Mead is almost certainly the first beverage that got humans tipsy (sorry, beer). It predates wine by at least 10,000 (and possibly as much as 30,000) years. It probably predates the cultivation of soil. Is an alcoholic beverage required in a SHTF scenario, no; but, it will certainly make those close quarters with the in-laws and cat stew dinners much less irritating.
Mead consists of just three simple ingredients: honey, water, and yeast. One can add fruit, spices, or hops to add flavors, but it’s certainly not necessary. Personally, I prefer my honey nectar in its purist form.
For those who have read my previous missives you know I love history. So, I begin with a bit of a lesson. In all likelihood man did not even cook up the first batch of mead – he found it. Often a colony of bees would make their nest in a hollow in a tree. Yeast spores naturally float around on gentle breezes and more often than not are wafted into cavities wherein a bunch of happy, industrious bees slaves away creating the ideal home for their future generations. This home is often filled with the wonder food of the natural world – honey. Raw honey naturally inhibits the growth of bacteria, viruses, mold, and yeasts. However, when the warm, rainy season arrived and the honey was sufficiently diluted the available yeast multiplied rapidly doing what they do best: turn sugar into alcohol.
Gork, the caveman was out hunter-gathering one day and noticed a swarm of bees. “Yummy”, he thought to himself, “where there’s bees, there’s usually some tasty calorie rich honey”. Being the bigger, stronger, smarter, and bossier side of his happy family he smacked his faithful mate upside her noggin, pointed to the swarm of bees, and said “I smoke out bees, you climb tree and get honey”. Gork started a nice smokey fire with some green wood and fresh leaves under the tree and the bees obligingly flew away. Rubbing the new addition to her bump on the noggin collection, Mawk (his faithful mate) climbed the tree, stuck her arm in the hole, and pulled out, not a nice clear amber ball of oozing honey, but a dirty brown thin film of strange smelling liquid. “Eww, uck, pagh”, said Mawk looking at the turbid slime covering her arm. Not liking the lack of speed exhibited by his faithful mate, Gork grabbed a rock and hurled it into the smoke nearly giving Mawk her third noggin bump for the day. Mawk obediently reached into the cavity with both hands and pulled out some of the nasty looking liquid and dropped it on Gork’s head. She repeated this exercise until she ran out of liquid to drop. By the time Mawk had climbed down, the world’s first kegger was underway.
As most are aware, Mead was the favorite drink of the Vikings before storming across the peaceful English countryside looking for gold, silver, and prom dates. Alcohol to release the inhibitions and reduce the pain from arrows, spears, and axe heads entering one’s body and sugar to maintain the high energy level needed to chase down unarmored Anglo-Saxon females who really didn’t want a Viking in the family. And why did the Vikings do this day after day? Sugary drinks such as Mead produce a walloping hangover – it was much better to simply get plastered all over again than to face the day with a massive hangover 500 years before aspirin was invented.
Depending on your tastes, there are sweet meads with an 8% to 11% alcohol content which are, not surprisingly, sweet and syrupy; and there are dry meads with an alcohol content upwards of 18% which tend to remind one of a lighter and drier white wine. Both of them pack a punch if you’re used to typical American style beers.
The following is information will allow you to produce approximately one gallon of Mead. Obviously, it is easy to scale it up (got to have some to trade); though scaling it down may require some substantive changes in equipment. As noted above if you want to add fruits (freeze dried apples and peaches are my favorites), spices (cinnamon works well), and home grown (lucky you) or commercial hops (makes the Mead have a tangy or slightly bitter flavor) go for it.
Equipment and Approximate Costs
- 1 gallon glass jug ($10.00)
- Stainless Steel or plastic funnel ($7.00)
- 1 rubber stopper with a hole ($1.00)
- 1 plastic air lock ($2.00)
- 1 pack Dry Mead Yeast ($10.00)
I buy my stuff from Texas Homebrewers, but any decent home brew company will have everything you need. The yeast strain is the most important, limiting factor – believe me Champagne yeast, beer yeast, and sake yeast make an awful batch of Mead. Bread yeast will work in a pinch, but it dies at a much lower alcohol content leaving you with a sweet version of a light beer.
