Mead – 5 Things You Need to Know (And a Recipe)
Mead may be the world's oldest alcoholic beverage. Many modern versions are just for enjoyment, but we'll show you why (and how) to brew old school (naturally fermented) mead.
Why naturally fermented? Beyond the unique flavor possibilities of wild ferments, they also have probiotic and potential medicinal qualities. In a world where antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming a growing problem, our old ally and “drink of the gods” may come to our rescue again.
- What is mead?
- Mead Can Taste Like Beer or Wine or an Entirely Different Beverage
- What are the different types of mead?
- It's Legal to Brew at Home
- Is mead good for your health?
- Basic Semi-Sweet Mead Recipe
- Basic Semi-Sweet Mead
- More Information on Natural Fermentation
What is mead?
Mead is an alcoholic beverage where the majority of the sugar for the alcoholic ferment comes from honey. Alcohol content varies from around 4% to over 20% alcohol by volume, depending on the type of yeast, ingredients and aging.
Although sometimes called honey wine, mead is a separate class of beverage. Some companies sell white grape wine with added honey and call it “honey wine”, so make sure you check the label.
It's believed the first honey ferments were likely accidental, resulting from wild yeast fermented honey water. The drink was enjoyed by the Norse, Ancient Greek, Africans and Chinese.
Norse legends about the origin of the drink involve Odin, dwarves, and a war between the gods. Archaeological finds in China contained residue a mixed beverage of rice, honey and fruit dated back to 9,000 years ago.
Mead Can Taste Like Beer or Wine or an Entirely Different Beverage
Most commercial meads taste more like wine – with a kick. There are sweet and dry options,and recipes with added fruit or herbs. If you find you don't care for your first taste, try another type.
Once you get into home fermentation, there's a lot more variation. If you drink your brew young, it tastes more like beer or sparkling cider. It also has a lower alcohol content, making the mug an acceptable serving vessel, versus a wine glass for older brews.
Which brings us to…
How soon can you drink it?
A basic small mead can be ready to drink in ten to fourteen days. Aged brews are ready in six months to a year, or longer.
What are the different types of mead?
There are many different varieties of mead, including sweet, semi-sweet and dry meads. Those fermented with fruit are called melomels. A honey/apple juice ferment is called cyser. Metheglins have spices added.
Honey ferments also include honey beers, grog, T'ej and ale.
It's Legal to Brew at Home
Although you can't sell your brew, it's legal to brew and consume mead in most areas. (This also applies to beers and homemade wines.) Distilled spirits commonly require special permits and/or licenses.
Is mead good for your health?
Long term readers may remember the article “Honey as Medicine”, in which we discussed the use of honey for healing wounds and preventing infection. When fermented, it creates a potent probiotic beverage.
A 2006 study of tej (Ethopia honey wine) found large numbers of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeasts, which have a probiotic effect, make nutrients easier to absorb, provide folate, and protect from mycotoxins.
See “Beneficial Effects of Probiotic and Food Borne Yeasts on Human Health“. The study also found high amounts of Lactobacillus species bacteria, which have been shown to reduce the severity and duration of illness.
Scientists in Sweden launched a mead called Honey Hunter’s Elixir. In the article “Honey-based mead may curb antibiotic resistance, say makers”, one of the scientists notes:
“Well, we’ve seen in our research that the honey bees actually add great flora of lactic acid bacteria in honey so the mead, when produced, is actually fermented by these lactic acid bacteria together with wild yeasts and the lactic acid bacteria can really kill off all the dangerous pathogens that are even resistant against antibiotics.
So our thinking is that the mead, these (antibacterial substances in) lactic acid bacteria in the drink can actually be transferred to your blood and help you when you are infected with dangerous bacteria or promote health, preventing infections,”
If you combine healing herbs with the probiotic benefits of honey, it's a one-two punch.
Note – the probiotic health benefits of mead only apply to brews are not pasteurized or chemically treated to kill off microbes. Natural ferments appear to add extra benefits compared to commercial yeast strains.
Basic Semi-Sweet Mead Recipe
This traditional mead recipe is adapted from “Make Mead Like a Viking: Traditional Techniques for Brewing Natural, Wild-Fermented, Honey-Based Wines and Beers“.
The author, Jereme Zimmerman, describes himself as a “writer and traditional brewing revivalist”. He gives presentations around Pacific Northwest.
- 2-3 gallon wide-mouthed ceramic, glass or food-grade plastic fermentation vessel. (Don't use metal, as honey is mildly acidic.)
