What follows is the most contentious article we've ever written.
Don't believe us? Three brewing magazines rejected it on exactly those grounds, one of them even paying us to kill the article.
What's weird is that it's just an article about how we brew.
We don't make fun of other meaderies, and we state repeatedly that there is nothing magical about our system, it's merely a recounting of how we brew at Groennfell Meadery.
This article is being released, at long last, in collaboration with Basic Brewing Radio where Ricky and James discuss how it came to be that our hobby, which began with the phrase, "Relax and have a homebrew," devolved into so much hand-wringing and bellicose posturing.
MAKING CRAFT MEAD AT HOME IN LESS THAN THREE WEEKS
Honey plus water plus yeast. That’s it. That’s mead. Done.
If you use raw honey, you don’t even need to add yeast.
Heck, you don’t even have to heat the damn stuff if you don’t want to!
So, how is it that books, websites, forums, Facebook groups, homebrew meetings, and even national conferences are devoted to the subject? Considering that we’re talking about combining honey and water, how am I supposed to write two thousand words on the subject without devolving into a discussion of mixing paddles?
Then again, baguettes are nothing more than flour, water, and yeast. It’s admittedly very difficult to leverage that information into a well-reviewed French boulangerie.
Before going into nitty gritty details about honey varietals, yeast nutrient, and degassing, let’s talk about why you’d even want to brew mead at home. Mead gets a bad rap because there’s a lot of bad mead out there. If you’ve ever had a terrible home-brewed beer, the theory is that the brewer screwed it up. If you’ve had a bad mead, this poor ancient beverage takes the blame.
If you haven’t gotten your hands on a craft mead (commercial or homebrewed), what we’re talking about is single-digit alcohol, dry, with bubbles, and packaged in cans or beer bottles. We’ll have much more on this definition of craft mead shortly.
Chances are good that you’ve never had anything quite like it since there are only a handful of meaderies and homebrewers producing this kind of product. Think dry British cider, but made from honey.
In many ways, mead is the ideal beverage for the homebrewer:
Let’s start with this last point. You have been lied to, my friends. You’ve probably been told that mead needs to be laid down in a cool, secluded grotto, protected from passersby and drunken compatriots for no less than a decade… two if you can manage it. This is not true.
There are two good reasons you have to lay down mead:
There. I said it. Off flavors and extended aging are a result of people not knowing the fundamentals of what they’re brewing. And why shouldn’t it be that simple? Isn’t that the root cause of most off flavors? People not knowing what they’re doing?
Before we dive into specifics, we need a full disclosure. In brewing there are three categories of information: Facts, Opinions, and Opinions Masquerading as Facts. This third group is, by an enormous margin, the largest category.
I have spent a decade researching mead brewing and history for my articles, lectures, and YouTube show, “Ask the Meadmaker.” I have a small research staff and a copy editor. I brew 1,000 gallon batches and 5 gallon batches of the same product to test scalability. I have homebrewers from around the world testing my claims routinely.
And yet, I still probably have tons of Opinions Masquerading as Facts. There’s just not a huge amount of money in mead research, and biases have a way of creeping in.
That said, what I’m going to offer here are Facts to the best of my knowledge, and each claim has been tested on every scale of brewing, from jugs to conical fermenters.
As I said above, it’s really a lack of fundamentals that stymies the budding meadmaker. Mead is, in a few key ways, fundamentally different from wine, beer, and all other fermented beverages. By understanding these differences, you’ll be well on your way to making fine craft mead at home.
Honey does not want to become mead.
Grapes would love to become wine if you just give them a chance. Heck, just try to stop them. Honey? Ever hear that legend that archeologists were able to eat honey from ancient tombs? Well, it’s true. The combination of pH, defensins, hydrogen peroxide, and moisture content makes honey indefinitely shelf stable.
Add some water, and you’ve only modified the moisture content; you still have other antimicrobial elements to deal with. Further complicating the matter, your mixture is essentially nothing more than sugar water. Just like humans, yeast can survive on an all-sugar diet for a while, but it sure as heck won’t thrive.
A poor initial fermentation is the root cause of a lot of the cardboard, sulfurous, or Honeycomb Cereal flavors in homebrewed (and some commercial) meads.
