I've been meaning for a while to compile all of the information from the various blogs I've written into a single blog that outlines the basics of wild-fermented mead making. After going through a bit of trial and error, I've hammered out a method that works well more often than not. As with any homebrewing—particularly when you go off the experimental deep end as I tend to do—not every batch turns out perfect, but once you've narrowed down a technique that works for you and your particular situation, you'll nearly always end up with something drinkable, and plenty boozey.
What follows is a summary of my workshop presentation, and a slimmed down version of my booklet A Treatise on Primitive Mead Making that I've been handing out at workshops. I've also made this booklet available as a free PDF on my Mead Lovers, Anonymous and Wild Fermentation group walls. I would like to thank Earthineer's Stickboy for providing the cover illustration, and for testing my meads and correcting my attempts at understanding Viking mythology.
Mead, and alcohol in general, was considered sacred by the Vikings and other ancient cultures. Norse mythology speaks of how the dwarves captured the wisest of all gods, Kvaser, the all-knowing, killed him, and mixed his blood with honey, creating the first mead. The dwarves, being dwarves, hoarded it and guarded it jealously. But, alas, a giant named Suttung desired this mead for himself, swiped it and instructed his daughter Gundlad to guard it. An up and coming young god (one of the younger Aesir warrior gods-the mortal enemies of the elder Vanir nature / fertility gods) named Odin heard about all this and decided he wanted this mead for himself. So, he developed a plan to disguise himself, seduce Gundlad, and steal the mead. After cavorting with Gundlad on her couch for three days, she was so pleased she let him drink from each of the three mead vessels. When Odin realized Suttung had gotten wind of what was going on, he transformed into an eagle and took off toward Asgard. Suttung also turned into an eagle and pursued Odin (apparently the Norse gods were the original Transformers). Upon making it to Asgard, Odin regurgitated the mead and spewed it into three vessels the other gods had set out in preparation. However, during the chase, he let three drops of it fall to Midgard, where men discovered it, and were pleased.
Note that this is my take on the story. I researched different tellings of it so I could be as accurate as possible. I welcome any clarifications, but if you're one of those "these stories are all true and how dare you mess with holy scripture" people, don't bother. I have no issues with the Asatru religion or any other religions, but my goal in re-telling these stories is to keep it all in good fun. As for the mead-thieving Odin story, in some cases, it seemed Odin didn't swallow the mead, and in other cases it seemed that he swallowed it and regurgitated it. I prefer the latter, as it emulates what bees do in regurgitating pollen to turn it into honey. So, in short, honey is bee vomit and mead is Odin vomit.
Mead is referenced in Norse texts as a requisite for skalds, who were essentially scribes who wrote poetry and chronicled Norse life while under the influence of mead, AKA Odroerir / Óðrerir, which is a Norse word for “inspirer of wisdom” or the “mead of poetry.” A skald (a poet or scholar) gained his wisdom by drinking mead / Óðrerir. Judging from the amount I've written about mead and Vikings, I can certainly say it inspires loquaciousness. Whether or not my words are considered wise I'll leave up to others to decide. In the meantime, I'll continue referring to myself as a mead skald.
Full disclosure: I’m not really a Viking—nor am I a time traveler—so I don’t know how they actually made mead, but I have a pretty good idea. There are references to mead and other alcohol substances in historical records and the Icelandic sagas, but I've come across little on how it was actually made. Excavations of Norse homesteads have shown that Viking warriors and priestesses were often buried with brewing equipment or alcohol-serving utensils. According to a January 2014 article in LiveScience by Stephanie Pappas, "Ancient Nordic Grog Intoxicated the Elite," Patrick McGovern, a bimolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, analyzed pottery shards and strainers used for serving mead, and discovered traces of the Scandinavian berry lingonberry, cranberry, honey, barley, wheat, and various herbs and spices. This is the best evidence yet on the types of ingredients they used, but the actual technique is still not entirely clear. The technique I outline below is likely very close to how the Norse would have made their mead, as it is based on methods still practiced in the backwoods of Scandinavia today, using yeast strains that very well may have been passed down from Viking days. For more on this, read Michael Jackson's "Odin's glass of nectar" at this site.