- Wooden spoon
- Heavy duty cheesecloth or flour sack to cover the ferment
If you wish to age your brew, you'll need:
- 1 gallon carboy with airlock
- Siphoning tube
- Wine bottles (and corker) or bail-top bottles
Clean all equipment thoroughly, and practice food sanitation practices. You can use products made for cleaning brewing supplies, but hot, soapy water and a clean rinse will get the job done.
Don't overheat your water or honey! If you boil or pasteurize ingredients, you kill off the wild yeasts. Gently warming honey to help it dissolve is fine. Think “no warmer than bath water”.
To give mead body, it needs nutrients (sugars), tannin and acid. Citrus fruit is a good source of acid. The raisins in this recipe add nutrients, tannin and wild yeasts. Oak leaves or grape leaves also add tannin.
As you learn, you can experiment with other ingredients – or buy a good guide book – or both. Endless flavor variations are possible with flowers, herb, fruits, vegetables and spices. You can even make mushroom mead!
Keep your fermentation vessel tightly covered when you are not stirring, especially if fruit flies and ants are around. They love sweet ferments. I have old headbands that I use to hold down my flour sack towel, but any strap or tie will do. (Read here for more on ant and fruit fly control.)
If you want carbonated mead, use heavy duty champagne bottles or swing-top bottles. They are designed to handle pressure build up. Regular wine bottles are fine if fermentation is finished before bottling. (See Notes in recipe below.)
Basic Semi-Sweet Mead
A lightly sweet, naturally fermented mead, perfect for the beginning home brewer.
- 2–3 pounds (about one quart or .9 to 1.3 kg) raw, unfiltered local honey
- 1 gallon (3.8 liters) of clean, non-chlorinated water
- 8–10 raisins
- A couple of squeezes of a lemon or orange
- Mix water and honey in your wide-mouthed fermenting vessel. Stir until dissolved.
- Stir in raisins and citrus juice.
- Cover your fermenting vessel and set it in a warm (60-80F, 15-27C) location, out of direct sunlight.
- Stir the brew vigorously for a few minutes, several times per day.
- Within three to five days, you should see signs of fermentation. The mead will be bubbly and fizz slightly after stirring.
- Continue regular stirring for a couple more days, then strain and transfer the brew into a carboy with airlock.
- Drink the mead in a week or two if you like it young and sweet with less alcohol (5-6%).
- For a stronger mead (10-12%), rack the mead after a month, and then one or two more times over the next six months. Consume at six months, or bottle and age the mead for a year or more.
- To age, place bottles on their side in a cool location, such as a cellar.
To test mead to see if it's safe to bottle, add a half teaspoon of sugar or a bit of honey and swirl the carboy. If it causes a strong reaction, the mead is not ready to bottle. Meads bottled a bit young in a thick bottle will be carbonated, but if not done with care, you risk popped corks or bottle bombs.
January 2021 note: We sampled the mead at six weeks (photo in mug above), 6 months, and 18 months. It was excellent all three times.
At first, it's sweet and bubbly, more like a wine cooler. At 6 months, it was less sweet, but still lightly effervescent. By 18 months, it was drier, but still had just a hint of bubbles. Lovely stuff!
More Information on Natural Fermentation
We have a wide range of recipes and book reviews on the site, including:
- Wild Yeast Brewing – Books About Wild Beer, Wine, Mead and More – this post has great references for medicinal brews and making a starter with wild yeast to help ensure a successful ferment.
- Brew Beer Like a Yeti – Techniques and Traditional Recipes – also by Jereme Zimmerman
- How to Make Kombucha – the ever so slightly alcoholic drink that's been gaining popularity in healthy lifestyle circles.
For a demonstration of bottling your honey wine, you can watch the video below. We bottled pear wine, but the technique is the same.
Or watch on youtube.
Can you explain further how Instruction #8 is accomplished? I understand racking, but what does racking 2 or 3 times more mean?
If you drink the mead young, stop at step seven.
Step 8 is aging the mead. Racking 2 or 3 times means exactly what it says – simply repeat the racking process every couple of months if you want a clearer brew. If you only have one fermenting vessel, rack into another large container, clean the fermenter, and then put the mead back. If you don’t mind a little yeast sediment, don’t worry about racking multiple times.
Excellent keep it simple mead thank you
I notice your mead recipe does not call for lalvin d47 yeast is that correct ? Can I add it? Better yet can I use friendly bacteria?