Solution Number 1: Make Your Must More Welcoming to Yeast
When I’m teaching classes, my first piece of advice is to make your must (your honey water mixture) as much like beer as possible. Yeast loves beer. Add yeast nutrient or find another way to add minerals and nitrogen.
Another cool thing? Pollen is a natural yeast nutrient which is why raw honey creates healthier, more reliable fermentations. It also has many, many more volatile flavor and aroma components than filtered honey, which in turn improves the flavor of the final product. More on this subject later.
Solution Number 2: Brew Like Your Ancestors
You know what term you’ll never hear me use on my show or lectures? “Traditional Mead.” Asking what mead traditionally tasted like is like asking what people traditionally wore: Give me a century and a continent, and we can start to narrow it down.
Our ancestors often dumped the whole spice cabinet right into their meads. Cinnamon? An antioxidant which helps prevent papery-off flavors and sherry aromas. Thistles and sage? Preservatives. Fruit and grain? There are your nutrients! The possibilities are endless.
Chances are good that people historically drank very little straight mead (mead with only honey in the fermentation). With modern techniques, yeast, and nutrient, it’s much easier to brew straight meads, but it can be just as fun to go a little nuts.
Understanding yeast has never been more important.
Yeast is, obviously, the workhorse of any brewhouse. Understanding strain selection and the life-cycle of yeast can make or break a good mead. Once you’ve made the environment (your must) as hospitable as possible, it’s time to go deep with your knowledge of these tiny little friends of ours.
Solution Number 1: Know Your Yeast Strains
Yes, there are mead-specific strains of yeast out there, and they’re great. They’re also expensive. For my money? D-47 from Lalvin. Wine strains are prepared for the adverse and stressful conditions of a mead fermentation. Nevertheless, with good nutrient loading, beer strains can work wonderfully!
We use mead-specific house strains, wine strains, wild strains, and beer strains at our meadery.
DO NOT USE CHAMPAGNE YEAST. Immediate exception: If you have a stuck batch, Champagne Yeast is your friend. But generally speaking…
This is another one of the pieces of advice going around the internet about mead which isn’t strictly speaking incorrect, but is a little misguided. Let’s look at the facts: What is champagne yeast designed for? Creating a lot of alcohol and very little flavor. In fact, it’s known to strip flavors. Why on earth would you buy expensive honey then scrub everything special out of it?
There will be plenty of people who have made award winning meads with champagne yeast who will be miffed at this assertion. They probably made very high alcohol meads which had enough volatile compounds that some survived the fermentation. To wit, back-sweetening with honey can also achieve similar results.
Solution Number 2: Know The Life Cycle of Yeast
For all the complexities of yeast propagation, mutation, primary metabolites, secondary metabolites, and so on, the life cycle of yeast is fairly straightforward.
When you pitch your yeast, the cells initially spend a period acclimating to their new home (your mead) after which they rapidly begin to uptake oxygen and nutrient. This whole process takes about one day. Yes, 24 hours. So why, dear friends, does the internet tell you to stagger your nutrient additions?
Sure, nitrogen is used in small quantities during the whole of fermentation, but the idea that the yeast won’t uptake the vast majority of what it needs from the get-go doesn’t hold up to experimental data. You can stagger if you want, but want to know what we do?
When we mix our must, we add about an ounce of nutrient per five gallons of mead. Does that sound like a lot? Well, what the yeast doesn’t use just settles out. Not all nutrients are created equally, some will give you weird off flavors if you use too much of them. We love Wyeast Wine Nutrient Blend, but you should experiment!
Then comes oxygenation. We obviously have an oxygenation system, but a good vigorous pouring from bucket to bucket works wonderfully for the homebrewer.
Next we pitch the equivalent of a packet of yeast per gallon. Dry yeast is cheap and super good at what it does. Since this article is about our practices, I will tell you that we don’t rehydrate. We sprinkle a few kilos of yeast right on top of our must. Fermentation often begins within four hours.
Most dry yeast manufacturers recommend rehydration, of course, but in side-by-side comparisons, we haven’t found a flavor difference, and we reliably see faster start times using our method.
Solution Number 3: De-gas
One of the big things which retards fermentation is excessive dissolved CO2. If you find that your fermentation is painfully slow, go ahead and rouse up the yeast while gently stirring out the bubbles.
