Skinny on Fermentation: Easy Natural Mead

{Once again, Jesse Frost of Rough Draft Farmstead knocks it out of the park. He has demystified the process of making mead naturally. I just bottled some homemade wine that I made following his easy, natural wine recipe—if I can do this, anybody can! I can’t wait to try this recipe for mead—one of the most ancient of fermented beverages.}

Looking at the calendar it’s hard to ignore the fact that we are in the midst of some rather heavy food holidays. Over the next few weeks, many of us will find ourselves on more than one occasion indulging heartily while our poor, unsuspecting bodies struggle to keep up with the onslaught of gravy and stuffing. Needless to say, the digestive system will be working overtime this holiday season and although it’s an inspiring part of our biology—fully up to the task—why not give it a little aid? And I think I’ve got just the tool: mead.

Mead is essentially honey wine. On it’s own, honey is a unique substance, considered one of nature’s most nutritious sweeteners while simultaneously being the single greatest natural preservative anywhere—so long as it doesn’t get wet. Honey will last as long as its container does, but mix in even a small splash of water and it will release the yeasts locked inside and begin to ferment. Thus, mead is born.

Fermented food and drinks are wonderful digestive helpers which introduce beneficial bacteria into your gut to better break down your food while pulling the most nutrition from it (through a process called bioavailability). Few ferments, however, are tastier than fresh, young mead. Plus, as a notable bonus, mead tends to pair pretty well with just about everything from roasted turkey to pecan pie.

What you need:

(Makes around one gallon of mead)

  • 3  1/2-4 cups raw, local honey
  • 4 quarts filtered or spring water (tap water often contains chlorides and other chemicals which will stop or slow down the fermentation)
  • Unsprayed fruit (optional—but I often like to add fruit for flavor, color)
  • 2 gallon clay crock or any wide mouth glass jar (I use 2 gallon crocks so there is room for a full gallon of liquid)
  • A thin cloth or piece of cheese cloth
  • 1 gallon glass carboy with airlock (if you plan to age the mead)
  • Clean glass wine bottles, and caps or corks (I re-use wine bottles)

I must start by noting ingredients matter in a ferment as much as a salad. Use good water and good honey. Make sure the honey is not just corn syrup and that it comes from a local, reputable source. It might run you $12–$20 a qt (4 cups), but that’s not bad for four or five bottles of wine, right? Also, honey has many beneficial properties—anti-allergenic, high microbial life, etc.—you want to capture them. Water, too. The better water you use, the better it tastes, the healthier it is, and the better it’ll ferment. I get my water from the local nutritional center for .39¢ a gallon, though I prefer spring water. Remember, water is to mead what stock is to soup.

Making the Mead

Combine honey (3 /12 cups if you like it a little drier; 4 if sweeter) and water in the crock or jar and stir vigorously with a wooden or plastic spoon. Add some fruit (often referred to as a melomel or fruit mead), spice or herbs (sometimes called metheglin) at this point if you want—in my most recent batch I added a handful of wild plums. Apples and pears are around this time of year, as well, or maybe even some cranberries for a festive touch.

Whether you add fruit or not, make sure you leave at least two inches between the top of the liquid and top of the container or else you will have mead on your countertop as it will swell when it gets fermenting. Cover the vessel with a cloth and tie it tightly to keep bugs out—they will literally try to spoil your fun. It helps to stir as much as possible in the first few days to promote yeast reproduction and keep mold spores from developing—three or four times a day for a few days. But a few minutes in the morning, a few around noon or in the afternoon and one stirring before bed should about do it.

Oh, and you might be wondering when to add yeast—we won’t. Like I mentioned, honey traps and preserves its own yeast and the water essentially releases it. This means it can take a little longer for the fermentation to get started, but almost always results in a more complex, healthful, and flavorful tipple. We also won’t cook the mead as is customary in some recipes because we want to retain all the beneficial microbial life—bacteria and yeasts included.

Once it starts bubbling and frothing after a few days—which it should have no trouble doing—keep stirring a few times daily until the fermentation peaks and begins to calm (5-10 days usually in 60-75 degree temperatures). If for some reason it doesn’t start after 4 or 5 days, add some unsprayed fruit, herbs, or a couple tablespoons of a different honey, then stir hard. Don’t worry, the bubbly fermentation stage should be obvious. When it calms you have the option to drink it all sparkling and young (or “green”) with your holiday meals, or put it in a carboy with an airlock to let it age. More alcohol and flavors will develop in time.

Note if bottling: YOU MUST AGE IT IN THE CARBOY FOR A WHILE BEFORE BOTTLING. I recommend at very least a month, but honey takes notably longer to ferment than other sweeteners so for safety let it go a few months if you plan to bottle. Otherwise, the pressure will either push the cork out, or blow the bottle up. No joke. However, if you’d like it to retain a little effervescence (á la champagne), bottle it young or add a drip of honey to each bottle and use champagne bottles and champagne corks.

If you choose to age it over drinking it young, leave in the carboy as long as you want—the older it gets, the more refined the drink will become. The sweetness will also calm down and integrate over time. Like fine wine, you can even bottle and age it for several years where the sweetness will further soften. When bottling, use a thin plastic tube to siphon mead from the carboy and fill bottles to 1 1/2 inches from the top of the bottle. Then cork it. I use a corker you can get from any wine supply store—online or otherwise.

Keep bottles on their side in a cool, dark place if possible. Heat ages all wines more rapidly and unevenly, so 55-65 degrees is best, but don’t sweat it too much unless you want to age it for a really long time. Also, keeping the bottle on its side will ensure the cork stays moist. Dry corks will often shrink and either pop out or allow oxygen in which will spoil the wine after a while.

Good luck and feel free to ask any questions which might come up before, during, or after the process. You can comment here, or send your questions to me at roughdraftfarmstead@gmail.com.

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Author:Jesse Frost

Although born in Colorado, Jesse spent his formative years in Richmond, Kentucky. After high school he received an opportunity to cook at Le Relais Restaurant in Louisville under Chef Daniel Stage where he spent two years learning the importance of local produce before moving to New York City. While there, Jesse found himself managing a small wine shop in lower Manhattan. Specializing predominantly in organic, biodynamic, and sustainably-produced wines, he discovered a fondness for natural fermentation and farming. After four years, he left the city and returned to Kentucky. A two-season internship at a small farm in Southern Kentucky called Bugtussle introduced him to farming, his first ferments, and a wonderful lady. He now runs Rough Draft Farmstead with his wife Hannah in Danville, and you can read their blog and follow their story at roughdraftfarmstead.com. Jesse is also available for speaking engagements and seminars on gardening, starting small farms, and fermentation.

2 Responses to “Skinny on Fermentation: Easy Natural Mead”

  1. January 1, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    I have a question do you think I could use an actual fermentation jar to start this process? and what is generally the alcohol content of the mead?
    is it significant enough not to give to children?

  2. April 10, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    Thank you for reading!

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