Wild Herbal Mead

Any homebrewer or aspiring homebrewer can make mead, that honey elixir of the Nordic gods! Mead is a simple mix of honey and water, fermented into a wine-like drink. But mead can take many forms from sweet to dry, sparkling to still, and can be a pure mixture of honey and water or include countless herbs and other fruits.

Making wild-fermented mead is one of my go-to home “brewing” methods. Wild fermentation, or spontaneous fermentation, captures wild yeasts and bacteria and encourages them to colonize an available sugar source, in this case, diluted honey. In appropriate conditions, this sugar will ferment into alcohol ranging from 7%-12% abv, producing a wine-like beverage of entirely new complexity.

I like wild mead as it is quick to “brew” or put together, and requires minimal equipment and steps. While wild mead does take a long time to ferment dry (about one year), I prefer it to a more complex process. I often incorporate foraged fruits or large herb harvests into mead, tossing fruits and herbs into a carboy of mixed honey and water, which allows me to quickly process otherwise time consuming fruit and herb harvests and enjoy their flavors in later months.

If you have ever been interested in wild fermentation, mead making, or experimenting with herbal flavors in homebrewing, wild mead is the perfect place to start—it’s as easy as mixing honey and water. That’s really it! A ‘recipe,’ or more of a set of guidelines for wild mead (from my recent workshop), follows below.


To make a simple, wild mead:

You will need a vessel that can be fitted with a lid and airlock. Optional equipment includes a hydrometer and swing-top bottles.

I prefer raw honey from local producers (Baltimore is home to Really Raw Honey and Apex Bee Company, as well as several smaller producers). My typical ratio of honey to water is approximately one part honey to four parts water, which results in a mead that is 12% alcohol when fermented dry. Feel free to experiment with higher and lower proportions of honey and water, keeping in mind that different yeasts (wild and cultured) can attenuate different levels of sugar.

(Optional) Using a hydrometer, take a gravity reading of your initial mead mixture and record it somewhere to refer to as your ferment progresses. This is your original gravity.

Mix the honey and water together in a clean, sanitized container with a clean, sanitized spoon. If you are going to be fermenting in a brewing bucket, it’s easy to mix in this container. If you’d like to move the mixture to a sanitized carboy, use a hose to siphon or a racking cane to move the liquid from one vessel to the other. To encourage a wild fermentation, stir the mead a few times a day, keeping the lid covered in between stirs. When you start to see bubbles on the surface of your mead, you have fermentation!

(Optional) Add herbs or fruits to your mead to make metheglin, melomel, and more! My preferred way to add these ingredients is to make an herbal “tea,” let cool, and then use this as the water to dilute the honey. To add fruit, I prefer raw juice (like raw, unpasteurized cider), and use this in place of water to mix with the honey. However – there are many ways to add these ingredients! You can “dry-hop” with herbs and spices, or add crushed fruits, fruit skins, or pulp.

Once fermentation has begun, airlock the liquid to protect it from oxygen and leave the mead to ferment, anywhere from six to eighteen months. As it ferments, the yeast will convert sugars into alcohol and also release carbon dioxide. Taste occasionally to see how the mead progresses.

When it has reached a sweet and dry level to your liking, bottle it! I prefer swing-top bottles with pressurized glass for bottling, as these can hold pressure well without breaking. These are often sold at local homebrew stores. You can also drink small batches without bottles, shared amongst friends.

Sweeter meads will produce more carbonation in the bottle – refrigerate very sweet meads after a few days of bottle conditioning to prevent unsafe over carbonation. Take a gravity reading on your mead at the end of fermentation. If it is done fermenting, it should reach a gravity of 1.000. Any higher gravity will continue bottle conditioning.

(Optional) Determine alcohol percentage with the following calculation:

ABV = (OG – FG) * 131.25.

ABV = alcohol by volume, OG = original gravity, and FG = final gravity.

Using this formula with a beer having an OG of 1.055 and a FG of 1.015, your ABV would be 5.25%. (brewunited.com)

If there is residual sugar or you would like to carbonate the mead, you can use a priming sugar calculator (http://www.northernbrewer.com/priming-sugar-calculator) to calculate how much sweetness will result in what carbonation of your mead. 3.5 volumes of CO2 is the upper limit of carbonation I would safely recommend.

Experiment with different types of honey, honey concentrations, yeast strains, herbal additions, and whatever else you can think of! Further, the resources below are interesting and useful for a home mead maker looking for further reading and references.

 

  • Make Mead Like a Viking by Jereme Zimmerman
  • Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz, Chapter 10: Wines. A great primer on mead, wild fermentation techniques, and equipment.
  • Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, especially chapters on mead. A lovely book on the healing and spiritual properties of herbs, as well as alternative fermentations.
  • Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-created, by Patrick E. McGovern, interesting historical anecdotes about a variety of ancient beverages and their ingredients

 

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