If you want to go really cheap, you can use a plastic jug for the fermentation tank and use a balloon instead of an air lock. You will have to “burp” the balloon regularly, so add that in the directions below.
Other Stuff You Will Need
- 1 gallon of clean water – soft spring water or distilled is best, hard water makes really bitter Mead
- 3 pounds of raw honey (reconstituted granular honey will probably work, though I haven’t tried it)
- Bleach or some other sanitizer
Very Important – Sanitation
You are about to create an ideal environment for the growth of thousands of separate species of micro-organisms. Some of these critters are downright nasty and will give you some really bad side effects (other than the warm fuzzy feeling you are seeking). Even some of the not so nasty critters will make your Mead unpalatable (though, you might use that for trade if you don’t think the buyer will be a repeat customer). You really only want one of the beasties to thrive: the yeast. Hence, you have to make absolutely certain everything is sterile before you start making Mead. Pour diluted bleach over and in everything – even the outside of the yeast packets and honey containers. You really, really do not want any contaminants. Wash your hands often, use clean towels for each step, don’t work in a drafty area, I really can’t emphasize this enough – keep it clean.
How to Make Mead
- Sanitize everything – it bears repeating.
- If you use a wet/dry Mead Yeast the pouch will have a small nutrient pack enclosed. Pop it open and let sit at room temperature (65°F to 85°F) for about 3 hours. This will allow the Yeast to activate. If you use a dry Yeast you will need to purchase a separate nutrient mix (or cheat and simple stir it into some raisins soaked in water). There are a number of different Yeasts, so this step has a lot of variables. Do a little research on the Yeast you plan to use to make certain you understand how it needs to be started.
- Place the honey in a pot of warm water (or on a sunny porch or window sill) to make it easier to pour.
- Place the funnel in the glass bottle (or plastic jug for you cheapskates) and pour in one-half gallon of water. Follow that with the three pounds of honey.
- The honey and water won’t mix by magic – it takes some effort. Put the stopper in the top of the glass jug, cover the hole with your thumb, and shake the hell out of the bottle for 2 or 3 minutes to thoroughly mix the honey and water.
- If the honey/water mixture seems warm to the touch let it sit for an hour or so to allow it to reach room temperature. If it’s too hot it will kill the yeast.
- Remove the stopper and pour in the activated yeast and then fill the jug with enough of the remaining water to reach about 1/2 to 1 inch below the top of the bottle. Don’t overfill the bottle, you need room for the stopper.
- Shake the hell out of the bottle again to mix everything together. You really want to get a good mix, so give this step about 5 minutes of shaking.
- Put the air lock into the stopper, fill it to the line with some of the remaining water, and cap it.
- Place the bottle in a dark, cool place (a closet works well). You don’t want the yeast to get too hot or too cold. Too hot will kill them before they finish turning all that honey into alcohol and too cool will make the fermentation sloooooow waaaaaaay down.
- Now comes the hard part. Go do something else for about 6 months. Yes, it really takes 6 months for the yeast to turn the honey into Mead. Check the air lock about once a week, it should start bubbling a bit after a week or so of fermentation. That’s a good sign (perfect in fact). It shows the yeast is working to turn the sugar into its two basic components: alcohol and carbon dioxide. The alcohol stays in the bottle and the carbon dioxide escapes through the air lock.
If you are adventurous, you could learn to rack your Mead (transferring it to a clean bottle) every month or so. An acquired art as you don’t want to aerate the liquid or allow it to get stirred up during the transfer. This process leaves the dead yeast behind, making the end product clearer and a little less chewy. You can also use several layers of cheese cloth to strain the finished Mead to remove some of the particles. Or you could tell Mommy that Yeast is a fine source of several amino acids necessary for the growth of strong muscles and simply drink the Mead as was done in olden times – yeast and all.
So, the next time you feel the need to stretch the ropes on your catapult and storm the neighbor’s castle you will now have an appropriate beverage to take with you on your adventures. Now does anyone know any good Berserker drinking songs? Cheers!