by Pamela J. Spence (reprinted with permission from the Fall 1986 AMA Newsletter)
Some of the best mead we've sampled this year is Scott Francis' ruby colored wine aged in wood for three years. His mead is smooth and full bodied, not unlike a light Sherry or Madeira.
Owner of the Winemaker's Shop in Columbus, Ohio, Francis has encouraged many an aspiring winemaker to start with mead.
"It is a good beginning wine because there is little preparation–there is no pulp to deal with, no pressing or processing. Also, you can get a good honey source year round. Otherwise, beginning winemakers tend to go to the supermarket and buy Welch's Grape Juice and try to ferment that.
"The less processed the source, the better the wine will be. And people feel good about making a wine with honey because of the association honey has with good health."Although Francis stocks all the necessary equipment for winemaking, he is quick to suggest ways to improvise. "Winemaking is one of the least expensive hobbies to get into," he says. "You need, first of all, a primary fermenter. You can either purchase a white plastic fermenter such as we carry or use a food grade plastic bucket. Be sure it is 'food grade' and don't use plastic that has color or odor. The five gallon buckets that mayonnaise or pickles come in work well."
For the secondary fermentation, Francis recommends glass. "Wine is happier in glass," he says. "Again, you can purchase a carboy (usually five or ten gallons) or you can use glass gallon jugs.”
"You will also need an air lock, some siphon hose and a hydrometer. You could also purchase a corker and wine corks. Since mead can be a long time aging in the bottle, use a long wine cork that will breathe but will not leak."
According to Francis, winemaking should take place in a quiet, draft-free environment where the temperature remains fairly constant. Ideally, the temperature should not fall below 50° nor rise above 75°. In a warmer temperature there is a chance of other bacteria growing. In colder temperatures, the fermentation can slow down or stop completely.
"In making wine, you are dealing with a living, growing thing. And it can getcranky. Don't put it in a draft and don't put it where you have a barking dog chained up."
It is advisable to have your primary fermenter up off the floor," says Francis, "even though the floor may have a cooler and more constant temperature. When you go to siphon the wine off the sediment, you don't want to haul the fermenter around. Not only is the weight a factor but also you don't want to rile up the sediment."
Francis uses milk crates to support his carboys. "That way they are up off the floor and resting on a soft surface," he says. "Before beginning your winemaking, be sure to sterilize all your equipment Use either a sulfite solution or Clorox–two tablespoons per gallon of water. Rinse with clean water until you get rid of the sterilizer smell."Sterilizing the must is also a crucial step to inhibit the possible growth ofmicroorganisms in the honey. "Some people boil it," he says, "but it really changes the character of the honey. Better to add sodium bisulphite –a quarter teaspoon to & five gallon Mature. Wait for a day after adding sulphite then add a good wine yeast. Occasionally, you'll get a package that is no good, so I always use two to make sure I get a good fermentation."
"At this point, you will also want to add nutrients to feed the yeast. Add a nutrient like diamonium phosphate at the ratio of one half teaspoon to a gallon."
Acid balance is an important consideration in making mead. "Often times a mead that does not turn out well lacks sufficient acid.' Some people add two or three lemons or an orange for each gallon. You can also add a granulated commercial acid blend. One teaspoon per gallon raises the acidity .15%. The more residual sweetness you plan to have in your final product, the higher you will want the acid level to be."
For astringency–that "mouth puckering" quality–the addition of tannin is sometimes recommended. "In most other wines tannin comes from crushing the skins and stems. To get tannin into your Mead, you can use tea or wood chips. Then again, you can age in wooden barrels and get the tannin directly from the wood," says Francis.
"The amount of time it will take to make mead varies. Most people allow a lot of time. For the primary fermentation, it will take three to five days maximum–as long as the mead is covered with foam, fermentation is taking place.
"When the foam recedes, transfer to the secondary fermenter. After about three weeks there will be a good layer of sediment. Since you don't want the wine to stay in contact with that sediment, siphon it off (racking), clean out the sediment then replace the wine and top it off. This first racking is most important because of the amount of sediment.
"After another month or so, do a second racking. If you we making mead during the summer, the sediment can decompose and give off a gas of its own which will cause a spritz in your wine–an unpleasant sharp taste. You want your mead to be clew and clarifying can sometimes be a problem in mead making. Some people filter it so ,they can bottle sooner. You could also try egg whites or commercial preparations such as sparkolloid (sea weed), bentonite (clay) or isinglass (sturgeon flotation bladder)."
"If, one month after racking, no more sediment is dropping, you can bottle. But don't bottle if sediment is still dropping. It won't hurt anything to let the mead sit awhile. If you we getting ready to bottle, make sure that the wine is warm enough so that if it is going to ferment any further, it will. In other words, if the wine is sitting it a cold basement, bring it upstairs for a few days to warm. You'll soon see if the fermentation is complete."
Francis concedes that in spite of experience and knowledge, luck still plays a role. "The people who are the worst to try and talk to are the ones who do everything wrong and by luck still produce a good batch of wine. Having made one good batch they refuse to be talked out of their method."
The vast majority of people who come in contact with Scott Francis, however, are happy to listen and learn. And many of them begin home winemaking with the ancient honey wine, mead.
- 9-12-23 Don Miller – Texas Rivers Distilling, Freeport, TX - September 12, 2023
- 9-5-23 Kent Slaymaker – Slaymaker Cellars, Idaho Springs, CO - September 5, 2023
- 8-15-23 Ben Chaney – Scale and Feather Meadery - August 15, 2023