An International Ode to Mead

Meads and other specialty spirits in Dali.

Meads and other specialty spirits in Dali.

When I started making mead, it wasn’t because of my time abroad. I had just read Sandor Katz’s first book, Wild Fermentation, and mead seemed like the easiest recipe in the book, as well as the most likely to impress. Since I was buying milk in glass jugs, I had the perfect, gallon-sized fermentation vessels on hand. So I started brewing.

That was around 2009. When I went to France in 2011, I kept brewing, although I started using smaller jars, usually brewing just enough for a single standard wine bottle at a time. I had an inkling of mead’s history from the beginning, but in France that history became more vibrant. On a visit to Provins, a medieval town near Paris, we came across a honey shop that specialized in mead. French people generally knew what I was talking about when I said I made mead, which in case you’re wondering is called hydromel in French.

I also realized at some point that the honey-loving Russians also drink mead, which is often found in the summer, sold outside, like kvass. I don’t remember drinking much mead in Russia – I was more into vodka and beer at the time – but my Russian cookbook has a whole section devoted to meads, most of which are flavored with hops.

Rose petals in Dali.

Rose petals in Dali.

Then last year, my husband and I were traveling in Dali, China when we came across several small shops selling – you guessed it – Chinese mead. These meads were by far the most exquisite I had ever tasted, including my own. The regional specialty is a mead flavored with rose petals, called 玫瑰酒. The rose petals give the drink a deep red color, and the rose aroma mixes with the honey for an absolutely unique and very sweet beverage, one that is nonetheless quite alcoholic.

When I moved back to Portland two years ago, my father gave me a five-gallon carboy he had picked up at a garage sale years ago. I immediately used it for my largest batch of mead yet. When I got married in 2013, we didn’t buy a single bottle of wine (although my parents did, worried that just mead might be too weird). We served homemade mead, which cost about $2 per bottle and are a whole lot more impressive than wine in a similar price range.

How to Make MeadAfter our trip to China and our experiences with 蜂蜜酒, I tried my first batch of flavored mead, using rose petals from my mom’s front yard. The roses didn’t color the mead – they were white roses anyway – but even a relatively small amount of petals gave the finished mead a distinctly rose-y flavor.

Here’s the basic recipe for mead:

1 part honey
4 parts water

A note on ingredients:

It’s important to use high-quality, raw honey, because raw honey already has the yeasts that will start the fermentation. If the honey has been processed at high temperatures, those yeasts will have been killed and you’re mead won’t start fermenting without added yeast.

Ideally, you’re water should be chlorine-free. Chlorine is added to our municipal water to kill stuff like bacteria that could make you sick. But in mead (and any other brewing / fermenting use) chlorine is bad news, because you need bacteria and yeasts to thrive. You can filter the water, or you can just let it sit out for about 15 minutes, which will generally be long enough for the chlorine to off-gas.

Mix 1 part raw honey with 4 parts water (eg. 1 cup honey and 4 cups water) in a wide-mouthed container. Cover the opening with a cloth (or something that lets air in but doesn’t allow bugs or dust to contaminate your mead). Stir this mixture every couple hours, paying attention to how it looks and smells. When you start to see bubbles forming on the surface, transfer the mixture to a thin-necked bottle and put on an airlock. Put it in some corner of your kitchen (or basement, pantry, bedroom, etc) where it won’t disturb you.

Ferment for as short as 1 month, as long as 6-12 months.

I adapted this recipe from Wild Fermentation. There are also recipes out there that call for adding yeast, or that recommend boiling the honey and water mixture before adding the yeast, so that you can be certain to get the exact yeast colony that you want.

There’s a recipe for mead in my French cookbook that calls for the addition of white wine, and a whole section on mead in my Russian cookbook, most of which are hopped meads. Adding hops is a whole other subject, so it’s probably best to address it later!

If you do want to add flavor, it’s best added at the very beginning, when you still have the mead in the wide-mouthed containers. When you transfer the mead to the fermenting vessel, strain out any flavoring agents (fruits, herbs, etc).