Remember, however, that every time you open your fermenter you’re potentially letting in buggies. Also, that CO2 is there to protect your mead from oxidation and other infections. If you have enough oxygen and nutrient, you should be able to jog right to 9% alcohol in a matter of days in a temperature-controlled environment. We generally stick to the top recommended temperature of the yeast strain we’ve chosen if not a little above.
It’s all about the honey.
Your honey is everything when it comes to your mead. This may sound axiomatic, but it bears repeating: Your honey is the foundation of every aspect of what your mead will be, it behooves you to understand it backwards and forwards.
Also, to get this out of the way, it is possible to make extraordinary mead from grocery store honey, it’s just much more challenging. Think about it like brewing beer with cereal from the supermarket; it can be done and can even be a fun challenge, but you’d better know exactly what you’re doing.
Raw honey really is king.
Raw honey has a veritable cornucopia of vitamins and minerals compared to its pasteurized, filtered brethren. This doesn’t mean you can get away without using nutrient, but it does mean you’re making up a smaller deficit.
Raw honey is also packed full of complex aromatics and flavor compounds which are volatilized or broken down during pasteurization. Many of the beautiful floral aromas present in high-quality meads come from the use of raw honey.
You don’t need to break the bank, of course; there are many good resources online (and probably in your hometown) to help you source good honey at reasonable prices. Shop around and, once you find a good source, jealously guard it from all of your friends.
You just spent a lot on honey, don’t destroy it at home.
Probably the most contentious subject in meadmaking is the boiling versus sulfites debate. I’m going to make it simple:
Got it? Warm to mix, but don’t boil. Add sulfites if you want, but don’t if you don’t want.
An addendum: When cheap honey is fine.
Many meads come out flaccid, thin, and boring because of the old adage “garbage in, garbage out;” a boring honey will not make an interesting mead. Unless, of course, you’re making a pyment, braggot, cyser, or any other mead in which a substantial proportion of the fermentables come from another source.
Braggots, especially, can swamp the delicate flavors and aromas in high-quality honeys. Just as we don’t pour Pappy Van Winkle into our Bourbon Barrel Stouts, you probably won’t want to waste your Manuka honey on a braggot barley wine.
Bubbles are key to craft mead.
Here’s the most contentious part of our article, so prepare yourself and remember that this is the definition we use at Groennfell Meadery and not universally accepted: We strictly define craft mead as a low-alcohol, carbonated product, while honey wine is still and has a higher abv.
This is pragmatic rather than an arbitrary definition, since many of the “rules” for making lower abv meads are different from high alcohol products. For example, craft meads can forgo multiple yeast and nutrient additions as well as extended aging.
Our meads are designed to be carbonated. Just like a flat beer is nearly undrinkable no matter how good the carbonated version was, a lot of the brightness and complexity of craft mead comes through with the carbonation.
There’s also the added advantage that carbonation makes your beverage drinkable faster. Carbonation does wonders for accelerating the finishing process.
We force-carbonate in house because a few of our strains produce sulfurous components when stressed at the end of fermentation. Craft mead takes carbonation very well in home kegerator systems and is renowned for knocking your friends on their rear ends. If you’re a bottler, never fear, mead can be bottle conditioned like a beer!
A final note on clarity.
We’re not clarity nuts. A few of our meads flocculate like billy-o, and we don’t mind in the least. But our most popular meads are the ones that retain a bit of a haze. Our theory is that these residual components improve the mouthfeel and bring subtle flavors that would otherwise precipitate out.
Then again, that might just be an opinion masquerading as a fact.
The quick review.
Craft mead, as we define it, differs from honey wine in two key ways:
The way to go from honey to glass in three weeks is simple:
 Roldán, A., van Muiswinkel, G.C.J., Lasanta, C., Palacios, V., and Caro, I. 2011. Influence of pollen addition on mead elaboration: Physiochemical and sensory characteristics. Food Chemistry 126: 574-582.
 McGovern, Patrick E. Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-created. New York: W. W. Norton and Co, 2017
 Our brewing log shows an average start-time of 20 hours with cone-harvested yeast, 8 hours with re-hydrated yeast, and 4 hours with dry sprinkled on top. Our theory is the high-level of oxygen exposure in the head-space of the fermenter is what makes the difference, but this is mere conjecture.
 TL;DR: It's safer than table salt.
 Google “Define Craft Mead,” and you will find an extended discussion on this topic.
So, we were working on an article about wild yeast in honey and how to use it for fermentation in mead and other alcoholic beverages.
