This recipe for House Smith Mead has two purposes. First, it tells how to make our version of quick mead, and, second, it is written to introduce the art of brewing to the novice. The recipe is based on a recipe in "The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt., Opened" c.1600. The predecessor to our version of this recipe was developed by Duke Cariadoc of the Bow. I learned it from him in A.S. VIII and have been refining it ever since.
24 l. seltzer (in plastic bottles), OR
6 gal. good water
9 lb. honey
1 T. fresh ginger root
1 t. whole allspice1 or
2 g. grains of paradise
1 t. whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 pkt. top fermenting beer yeast, ale type
Some things are critical to brewing mead and some things are not. The type of container that you use for cooking the must (liquid that will be fermented) is critical. The container can be glass, ceramic, or enamelware, but it must not be bare metal. It must hold at least five gallons (this recipe can be scaled up some but it should not be scaled down) and must be suitable for stove top use.
The water used in mead making is also critical. Mead (or any other non-distilled brew, for that matter) is mostly water. If your water does not taste good, do not use it for mead making. Chlorinated tap water is almost never suitable, use bottled water or reverse osmosis (RO) water instead. Seltzer water can be used as "good water". The carbonation disappears in cooking and the plastic bottles can be used for bottling without any preparation (providing reasonable care is taken when the bottles are opened2).
The honey used in quick (ale type) mead making is relatively non-critical3. Only two characteristics are important, a light flavor and low cost4.
Yeast is more critical to mead making than honey. You need a top fermenting beer yeast, ale type. DON'T USE BREAD YEAST!!! Don't use wine yeast. Especially don't use champagne yeast. Don't use any type of yeast except a top fermenting beer yeast, ale type5. Even these are not all alike, but more about this when in the discussion of fermentation times.
The bottles used in mead making are not critical to making mead, ... only critical to keeping it from exploding! The best bottles to use are champagne bottles. Don't use beer bottles (they are not as strong and it is one heck of a mess when they explode in your refrigerator). Plastic carbonated beverage bottles (e.g. seltzer bottles) also work.
When you select empty champagne bottles to use, you need to check them for two things. First, are the bottles sound (no chips which could cause the bottle to break under pressure). Second, do the bottles take the standard size crown cap (some don't and it is very frustrating to fill a bottle just to discover that you can not cap it).
The type of caps used on the champagne bottles is important if you wish to get the mead into glasses instead of on the ceiling. Crown caps work fine for this purpose. They let you release the pressure gradually as you open the bottle. Corks, either real or plastic champagne style, don't.
If you use champagne bottles, you will also need a bottle capper to put the crown caps on the bottles. The best type that I have found is an inexpensive two handled type of bottle capper that looks like a complex corkscrew without the screw. Don't use the press type of bottle capper. Although they work fine for putting in corks, they take more practice to reliably seal crown caps.
Now that you have all of these supplies together, you are ready to brew mead. Allow seven hours for the first step of mead making. Clean the kettle and the long handled spoon very thoroughly and rinse several times in very hot water to remove all traces of detergent. A very small amount of soap residue can have a large (bad!) effect on a lot of mead.
Put four gallons of good water6 into the kettle, place the kettle on the stove and start heating it. Pour in nine pounds of honey. Stir until the honey is completely dissolved, then add enough good water to bring the level of the honey and water mixture (must) up to within ½" of the top of the kettle. Fill a teakettle (or other container to keep make up water boiling) with good water7. Throughout the cooking stage keep the water at this level by adding boiling water as required. Try not to (need to) add more than one cup of water at a time.
Simmer the must. As it simmers, foam will form at the top. Skim the foam as it forms. The foam starts out light and frothy. The last foam that forms is noticeable darker and denser. Once this last foam is skimmed off8, you are ready to add flavorings to the mead.
