Making honey mead

Making honey mead is one of Bernard Preston's many passions, and I guess most beekeepers have tried it with varying degrees of success.

Good or bad, it's fun trying different things in life; some are more successful than others.

My first efforts, some twenty five years ago were a failure because of a very basic error; yeasts don't flourish in low temperatures. Our nectar flow occurs in mid winter.

Surprisingly, the saligna gum, a eucalypt, flowers from March to June in the southern hemisphere. Brewing beers and wines can be problematic when ambient temperatures are below the optimum 18 to 25 degrees Celsius that yeasts enjoy.




That was a long time ago, and my methods and techniques have improved. First and foremost, get the temperature right.

The second was a realisation that fungi, like humans, don't flourish on a diet of high GI starch. Honey is a wonderful sweetener, particularly if you get it before the food processing industry has ruined it, but still it's a moderately glycemic carbohydrate.

The yeast cells don't like a diet of straight honey, same as our bodies don't enjoy sugar, rice and potatoes, without protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.

I get around that in part by using very lightly filtered honey which includes some pollen granules, which is where these extra ingredients may be found; and an improvement of flavour.

I'm not sure whether yeast cells can get diabetes, but humans who live on a diet of highly glycemic carbohydrates are doomed. Do you just love chocolate cake, cookies, white rice and soft bread rolls? There are troubles coming. Don't fool yourself into thinking that saccharine is the solution; artificial sweetener side effects include metabolic syndrome.

So my efforts at making honey mead were less than highly successful, for reasons that were beyond me in those early years.

Now my understanding is rather better. Like humans, yeasts need vitamins, and minerals and a diet that is something more than just glycemic carbs.


Making honey mead

Making honey mead is a good way to use up the gleanings produced after decapping your combs; if you're a beekeeper. Otherwise just a bottle of top quality nectar will do.

One of the byproducts of beekeeping is a thick mass of honey and wax obtained from decapping the combs. These gleanings create something of a dilemma; the temptation is to put them out for the bees to extract the honey but a considerable number of them die, drowned in their own honey.

Also, should there be any disease in the gleanings, like American foulbrood, you'd spread it to all the rest of your colonies.

Enter making honey mead.



Mead is about as old as cold spring water and olive oil, and tastes just as good; it was drunk by the ancients.

I first discovered it when I read Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. In the tradition of yesteryear, a young couple were always given a bottle of mead to take on honeymoon; it was considered an aphrodisiac, certain to produce the desired result.




In this blog, Bernard Preston is not going to reproduce the tried and tested method of producing an authentic honey mead, but rather a beer made with raw honey instead of sugar;

Therein lies the twist; the wort for making beer is always boiled to kill off any wild yeasts that may spoil the party. We are going to encourage them instead, and see what we get. So don't rush out and follow this honey mead in the making, until we've tested the result.

Having said that, this is the process than makes Belgian beers so famous; they encourage the wild yeasts.

To make a home brew from basics is a trial in patience. However, making your honey mead using a beer kit is rather simple.

The basic principle is to obtain a wort by boiling up a concentrate of hops, add the gleanings, measure the specific gravity and then add the yeast. One week later you can bottle your honey mead.


Sterilise everything

Step 1 is to sterilise everything; the fermentation bucket, the airlock and bubbler and especially the tap. The easiest is to pour half a cup of household bleach into your bucket, fill with warmish water and allow it to stand of half an hour; use the plain, unscented kind.

In particular, pay attention to the fermentation lid; bubbles of honey mead from your last brew tend to dry on the lid, and it's difficult to get properly clean and will certainly be a source of wild yeast cells. Get it clean but don't scratch the plastic.

Also toss the thermometer and hydrometer into the bucket; they too need to be sterilised.

Don't dump this sterilising liquid; pour it into your quart bottles to sterilise them for bottling in a week's time.

Then rinse very thoroughly with hot water.


Dissolving the honey

Add warm unchlorinated water to the cappings to dissolve the honey, mix it up thoroughly and strain the whole into your bucket of cold spring water, and use these gleanings to make your mead.

Repeat the process with a second few litres of warm water to extract as much honey as possible from the cappings.

Measure the specific gravity using a hydrometer; if it's less than 1.050 add a couple tablespoons of honey to the bucket, if you like a strong braggot.

Alternatively use a kilogram of bought honey.

Making honey mead is an art I can assure you; I've been doing it for twenty or more years.


Making the wort

There are the mysterious and heady terms associated with making honey mead, braggots and other beers; like hops, and making the wort.


Add about three litres of boiling water to a large pot, add your concentrate which you can see in the bucket above, bring to the boil, and simmer gently for fifteen minutes. You need to stir periodically.

I've always used Coopers from Australia but, with the demise of the South African Rand, it has become prohibitively expensive. Now I'm using a local NFP product; it's fine; you shop around in your neck of the woods.

Cool as quickly as you can by placing the pot partly submerged in a large bucket of cold water. Leave the tap running slowly. Getting the temperature right is a vital part of making honey mead.


Cold water

If possible place your bucket on a strong table to ease bottling, or on the edge of a verandah; fill it with non chlorinated cold water from a spring, or rainwater to about two inches below the lid to allow for bubbling.

Continuing from step 1, add the honey solution.

Add the now partially cooled wort to the spring water, pour in the strained, dissolved gleanings and immediately

  • Measure the temperature: 21-27 *C.
  • Measure the specific gravity: About 1.050, or higher if you dare! I prefer around 30.