Instead, we found this amazing article by Jereme Zimmerman that is so much more robust than anything we could have written that we just decided to share it.
Our official summary: Read This Article. It's Amazing.
In which Ricky the Meadmaker celebrates National Mead Day with a toast and footage from the live home-meadmaking demo at the Mead Hall!
Having a stalled batch as a homebrewer is frustrating and irritating. Having a stalled batch as a commercial brewer - in addition to being frustrating and irritating - can also be embarrassing and financially disastrous.
Since we pride ourselves on being open-source, the brew-staff agreed that we couldn’t let our pride get in the way of sharing the story of our most frustrating month. It is also commonly agreed upon that more can be learned from a mistake than a success.
If you are unfamiliar with Valkyrie’s Choice, you should check out the recipe here as well as our general brewing practices.
Also, a spoiler alert: We did manage to rescue the batch, and we’re throwing a huge party to celebrate our success this weekend!
Here begins the saga of Valkyrie’s Choice.
Things that were the same as always:
Things that were different:
Observations of note:
Here’s where things start to go awry. After the normal period of active fermentation (about six days) the bubbling slowed as anticipated, the temperature in the tank began to drop due to lack of metabolic activity, and all seemed right with the world… until we tasted it.
The mead tasted fantastic! The only problem was that it was distinctly sweet. We took a gravity reading and found that it was at 1.024. At this point it should have been at 1.004 at the highest, ideally 1.002. We double-checked the reading with a refractometer with correction calculation and the reading was identical.
No big deal! We’ve dealt with this before. Besides, canning day was two weeks away.
Here’s what we tried, in order, with waiting period [and gravity in brackets next to it].
At this point, the batch was officially stalled, there was no way to meet our canning date, and the state was days from running out of Valkyrie’s Choice.
At this point, Kelly sat the brew team down to go step-by-step through the process (“Did you accidentally add Sorbate?” “No.” “Are you sure?” “Pretty sure.” “Pretty sure is not OK.” “I’ll go check… No. No we didn’t.” “That’s too bad; then I could have just blamed this on you being idiots.”)
The next question was: “Have you tried absolutely everything?” Or, in other words, “If you had unlimited resources what would you do?”
The answer was simple: “I need $160 and two extra weeks.”
Our friends over at Iron Heart jumped through hoops to get us a new canning day, bless their hearts. So there was the two weeks we needed. Now, for the magic bullet.
There are thousands of yeast strains out there, but most brewers only use a handful. One of the best things about being a homebrewer is the ability to experiment on each and every batch. This is why we advocate that our brewing staff keep homebrewing as a hobby, even after they start working for us.
One of the strains that Ricky had used in the past is DV10 by Lalvin. He describes it as the SpecOps of yeast: It goes in where no one else can get the job done, and it does its work quickly, cleanly, and - under the best circumstances - you don’t even know that it’s been there.
One hour after pitching a small amount (by commercial standards) of DV10, the bubbling had started again. Over the next week the fermentation followed a bell-curve of activity and after 8 days we were at our goal of 98% attenuation with a final gravity of 1.002.
The batch tastes amazing, the abv is spot-on, and carbonation is well under way!
Here are the big takeaways from our scary experience:
Let’s side-step – if we may – the question of whether or not bacon should be used in brewing.
Let us, instead, agree that bacon should be in as many things as possible, and if that includes mead, so be it.
Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot of questions about the best way to get bacon into a batch of mead. Many people wonder if they can just cook it up and throw it in like a handful of cinnamon sticks.
The answer to this is: No. Please don’t do that.
So, no beating around the bush here. There is a superior way to get bacon into a fermented beverage and this is it:
The Cooking Stage. The goal here is to get as much fat out as possible, as this won’t lend any flavor to your beverage, but to still get a good maillard reaction.
Preparing your tincture. There are two schools of thought here. The first group advocates for a good vodka to really let the bacon flavor shine through. The second group pushes for whiskey because then your mead has bacon and whiskey in it when you’re done. We are of the latter school.
Adding your tincture. This is where your goals and personal taste come into play.
Enjoy, Meadiacs! Send us photos of your favorite pint!
Blah blah blah, normal disclaimer about the fact that you just left meat sitting in a jug of whiskey at room temperature for a week.