While the must is simmering, prepare the orange peel and pulp that will be needed later. Select two oranges, wash them carefully and remove any blemishes from the skin. Pare the oranges thinly (a potato peeler is very useful for this). What you want is only the orange part of the peel, none of the bitter white part. After you have removed all of the orange from the peel of the two oranges, remove and discard the white part of the peel and slice the pulp into ½" thick pieces.
Peel about a "thumb" of fresh ginger root (about 1 tablespoon). Slice the ginger across the grain into thin slices.
After the last of the foam has been skimmed from the must, add the sliced ginger root. Simmer for 25 minutes. Add one teaspoon (each) of allspice and cloves, and the orange peel that you have prepared. Simmer for five more minutes. Turn off the stove and add the orange pulp and the two sticks of cinnamon. Cover and allow to cool.
When the must has cooled down to about 85° F. (overnight), sprinkle the package of yeast over the top of the must. Cover the must and wait 15 to 30 minutes.
Take a slotted spoon, sterilize9 it by pouring boiling water over it, and stir the yeast into the must. Cover loosely (set the lid on the kettle off center with about a ½" gap on one side, cover the kettle with a clean dishtowel or a clean piece of unbleached muslin).
Generally ignore the must as it ferments. The less that you open the kettle, the lower chance that you will introduce some mold or wild yeast into the must. The mead will probably be ready for bottling in about three days if fermented at 78° F., maybe. You may notice the great lack of certainty in the previous sentence. This is due to the fact that different brands of yeast, and to a lesser extent even different packets of the same brand of yeast, will cause the fermentation to proceed a different rates.
Two signs (and a little practice) will tell you when the mead is ready to be bottled. First, the yeast cap that formed during the first part of primary fermentation (the technical term of this first fermentation that we are discussing) starts to break up and sink. Second, the smell of the must changes10 from the sweet smell of honey and water to the alcoholic smell of mead.
If you are not using seltzer bottles, then when the must has reached the bottling stage, the thing to do is to clean and sterilize the bottles that you will be using. Twenty-four bottles should be enough to bottle a batch of mead and still have a few left over to cover minor problems like breakage in cleaning, wrong sized tops, dirt remaining in the bottles discovered just before filling, etc.
The method that I use to clean bottles is simple, effective, and time consuming. Clean your bathtub and fill it with as hot water as you can manage (straight hot water, no cold added). As it is filling, a one cup of dishwasher detergent. When the tub is full sink the bottles in it. Make sure that the bottles are completely filled with liquid (no bubbles). If you have sensitive skin, you should wear rubber gloves, as this concentration of dishwasher detergent can be quite caustic. You should also take care that none of this liquid splashes into your eyes11.
Permit the bottles to soak for one to two hours. Drain to tub. Rinse the bottles inside and out at least three times then place them in a dishwasher (you may have to remove the top rack to do this). DO NOT PUT ANY SOAP IN THE DISHWASHER (this will leave a residue in the bottles that could spoil the flavor of the mead). Run the dishwasher at the hottest water setting available. When the dishwasher is done allow the bottles to cool in the dishwasher. Do not open the dishwasher until you are ready to use the bottles. If you do hot have a dishwasher, rinse the bottles at least two extra time in the hottest water available and use as soon as possible.
Allow about two hours the first time for the actual bottling operation. A large a slotted spoon, a bottle capper (if you are using champagne bottles), a funnel, a dipping cup, and a 12" square piece of unbleached muslin are required.
The unbleached muslin needs to be washed then rinsed a minimum of three times.
The funnel should be selected carefully so that it will fit into the top of a champagne bottle without making an air tight seal. Sometimes two funnels, one inside the other work best.
Also, two or three plates are needed. They will be used as places where you can put various items that need to be kept sterile.
Sterilize the above items and the 24 crown caps by pouring boiling water over them12. Also sterilize your own hands as well as you are able with soap and water. Rinse your hands repeatedly to remove all traces of soap so as not to contaminate the mead.