We’re using the wild yeast from the honey and raisins in this one. You could add commercial yeast if you prefer, but as long as your water isn’t too hot to kill it, the wild yeast should get the job done.
So, I used this recipe with Lavlin D-47 yeast. It activated beautifully and started fermenting within a day. Next day, the fermentation cap on the jug was completely full of brown foam and the yeast was still bubbling. I cleaned out the cap and fixed it back on, but now there is no liquid in the cap at all. Have I ruined this batch?
Maybe I’m not following, but I don’t see why the batch would be ruined.
The water in the airlock lets CO2 escape while keeping air out. In a closed fermentation vessel, the top fills with CO2, and that virtually eliminates the possibility of wild yeast getting in.
Commercial yeast is quite vigorous (as you noticed by the foam produced). It will almost always outcompete wild yeasts, especially in the early stages of brewing. Later, as the brew settles down, it’ll produce less CO2, but by that time your alcohol content should be up and that provides protection from spoilage.
Historically, home brewers didn’t have all this funky equipment. They used the fermentation process as a way to preserve food. As long as you’re not doing something really crazy, that basic concept works as well now as it did then.
Put water back in your airlock, and continue with fermentation.
Why “Note – the probiotic health benefits of mead only apply to brews that use wild yeast. Brews fermented with commercial yeasts and pasteurized won’t be probiotic.”?
Because pasteurization sterilizes the product and kills the live cultures in the beverage.
Have you ever read a yogurt package that says “live and active” cultures? Commercial yogurt makers pasteurize the milk to kill any microbes in it, then introduce the cultures they want to grow. After that point, it’s not heat treated again, so those cultures are still alive.
Commercial brewers also sterilize their brewing ingredients, then add their preferred yeast. When their desired level of fermentation is reached, the heat treat or use sulfites to kill the yeast and other microbes. At that point, it’s a dead food. Still potentially tasty, but no live and active cultures. This makes their products more shelf stable, and helps them keep the flavor consistent.
I am just hoping on this bandwagon but I was wondering if you would be able to accomplish the fermenting process with just the carboy?
You shouldn’t need the airlock the whole time, but my mom made blackberry wine in the glass jugs I use as carboys and never racked it to bottles. It’s not fancy, but it works.
Please describe how to prepare tej having the alcohol content of 2.7percent?
I never measure exact alcohol content or aim for an exact alcohol content, so I’m afraid I can’t be of help.
We used the natural fermentation process from the honey and the raisins and it started fermenting within three days
I did it in a 5 gallon water bottle and on day five I shook it like I do in the morning and it Foamed all the way out of the spout
Is this normal this is my first time
It sounds like your yeast is quite active. This is not a cause for concern, but you may want to shake carefully in the future, or stir.
Thank you for the reply I did end up bottling it that night with her the air locks on top and it is doing just fine they’re bubbling nicely thank you
Wow great looking recipe and you certainly sold me on the wild ferment rather than adding commercial yeast. I just set up two jars and have a question about step 6. When you transfer then does it matter what technique or can I just pour it in the new bottle? Also should I transfer the raisins or other ingredients such as rosemary too for this step? Thank you!
Also is it okay for some of the ingredients to be floating above the water line? I have pieces of fresh rosemary and sage sticking out of the waterline although maybe they’ll sink as they soak. I ask because of the concern of being above the juice line when making sourkraut.
When you’re stirring daily, it doesn’t matter if some ingredients stick out, because they get dipped daily. Once you stop stirring, you probably don’t want anything sticking above the liquid, as there is more of a risk of spoilage.
When moving to an airlocked container after fermentation is active, I don’t worry about transferring in a specific way. I strain before the transfer because it’s a pain to wash my gallon jugs.
Thank you for your replies to my question Laurie. I’ve just transferred to the carboy and will likely drink young in the next few weeks, for bottling with carbonation do you need to bottle and let sit out for 3-5 days or so before moving into the fridge I’m hoping to get a nice carbonated young mead for the final result. Excellent recipe so far the wild yeast took well and it’s been a pleasure stirring each day watching this unfold.
Experiment and taste it. The wild mead has natural variations, so each batch will be a little different. If you want to capture the carbonation, I’d suggest bail top bottles or another option sturdy enough to so so safely. There will likely be some “fizz” to the drink right out of the carboy.
I have never made any alcohol before. Now I’m attempting to make honey mead for my son’s (Viking themed) wedding. I want to keep it natural, so really like this recipe without commercial yeast.
I have LOTS of questions though! Lol. A lot of them I can Google.