The first thing you’ll need is a good wide-mouthed fermentation vessel. You can use glass, ceramic, food-grade plastic, or anything else that is safe to store food in. Don’t use metal, though. I have stainless steel pots I use for the initial heating process that some recipes require, but never leave anything in one to ferment. Fermentation creates acids that can cause metal to leach into whatever you’re fermenting. I primarily use a ceramic crock that my dad used to use for wine-making. These can be expensive, but I feel more like a Viking when I’m using one. When I was first starting out, I used 3 1/2 gallon glass beverage-serving vessels, which I still sometimes use for smaller experimental batches. The nice thing about them is that they have spigots that you can use to taste your mead as it’s fermenting, and for bottling.
Remember, the Ancients knew nothing of yeast, had no access to chemical sanitizer, and would often brew and ferment in open vats in the same room in which other cooking and household duties were being performed. In ancient Scandinavian cultures, beer and wine were filtered in open troughs lined with juniper branches. Grain for beer-making was sprouted in streams, and mead was often made with liquid leftover from immersing hives—bees and all—in water. Until the invention of the modern Langstroth and top-bar removable-frame methods, this was the safest technique for extracting honey from hives, other than smoking the hives over a fire, which would also kill off most of the bees. If you can procure honeycomb for mead-making, by all means do so, as this adds vital nutrients. If a few bees make it in, don’t worry about it.
Get on with it!
- Clean all equipment. Modern brewing calls for a great deal of sanitization. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the Norse and other ancient cultures didn’t have laboratory-produced chemicals and wouldn’t have tainted their mystical brews with them anyway. In brewing wild mead, don’t fret too much over sanitation, but make sure all of your equipment is well-cleaned.
- Prepare your water. You will only need enough to dissolve the honey initially, but be sure to use good, clean drinking water. If you use water from the tap, leave it out uncovered overnight to allow any chlorine (which kills wild yeast) to dissipate. It’s perfectly acceptable to use room-temperature water, but warming the water a bit will help the honey to dissolve quicker. If it reaches boiling point, give it time to cool down. Some recipes call for pasteurizing the must (unfermented mead or wine) and skimming off any foam (or “scum”) that rises to the top. This also removes a lot of the nutrients and flavor enhancers in the honey and kills off any wild yeast. Don’t do it.
- Add honey. Splurge and go for local, raw, unpasteurized honey. There are myriad reasons for this, but to put it simply, it will make for better mead. Start with small batches, as you’ll want to experiment to determine the ratio that works best for you. For a sweet mead, use about one gallon of water and 2-3 pounds of honey. Use less honey or add more water if you want a semi-sweet or dry (higher alcohol) mead. Remember, though, that the sweetness will diminish with ageing. You can prepare your must with room-temperature water directly in a wide-mouthed glass, ceramic or food-grade-plastic fermentation vessel, or in a stockpot if you choose to dissolve your honey in heated water. The key is to use a wide-mouthed vessel since wild fermentation calls for an aerobic (with air) environment.
- Add flavoring and fermentation-enhancing ingredients. Fresh or dried fruit, herbs and spices will provide additional flavor and introduce wild yeast, nutrients, tannins, and acid. Most importantly, they will increase the chance of a strong fermentation. If nothing else, always add a handful of organic raisins. This is a surefire method for instigating fermentation, and won’t affect the flavor.
- Stir to dissolve. Ancient cultures often passed down stir sticks through generations that they referred to as “magic sticks” or “totem sticks” due to their mystical fermentation powers. If you use one, clean it lightly, but avoid sanitizing or cleaning it with boiling water, so as to not kill off any yeasts that have attached themselves from past brewing ventures. Many traditional societies had an heirloom yeast strain that was passed down through a “yeast log,” often birch or juniper. I use a wooden Zimmer-stick with which my father made many batches of wine.
