This introduction to brewing mead was given at the Honey Festival in Pietermaritzburg in 2023; it's an apperitif for every home.
The taste of mead is as old as that of icy-cold spring water; it predates wine and beer by millennia. It's a brew made from just four ingredients.
To which many meaders are now adding various fruits; alcohol can be a preservative as well as a tipple. Today we are going to make a peppadew melomel. It's not difficult.
Alcohol for many good reasons gets a lot of bad press, most noteworthy of which is that even two drinks per week increases the rate of breast cancer.
However all that research has been done on alcohol that has been distilled and pasteurised. The assumption that researchers have made is that natural wines and beers are virtually unobtainable; and can be thus ignored.
It's not an unreasonable assumption; but your own home-brewed mead is different. It is unpasteurised and no preservatives are added; it makes an excellent probiotic. In what I call the happy tum there are an incredible 2kg of friendly bugs; bacteria, viruses and yeast cells. They have a profoundly important influence on our overall health; but most folk are seriously lacking.
In four of the five Blue Zone countries where people live such long and zestful lives, many folk drink 2 or 3 glasses of local, natural wines and ales daily; with a very low incidence of cancer.
So think of brewing your own mead as medicine; as a big plus for your wellness like baking your bread, growing your vegetables and cooking from scratch.
It does take time but as I often say, I'd rather spend hours labouring over good, healthy food and drink than sitting in the doctor's consulting room.
Only three utensils are really needed to brew your own mead. A carboy, several demijohns and an automatic syphon; costing under R1,000. You will of course once you get into this want more items like a hydrometer, a thermometer and litmus paper; but really, they are not essential for the beginner.
R1,000 and you are in business. The rest of the bits and pieces you'll find around every home; like a funnel and smooth pebbles from a berg stream.
This introduction to brewing mead is to make it plain how simple it is; the only difficulty is getting good quality honey. Of course the finer details take years to master. Let's get started.
The 8L carboy is a good place to start; they are quite hard to get by the way since the courier companies will not guarantee them but that's another story.
You will need 2.6kg of unheated honey, 8 peppadews and an orange.
First wash out your carboy carefully with Sunlight liquid and rinse thoroughly.
Place the carboy on your kitchen scale and pour in the honey. We like to add a cup of strong black tea that acts as an astringent. Now add 5L of unchlorinated water and slosh it about for ten minutes to aerate the mixture; it gets the yeast off to a good start.
De-seed your peppadews, harvest some zest from the orange and then peel it; discard the pith. Put them in a little bag like this with a pebble to weight them down. Gently put it into the carboy so that it doesn't drop like a stone and smash the glass.
Right we are nearly done. Add 1/3 tsp of wine yeast to half a cup of warm unchlorinated water and leave it to hydrate for 20 minutes. Pour it to the must in the carboy. Screw on the lid tightly and fit the bubbler.
Bob's your uncle, you are done. Fermentation will begin within 24 hours.
Just as we cannot live on carbs alone, so the yeast needs something more than pure nectar to flourish; I have simply used completely unprocessed honey that is rich in pollen. I will probably add a small piece of old comb as well.
Now comes the tedious part; waiting. Bubbling can continue for months but it usually comes almost to an end within a month or so. There's no rush but when you have a free hour, then syphon off the liquid into carboys. Discard the peppadews and orange. Leave the airlock on or it may explode.
Again you have to play the waiting game; put your demijohns of mead into a cool dark place for several months; until it starts to clear. Then again syphon off the must into another clean and sterilized carboy. You really should wait for a year but of course not many of us have the patience for that.
The gap between the top of the mead and the bung should ideally be about 25mm; it's known as the ullage. If it is too great the mead may spoil from oxidation by the air. Less than an inch is also problematic say the experts.
Those of you who are serious about good food and drink will know that you can't make a decent salad with lettuce that was picked a week ago. You have to grow it yourself.
You can't bake a nutritious loaf of bread with refined flour.
And you can't make a decent mead with crappy supermarket honey. Unashamedly we are encouraging you to start beekeeping.
Interestingly beekeepers live long in the land unless they have some bad habits; or they let their mead become master of the house. It makes a very good servant but a rotten boss.
Beekeepers use the gleanings after they have harvested for their mead. I'm sure you know that a comb is really just a ton of tiny bottles each sealed with a wax lid. To extract the honey you first have to remove those "cappings' with a scraper; a fork, roller or hot knife.
Quite a lot of top-quality honey is lost, so you can simply add warm water to it; and use a potato masher to dissolve it. Previously we just gave those cappings back to the bees but it's actually not a good idea for several reasons. Instead start brewing mead.
Brewing really is a journey. You begin with what we call an all-hive mead; just honey, an old comb and water; then you start to add fruit to make a melomel.
And then it is on to a braggart, a beer made with honey; and t'ej, an apparently wonderful drink made by the Ethiopians. That is my next project; I have just planted an African Dogwood tree. The twigs are used to make it bitter, not unlike hops is used in a common ale.
At this introduction to brewing mead I have only one negative to report; and actually it is a positive. It's only for beekeepers and the very wealthy. 2.6kg of decent honey like this, about five bottles, will cost you around R500.
We should all be considering keeping a hive or two in the garden; for the planet, for good honey and for brewing mead. Join the association, we'll teach you how to do it and I can promise you this is the hobby of a lifetime. You will be healthier, live longer and perhaps even join the ranks of legendary beekeepers who have a real sparkle well into their eighties, nineties and even more.
And be able to enjoy an glass or two of a wonderful mead with your dinner, without guilt; it will add to your years, not detract as the commercial drinks will do.
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