a bit of a mess. Live and learn.

At this point, as I learned after I did all this, you should be measuring what's called the specific gravity of your mixture. Specific gravity is sometimes called relative density, because you are comparing the density of something to a reference material, usually water. Something with a specific gravity of 1.01 is 1% denser than water, for example. Getting a baseline of your specific gravity here allows you to compare it later to see how it has changed via fermentation, which allows you to understand alcohol content. I bought a hydrometer to measure this after the fact, so we're going to yolo this batch a bit when it comes to alcohol content, but I know now for next time.

Finally, I removed the cap, and replaced it with the rubber seal and airlock.

A mead brew in a carboy with a rubber cap, and a plastic airlock full of liquid.
Mead Airlock

The airlock, with a tiny bit of sterilized water in it, allows two things to happen. One, it keeps oxygen from entering the brew, which would ultimately allow mould to grow. Second, it allows carbon dioxide to escape, which is a byproduct of the fermentation process. Without the escape, the carboy would literally explode in a dramatic storm of honey, glass and (probably useless) raisins after sufficient pressure built up.

From here, the waiting game begins. I found a dark corner of a closet to let it sit, and I'll probably let it sit for 4-5 weeks, taking a hydrometer reading at week 4 then 5. If the reading is the same, you know fermentation is done. If it has changed, then we leave it another week. I'm a tad concerned about temperature - most reading I did said to keep it down in the low 20s celsius but I live in Yucatán so this is a challenge. I've been measuring the temperature in the closet and it hovers between 25C and 28C. Something to keep an eye on and see how it affects it.

Within a few hours, stuff started to happen in the carboy. And by the next day, fermentation was in full swing.

That's it for now! Check back in a few weeks and we'll find out if we're ready to rack!