There’s almost nothing that a professional meadmaker can do that a home meadmaker can’t do just as well.
Generally speaking, we have access to the same honeys, the same yeast, similar if not identical nutrients, and so on.
The one thing that professionals have that most home meadmakers can’t justify is laboratory analysis. If you want to spend the dough, you can certainly get analyses for abv, VOC, esters, residual sugars, yeast mutation, and so on, but it can be very expensive and, as we’ll see below, completely unnecessary.
A quick note: Some homebrewers develop their entire hobby around the scientific aspect of the brewing process, investing in everything from stir plates to high-powered microscopes to professional texts on the subject. If this is your thing, go for it! Seriously, that’s awesome. Just know that you’re a member of the select.
So, for the rest of us mere mortals who don’t want to become cell biologists and organic chemists, how can we go about improving our homebrewed meads, beers, wines, and ciders?
The trick is to develop a knack for qualitative rather than quantitative analysis. Even the biggest breweries in the world use both, but a lot of the smaller folk (Groennfell Meadery included) opt for qualitative analysis with very, very rare quantitative lab work to answer specific questions.
Here’s how we go about our quality control at Groennfell Meadery, and while we can’t speak for any other breweries, this represents a fairly good sketch of what is going on at small and medium-size brewhouses around the world. You don’t need to do every single step here, but this is the complete process for those who are interested.
This is all about preparing your palate to detect minor variations in your beverage. It can take days, weeks, or even years. The best tasters still follow this practice decades after beginning as professionals.
Step 1: Know enough of the science to know what you’re looking for. You don’t need to have a PhD in Bioactive Minerals to know that yeast needs a variety of nutrients for optimal fermentation. Checking out our Meadmaking Articles is a good place to start.
Step 2: Get examples of the style you’re analyzing and taste them side-by-side focusing on commonalities rather than differences. For example, what do all British Porters have in common? Use your words; writing down what you're tasting actually helps in identifying flavors and aromas.
Step 3: Taste the samples again, looking for differences. If there’s something you taste in one or more of the samples that doesn’t seem right, try to describe it then look it up to see if it belongs there.
Step 4: BONUS STEP. Take a class on flavor and off-flavor identification. They’re even available as home study kits now!
Quality Control in Action:
Once you know what you’re looking for (and hoping not to find), it’s time to subject your homebrew to scrutiny. We don’t follow every step below every time, but this is the full QC regimen we have at Groennfell.
Step 1: Simply taste a sample of the product listing outloud any pronounced flavors or aromas. For example, Nordic Farmhouse always goes through a stage of fermentation where it tastes like bubblegum. Even though this would be an off-flavor in the final product, it’s a good sign if it’s pronounced on day three of fermentation because it’s an indicator of consistency. If everything’s good, skip to step 4.
Step 2: If an unexpected flavor is encountered, have another brewer sample the product without priming them (in other words, don’t say, “I think this tastes like butter; what do you taste?”). Once you have a second opinion, voice your concern if the other brewer hasn’t already noticed it.
Step 3: If there’s an issue, do one of two things, A) Relying on your vast knowledge of brewing, take remedial steps to correct the problem. B) Freak out.
Step 4: Assuming no problems, check for consistency. We usually use the following trick, we pull samples of a product from three locations, usually a past batch and a current batch in both can and on draft.
Step 5: If no comparison samples are available, we all know the product pretty well. Actually, we all know it very well. We drink a lot. We try not to go by memory, but sometimes it’s the only option. This is where writing your tasting notes down comes in handy.
Step 6: If you want to go really nuts, go ahead and do a triangle tasting. This is where you taste three samples - two are the same and one is different - and you try to identify the two that are the same. It does require two people or having absolutely horrendous short-term memory.
Step 7: If there has been a change, document it and try to find the source. On more than one occasion, serendipity has stepped in to improve our meads. Being able to identify what “went wrong” is actually one of the ways our products continue to get better over the years.
That’s it! So simple, right?
While paying someone to do laboratory analysis is certainly an option, why would you ever turn down the opportunity to drink numerous beverages in the name of science?
Groennfell Meadery is Vermont’s premier craft meadery. Inspired by Old Norse legends, brewed with extraordinary ingredients, Groennfell’s meads are unlike anything you’ve had before. Crisp, clean, and astoundingly drinkable, the only way to explain any one of Groennfell’s meads is to try one yourself.