Skim the yeast, spices and floating orange pulp with the slotted spoon.
Put down a cloth towel (or three layers of paper towels) over the area down on the area that you intend for bottling. Put the three sterile plates down, Put the cup on one plate, the funnel (or funnels) inside the cup, and the cloth (piece of unbleached muslin) over the funnel. Put a clean paper towel folded into fourths on the second plate. If you are using champagne bottles, put the capper on its own sterile plate.
Check a bottle to make sure that it is clean (bits of dirt have an almost magical habit of appearing inside bottles at this stage). If it is clean, place it (standing) on the towel. Put the funnel into the neck of the bottle and the cloth over the over the funnel. Depress the center of the cloth so that there is well in the center of the funnel into which you can pour the must. Using the cup, pour the must through the cloth into the bottle. DO NOT FILL THE BOTTLES TO THE TOP. Allow two inches of air space at above the mead. Put the cup back on the plate, and wash out the cloth (as filling progresses you may find that you need to wash out the cloth more often to keep a reasonable filtering rate.
Wipe the top of the bottle with an unused spot on the folded paper towel. (refold/replace as required). If you are using a seltzer bottle, screw on the top. If you are using champagne bottles:
Put a cap on top of the bottle taking care not to touch either the top of the bottle or the inside of the crown cap with your fingers.
Crimp the cap with the bottle capper.
Rotate the bottle 90° and crimp again.
Put the bottle in a safe spot (not under foot or cluttering the bottling area). Repeat the process until all of the mead has been bottled.
The mead now requires approximately three days of secondary fermentation. Find a place for this to take place that:
stays a roughly 78° F. (e.g. don't put it into the garage),
the bottles will stay in an upright position,
won't be damaged of a bottle leaks or explodes (should not happen if you followed instructions, but why take chances13).
You know that secondary fermentation is complete when the yeast cap that forms on the top of the mead breaks up and sinks. When secondary fermentation is complete, refrigerate the mead. Age for at least 24 hours (2 weeks is best). USE WITHIN TWO MONTHS14.
The following do's and don'ts are a handy checklist of things to remember when brewing (and opening) mead.
1 Yes, I know that allspice is a New World spice and that it was not used in European cooking until late in the 16th century. However, when I was developing this recipe I was following the official time period of the society which runs that late. I have considered changing the recipe and replacing the allspice (possibly with mace or grains of paradise), but the various fans of this mead have urged me not to change it.
2 Don't let mead (or anything else) splatter on the inside of the caps or bottles, close the bottle immediately after use (even it the bottle is not yet empty).
3 However, the honey used in slow (wine type) mead is critical.
4 Of the two, the second, low cost, is the most important characteristic.
5 I learned this TRUTH at the expense of many exploding champagne bottles.
6 Not chlorinated tap water.
7 Constantly repeating good water may seem redundant but I have seen many batches of mead ruined by people getting careless with water type, especially for make up water.
8 With a little experience you will be able to recognize this last foam and be able to start adding in the flavorings immediately without waiting to see that no more foam is forming.
9 From this point on, everything that comes in contact with the must needs to be sterilized.
10 If you are careless when you open the kettle, you might notice that the smell changes in another way. If the smell of the must changes to a moldy smell, discard it. If the smell changes to a vinegar small, either move the kettle away from your brewing area and allow it to develop into more mead vinegar than you will ever use, or discard it.
11 If it does, wash out your eyes IMMEDIATELY with large quantities of water and take care not to make matters worse by getting the detergent that you almost certainly have on your hands into your eyes too. After you have flushed the detergent out of your eyes with water, consult the label on the detergent package for further instructions.
12 Soak the unbleached muslin in a bowl of boil water or boil it in a pot for at least 5 minutes.
13 I typically put the bottles into wine boxes. Put the wine boxes in the bathtub. And throw and old rug over the boxes.
14 I have not had a champagne bottle explode in the refrigerator, but why risk being the first?