by Dewey M. Caron Ph.D. Apiculturist, Department of Entomology, University of Delaware (reprinted with permission from the Spring 1986 AMA Newsletter)

Editor's Note: In response to many requests for information on how to get started, we are reprinting, with permission, information from Dr. Caron's Cooperative Extension Service leaflet.

Honey wine or mead is an ancient fermented drink. Mead is fairly easy and inexpensive to produce. A few simple ingredients, attention to an uncomplicated procedure, and a little patience will lead one to a good fermented honey drink.

 In the making of mead as in any wine, yeast cells attack sugar releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol. A dilute solution of honey left at room temperature will ferment naturally although the resulting product will not usually be very pleasant. To make a quality honey wine we need a mild, pleasing flavored honey, a source of wine yeasts and a few trace additives (acid and nutrients). Controlled fermentation of the necessary material takes about three weeks for dry wine and up to four months for a sweet wine. Additional time is needed for aging and maturing of the wine. For fermentation a large jug is required. Clean corkable bottles or oaken barrels are desirable for aging and service of the product.  

A dry mead (less sweet) may be secured by using 3 to 31/2 lbs honey mixed in 1 gallon of water while a sweeter wine is obtained by use of 4 pounds of honey. Too little honey produces a thin product of low alcohol content that is difficult to keep while greater amounts leave an excess of sugar and a sweeter final product. To be reasonably certain of the final product, a hydrometer to measure the sugar concentration of the honey-water mixture is helpful. A 22 percent solution with specific gravity of 1.095 yields a dry (nonsweet) wine while 25 percent or greater (specific gravity of 1.110) results in a sweeter product. 

Honey and water are combined to begin the process of winemaking. Usually a dark honey or one with a strong flavor will decrease chances of producing a superior dry wine; likewise, water contaminated with heavy minerals or other additions may detract from the delicateness or bouquet (smell) of the final product. Therefore, a mild flavored honey (most light honeys are mild) and pure chlorine free water should be used if possible. 

When making wine, most sources recommend sterilization of the sugar source (in the case of mead – honey) to eliminate wild yeasts. Sterilization can be accomplished by boiling the sugar and water mixture for a couple of minutes. However, since honey can be adversely affected by such a procedure, boiling is not recommended to produce a decent honey wine. Instead campden tablets or sodium bisulfite (from wine supply firms) are added to the dilute honey solution. The liberated sulfur dioxide will sterilize the must (honey-water mixture) and kill foreign low alcohol tolerant yeasts.

The type of yeast used is probably the most critical factor as regards mead taste. Baking yeasts and noncultured yeasts are usually not satisfactory. Suitable pure yeast cultures can be obtained from wine supply firms or stores; an all-purpose wine yeast, madeira, tokay or sherry yeast will give good results. Experimentation will yield the right type for one's taste. The yeast source will recommend the correct amount to use. 

Yeast added to a honey water mixture will ferment over a period of time; to hasten fermentation and increase the chances of a successful product, yeast food (nutrient salts; urea and ammonium phosphate) and tannin (tea; cream of tartar) should be added. Since most wines are acidic, the addition of an acid in the form of tartaric or citric acid is recommended. The ideal mixture should be acidic with ph of 3.5 or .3% tartaric acid. Most wine makers like to start their yeast cultures in a small portion (5 to 10%) of the final mixture for 2 or 3 days before adding it to the entire mixture. This helps insure a rapid fermentation which is desirable. 

After adding all materials, the mixture should be placed in a non-metallic container that can be fitted with a fermentation lock. The container should be no more than two-thirds full to prevent the must from bubbling over. One or five gallon carboys make good containers. (if large volumes are made at one time the initial mix can be put in a crock or polyurethane pail for the first 3-4 days of rapid fermentation before placement in jugs fitted with fermentation locks. Then the container may be 7/8 full). The fermentation valve permits escape of carbon dioxide without entry of oxygen. A homemade lock consisting of rubber tubing attached to a section of glass tubing in the cork stopper leading down to a small glass jar with enough water to cover the tube ending works satisfactorily. Water should not enter the fermenting mixture. 

Fermentation works best at 65 degrees F. A constant temperature is better than a widely fluctuating temperature but temperatures lower than 60 degrees will lengthen fermentation time. Higher temperatures (up to 85 degrees) produce a more rapid fermentation which do not present a problem provided enough yeast nutrients are present in the mixture. The must should be siphoned (raked) off the dead yeast cells and sediment after one month. When siphoning be careful not to disturb the bottom or transfer the material floating at the top. Replace the fermentation lock once again. 

Following all fermentation (cessation of foaming and carbon dioxide release) once again rack the wine. A cloudy wine will clarify with time but egg white (1 egg white to 10 gallons of wine) beaten with a small amount of wine and then added to the remainder will hasten clarification. A fining agent such as gelatin or a commercial clay can be secured from a wine supply firm for the same purpose. Sterilizing the must mixture before beginning the fermentation aids in securing a clear noncloudy (clarified) final product. The wine should be racked into sterilized bottles or oaken wine casks and corked. 

Honey wine, like all wines, needs to be aged. Aging bottles should be stored in a cool dry place and left undisturbed in a horizontal position. Bottled sweet cloudy wines might explode due to reactivation of yeast. One year is usually sufficient aging time but this is a matter of taste. Unaged wines are yeasty tasting, lack bouquet and are frequently cloudy. 

Service of the finished product in wine bottles with distinctive labels is a nice touch. Wine supply firms have bottles, corks and corking devices available at a reasonable cost.

Wines aged in the service bottle will frequently have a bottom sediment; careful pouring will prevent mixing it into the clear liquid.

Vicky Rowe
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