But I have one for you:
I found this “Siphonless Big Mouth Bubbler® – 6.5 Gallon Plastic Fermenter” when I was trying to figure out what a carboy was. Do you think I can do the entire process in this?
If you use commercial yeast, you can use a closed fermentation vessel like the Big Mouth Bubbler. If you want to work with natural yeasts, it’s really helpful to have an open vessel to start in, to stir daily and make sure fermentation gets going properly. The Big Mouth might work with wild yeast, but I’d be less sure of it.
Thank you Laurie.
I started my very first batch yesterday in a 3 gallon jug, securing the top with cheesecloth. It dawned on me this is quite similar to making a sourdough starter.
I do have a question about the lemon or orange juice. I realized I had used the last of my lemons after getting my honey mixed in the water. I do have citric acid, so I put the equivalence of a half lemon in. Do you think that’ll be ok? I hope so, since I already did it…lol
The flavor profile will be slightly different, but it should certainly give you that touch of acidity you are looking for in the recipe. And yes, it is quite similar to working with a sourdough starter.
I just started some wild mead with elderberries added in. The original plain mead was excellent.
It’s been one week since I started this test batch. Whenever I stir it it kind of foams up. The first few days, that foam would disappear immediately after I stopped stirring. Gradually after that the foam would linger longer and longer. Finally, in the last couple of days, I’m seeing some white just below the service before I stir it, and the foam when I stir it is quite a bit more active, and lingering a lot longer after stirring it. I hope this is what it’s supposed to do…lol.
I have some carboys with airlocks on the way. I got a hydrometer, but the instructions say I’m supposed to take the first reading when I first add the honey to that water. So, I guess I won’t be able to gauge the alcohol level on this batch. Any suggestions on how I’ll know when it’s ready to taste-test this batch?
Yes, it sounds like things are proceeding as they should. It takes a bit for the wild yeast to build up its mojo.
As for when to taste, go ahead and try a bit at any point. When it’s young and still fizzy, it’s more like a spritzer. As it ages, the flavor deepens and becomes more wine-like. Wild yeast dies off if the alcohol content gets too high, so it won’t have the kick you sometimes get with homemade wine using commercial yeast.
We’ve consumed ours between 6 weeks old and 2 years old, and it was uniquely delicious each time. I can’t say the same of the wines I’ve brewed, which really need some aging for the flavor to mellow.
My carboys and airlocks came in today.
Should I switch the brew over to these, or continue to use my wide-mouth jug with cheesecloth?
If I switch it over, do I shake it up on occasion, or leave it be?
Once the wild yeast is well established, you can safely transfer it to a carboy at any time.
After I transfer into a carboy, no more shaking. Let it hang out and ferment.
Do I strain it? I have raisins in it right now.
Btw, my hubby and I tasted it. We both thought it tasted like pineapple. I don’t know if I’m doing this right.
I usually remove the raisins before moving it to the carboy, largely because they are easier to get out at that time.
Where do I get these wide mouth glass containers? I have not seen anything that large locally, and would like to give this a try.
Which containers are you referring to? The crock?
I cleaned and sanitized Utz Cheese Ball tubs I got at Sam’s Club. They can hold 3 gallons. They’re plastic, but my research says food grade plastic is fine. I figured they’re food grade, since they had cheese balls in them…lol. Of course you have to eat the cheese balls first…lol.
I really needed to make a comment about this:
“So our thinking is that the mead, these (antibacterial substances in) lactic acid bacteria in the drink can actually be transferred to your blood and help you when you are infected with dangerous bacteria or promote health, preventing infections,”
You should all know that there is NO such thing as good bacteria in your blood. I study and work in microbiology and you should remove that statement from your article. The benefits of a probiotic are in your digestive track. Even a beneficial bacteria like lactobacilli can KILL you once it gets into your bloodstream.
It doesn’t say the bacteria goes into your blood, it says antibacterial substances may be transferred.
Hi, I followed your instructions and I’m on day 3 of stirring and still don’t see much happening. There are a few bubbles when I stir vigorously, but none otherwise. The mix smells good (like honey & lemon), but I’m worried that maybe my honey wasn’t actually raw despite being labeled as such (bought it from Costco). Any thoughts?
Is the room warm? Wild yeasts are much slower to get going than commercial yeasts, and gentle warmth will encourage fermentation. You could also try adding a few more raisins (another source of wild yeasts).
Thanks for the reply. The room is 70-72 degrees. Is that warm enough? I’ll definitely try more raisins
A little warmer wouldn’t hurt, but it should ferment at that temperature.