Brewer's yeast

Provided your temperature is in the correct range, immediately sprinkle the brewer's yeast over the surface of the liquid, and seal the lid pronto.

If it's too warm add blocks of ice; try to get the temperature to 18-22 degrees before pitching in the yeast.


The bubbler

Pour a little gin or vodka into the bubbler, no higher than half way up the first spheres, and immediately fit it to the grommet in the lid of your fermentation bucket; you can use water, but alcohol lessens the chance of infection by wild yeasts.

Now you have to wait about a week or two, depending on the ambient temperature and how much honey you've added. Within 24 hours you should start to hear the most pleasing sound emanating from your bubbler.

The yeast cells are feasting on the honey, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide which bubbles off.

This morning fermentation started, and I'll add more information as the days progress.


Temperature

Mostly the brewing yeast operates within the range between 12 and 30 degrees; temperature control is very important. Below ten it will go dormant.

Recommended is that you pitch the yeast in when the temperature is between 18 to 22 degrees. In theory you should try to keep the wort within that range. Draping the whole in a shroud hanging in a tub of cold water will help lower the temperature.

A cleaner taste is achieved in the lower part of the range, say below 20 degrees, and more unpleasant esthers are produced if the temperature goes above 22.

Keeping a consistent temperature in the 18 to 22 range will produce a better braggot. Thus leaving your cask out at night when it gets cold, and hot during the day is not really desirable. Do you have a pantry where the good wife will allow you to keep your beer?

Otherwise, coddle it in a blanket or box insulated with newspaper or other.

If simply unable to control the temperature properly, then a lager yeast is better tolerant of wild swings.



"Wine is a turncoat; first a friend and then an enemy."

Henry Fielding



The bottles

I'll do a separate page on the sterilisation of the bottles for making honey mead; there they are ready to go, with the hydrometer to check the specific gravity and a bottle of honey to prime the beer bottles. A squeeze bottle would have been better.

As a rule of thumb, one works on an attenuation of about 80%, so if your opening specific gravity was say 1040 then your should ferment to 1040 - (80/100 x 40) = 1008. If your SG is much above that on bottling add less sugar for the head, or risk a catastrophic explosion.

Use your hydrometer to check the final specific gravity is in the region of 1006. Taking beer hydrometer readings before bottling is absolutely vital. Do it, or don't brew! Flying shards of glass shrapnel can and will kill you or someone else nearby.

Prime each bottle with half a teaspoon of raw honey, and then fill the bottle using the tap at the bottom of the bucket, to about two inches from the top.


Place a cap on the bottle and use this gadget to seal your mead or beer. It's quite an art; get the handles exactly level and gently press down making sure it stays straight and level. You will break a few bottles until you get the hang of it; it's part of the art of making honey mead.

And finally, what we've been waiting for. Your first glass of braggot.

I haven't used finings, and this is straight from the bucket so the fine particles haven't yet settled out. But even now, the taste is excellent. In a month it'll be heaven!


Alcohol concentration

Personally I like a light beer with an alcohol concentration of around 3%.

Sugar in grams

1000

750

500

250

Alcohol concentration

5%

4.5%

4%

3.5%

You can go lower than 250g of sugar for an even weaker beer, but you risk wild yeast infection and frankly the taste is less good.

Here's the formula to calculate the concentration:

(Original SG - Final SG)/7.46 + 0.5 for priming =% alchohol

In my case above:

(1055-1004)/7.46 + 0.5 = 51/7.46 + 0.5 = 7.3%.

Only open a quart when you have someone to share it with! It's strong stuff.


Braggot

This drink is called a braggot. It too is an ancient drink, mentioned long before Hardy, by one Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century; do you remember that great line, "for with my death the whole truth shall be seen?" It's simply a variant of making honey mead.





A braggot is stronger than most beers with an original specific gravity of over 1.060, and as high as 1.130. It's also brewed to completion with a lower SG than most beers, in the range 1.004 or less.

Take care lest it becomes the master, says Bernard Preston, and you the knave! It's a fine line.

So, that's it from making honey mead, beer and braggot. Have fun. Follow the rules and there's lots of pleasure to be had, in this instance particularly if you have access to your own raw honey.

I'll do a final update on this page in a month to tell what the final making of honey mead has achieved; hopefully not a drunken old fool!

Well, we enjoyed 30 quart bottles of divine braggot. It really is good stuff, and quite cheap if you have the honey; it's an excellent way of using up your gleanings that might otherwise be wasted.

Prost!


Healthy choice foods

It's perhaps naive to describe any alcoholic beverage as a healthy choice food, but most of us learn to drink in moderation and keep our tipple in servanthood for the majority of the time. Making honey mead, or a strong braggot is no exception.

What I find interesting is that all South African commercial beers and most wines give me dreadful indigestion. But my own brew does not.

It's the chemicals that are added to beer and wine to hastening the fermentation and preserve them that do the stomach in.

In that sense, your own entirely natural homemade beer or wine, and making honey mead, can half way be described as a healthy choice food.


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Bernard Preston

Bernard Preston started keeping bees when he was only twelve; it was a tradition handed down from his grandfather who was averse to using sugar for sweetening. That was more than a half century ago. He's been making honey mead for some thirty years.

The only time in his life when he hasn't had a hive or three in the garden was when he was studying chiropractic in Chicago. Now he has ten; that's enough for our own consumption, plenty for making honey mead, and there are never white elephants at Christmas. 



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