- Pour into a fermentation vessel—If you’ve chosen to heat your water in a stockpot first—and give the must (unfermented mead) a good stir with your totem stick for at least a couple minutes to excite the yeast and get them ready to party with the enzymes. Cover the vessel with a cheesecloth when not stirring to keep flies out. If it’s ant season, place a small container of cornmeal mixed with honey or must to distract them. An additional benefit is that the cornmeal will expand in their stomachs and kill them. You must protect your mead at all costs.
- Place the vessel in a warm, dark room and stir several times a day. Once the must has collected enough wild yeast from the air (usually in 3-5 days) it will begin to bubble and fizz. You now officially have mead. Feel free to thank the gods, do a little dance or quaff a fermented beverage of your choice. Now that you’ve collected enough wild yeast to initiate fermentation, loosely cover the vessel with a lid or heavy towel to allow gasses to escape but minimize contact with outside air, which is no longer needed.
- Stir occasionally until fizzing is minimal and partied-out yeast (lees) have settled on the bottom of your fermentation vessel. If your mead tastes good and you don’t have the time, interest or equipment to bottle it, you can stop here and just start drinking. It will only be mildly alcoholic, but will be full of nutritious probiotics from the wild yeast. Most ancient meads were drank young due to the lack of airtight vessels for storage. I like to keep mine in vessel with a spigot so I can take samples to gauge how the flavor changes. Since continued contact with outside air can produce sour flavors, it’s time to rack, or, if you have room, put it in your refrigerator, which will slow fermentation significantly.
- Rack (transfer) into a secondary fermenter to separate the mead from the lees if you’re going to bottle. This isn’t absolutely necessary for a small mead, but will help clarify your mead for long-term ageing and will provide additional aeration to encourage further fermentation. If you want to age your mead for a more refined flavor and higher alcohol levels, rack to a carboy with an airlock to create an anaerobic (no air) environment.
- Be sure to wait 9-12 months before bottling to minimize the chance of bottles bursting or corks popping due to carbonation. Check the must for carbonation bubbles, and watch the airlock closely to determine if it is bubbling more than once a minute. If carbonation is still present, wait a bit longer. Alternatively, you can add a bit of sugar or honey dissolved in a small amount of warm water, stir it in, and bottle in champagne or Grolsch/swing-top bottles for a carbonated mead. Otherwise, use wine bottles with a wine corker or non-screw-top beer bottles with a bottle capper. Place corked bottles on their sides when storing; like wine, this will result in more even aging and will keep the cork moist. You should wait at least six months before enjoying your creation, but I like to sample a bottle or two during this period to see how it is progressing, and to determine whether or not I have bottled too soon. I cannot emphasize enough that mead should be given plenty of time to age. In my early attempts, I was too eager, which resulted in being woken up at four in the morning to corks popping in my kitchen, or walking into my cellar to find it smelling suspiciously delicious.
It may look like there are a lot of steps here, but you can complete the entire preparation process in less than an hour. This recipe is just a starting point—you can try as many variations as you dare. I’ve added herbs, peppers, coffee beans, wild flowers and more to my meads. If it’s edible, give it a try. You can also add bread, wine, ale or champagne yeast at the onset, or if you have a stuck fermentation, but I recommend patience and regular stirring. It's always a treat when you stir what was previously honey water and find that it is suddenly bubbling and fermenting happily.
I would like to pass along a heilsa (Icelandic/Norse for "good health") to the lovely Jenna Lee, Sadie Lee, and my future as-yet-unnamed yetiling currently practicing sarcasm techniques in her mommy's tummy; Wondering Scribe (aka Stickboy); the mysterious Dave, who lives in a cave; Zach the Chainsaw Juggler; and Dan the Man for all of the inspiration that they have provided in my mead-making endeavors, and for, ahem, putting up with my yeti-ness.