A Very Ancient Craft
Traditionally Mead is an Olde Englishe beverage, which we associate mainly with the Angle-Saxons. Indeed, there is a story that our word 'honeymoon' comes from the festivities, which followed an Anglo-Saxon wedding. The story is that the festivities continued for a month, with the drinking of mead each night--hence 'honeymoon'. Be that as it may, mead is certainly a very ancient drink, older even than wine itself.
It was very well known to the Greek civilisation, who used to mix honey with different wines and similarly used to mix fruits with mead to obtain a variety of flavours. Many of the words which we use to describe these drinks have a Greek origin, as 'will be seen later.
Just as different varieties of grape grown in different parts of the world make: different wines, so do different honeys gathered by bees from different flowers make different meads. Clearly you will get quite different meads made from a honey where the bees feed on English clover or Californian orange blossom than you will from a honey where the bees feed on Australian eucalyptus, for example.
Pale honey tends to make a better mead than a dark honey, which often has a much stronger flavour, and even a dry mead tastes better if it is not too dry. The flavour is some times so delicate that it needs a very slightly sweet background to show it off to its best advantage. Unfortunately, neither light nor dark honey contains any acid or tannin to speak of, so these essential ingredients must always be added. Honey doesn't contain any natural yeast nutrient either and so it is most important to add double the quantity normally used in making wine to ensure a satisfactory fermentation. An analysis of honey shows that in spite of the different flavours the basic chemical composition remains much as follows: Sugar 77%, water 17 1/2% and the remaining 5 1/2% includes salts of iron, phosphorous, lime, sodium, potassium sulphur and manganese with traces of citric, forensic, melic, succinic and amino acids together with dextrin, pollen, oils, gums, waxes, fats, yeasts, enzymes, vitamins, albumen, protein and ash.
A light sweet mead can be, made and drunk in six weeks or so, and the author has tasted and enjoyed such a mead on more than one occasion, and made by different people ton. Indeed, he was judging the mead classes in a show one day and awarded first prize to a particularly fragrant and delicious mead, one that was a joy both to the nose and the palate. When he was later on introduced to the winner he congratulated him and was amazed to be told that the mead was in fact only six weeks old. On another occasion the author had entered a two-year-old sweet mead of some character in a show and was awarded second prize. Upon enquiry he found that the mead which had taken the first prize was only two months old, though made by a different person from the one mentioned above.
In general terms, however, experienced meadmakers are agreed that mead is usually very slow in fermenting and maturing, especially if it contains more than 10% of alcohol or is made from dark honey. Quite often mead will ferment so slowly that it will continue for from six to twelve months. Clearly such a mead will need three to four years' maturation to reach its prime. If a mead tastes a little too dry when you are about to serve it you may dissolve a dessertspoonful of light honey in a bottle full of mead. The aroma and sweetness of the honey will add greatly to the pleasures that the mead would otherwise afford you. Mead should always be served cool, since this brings out the bouquet and flavour.
There is some divergence of opinion as to whether honey should be heated to sterilise it and get rid of wax and impurities. On one side this is argued as important to the production of a sound and pleasant mead with good keeping qualities. On the other hand, heating is thought to drive off some of the subtler flavours. You can therefore either stir your honey into water just warm enough to dissolve it, and when cool add one Campden tablet to the gallon to sterilise it, or you can heat the honey and water slowly and very gently simmer it for a quarter of an hour. This causes a rather dirty scum to arise, which can be skimmed off and thrown away. If this heating, not boiling, is done very carefully the author feels that the advantage lies with heating.
The honey and water should be stirred steadily until all the honey is dissolved so that none sticks to the bottom of the pan and burns. When the honey solution is cool the acid, nutrient, tannin and yeast should be added and the fermentation started. It is imperative to keep your mead must in a warm place so that the fermentation isn't interrupted by the cold. When fermentation has finished rack into a clean jar and after three months rack again, adding one Campden tablet to the gallon. Six months later bottle and mature till ready.