With few exceptions, I generally don’t like wine. I’m working to develop more of a taste for it, but in general I find most wines to be absolutely, unforgivably, boring. Yes, I recognize that different varieties of grapes, grown in different places and on different years can produce different wines (with subtle complexity, no less!). Yes, I recognize that many other details may be changed, such as how and for how long the wine is aged, can also change the character of the wine. But the reality is that all these wines are all made from simple grapes, often single-variety, single-farm, single-season. Wine blends might seem like the solution, but most blends are extremely conservative: Two varieties of closely-related red grapes, from a single farm in a single year. Capital B boring.
Grape wine has been done to death. It’s like digging a hole that is very deep, but not very wide. Yes, we’ve found some interesting things down this hole, but there are plenty of other places worth digging but so few people are doing it.
Some of the favorite wines I’ve ever had were rare and different. I had a cherry wine that I really liked. I’ve tasted some spiced wines, including one spiced apple wine that I still remember fondly. These kinds of things, while rare, I always find to be fun and interesting. If I want more exciting new things, I need to make them myself.
The short answer: I like honey, a lot.
The longer answer: I really like honey, and oranges are in season but I’ve been having trouble finding oranges at a decent price and of a quality I would use for wine. I’ve had some commercial meads before, but I found them to be lousy: A winery offering a single bottom-shelf type of mead to make it look like they are more diverse than they actually are (“yes we have mead, but have you seen our 200 varieties of grape wine up here?“). I had always sort of suspected that I might really like mead, if I could find something that cost more than 12$ per bottle because somebody put effort into it.
I had a conversation with a friend who has been making mead for a long time, and here is what she has to say:
One of the cool things about mead is that you soon find yourself making things that cannot be purchased at any price.
Also, if you consider brewing to be an investment, the “return” in terms of comparable market value for a commercial product is better for mead than any other type of home brewing.
10 years ago, you almost wouldn’t have been able to find any mead on the market, and what you found was probably of dubious quality. Mead is a bit more common today, but if you want a really good mead you’re going to be paying top dollar. Recently mead has been more in vogue and meaderies seem to be popping up here and there. It’s still hard to find a decent selection (especially in good-ole’ PA). Again, it seems that if I want something, I need to make it myself.
I’ve sampled a few recipes from around the internet, done a little bit of research, and put together a recipe for my first batch of simple mead. First I’ll talk about some equipment, then I’ll talk about the mead.
As mentioned in my posts about Cherry Melomel, I have some equipment already: airlocks, a syphon, sanitizer, and a bottle of yeast nutrient. To get started on mead, I went out and picked up some glass 1-gallon jugs.
1 gallon glass jugs are reasonably cheap but because they are big, fragile and relatively heavy shipping costs can be prohibitive if you want to buy them on the internet. Shipping on a jug or a box of them can more than double your price! Larger 5- and 6.5-gallon carboys are likewise even heavier and more expensive to ship.
Many people I’ve seen on the internet will put tape on the jug, or tape paper to it to write on details of the recipe: What it is, when it was started, what was the starting gravity, etc. Having lots of time on my hands because of the snow, I decided to do something a little bit more involved. We ran down to the local craft store and picked up a bottle of Glass Etching Cream. This is an extremely nasty chemical that is one of the few things crazy enough to dissolve glass. Scientists use glass to store acids, flesh-eating bacteria and rocket fuel. No matter. Glass etching cream eats right through it. To etch glass, you spread the cream on the surface and wash it off a few seconds later.
On each of the four jugs I etched measurement lines at quart intervals and a unique symbol which I can use to identify the jug: A square, a triangle, a trapezoid and a nabla. Now, when all the jugs are filled with nondescript brownish liquid, I can look at the etched shape, compare to my notes, and figure out exactly what is inside.
I also picked up a 2-gallon food grade fermenting bucket, to serve as my primary fermenter, especially for brews where I have chunks of fruit to be included.
Now let’s talk about the Mead.
Simple Mead 1
- 1 Quart Honey (approx 3lbs) 
- 3 Quarts water (enough, when combined with the honey, to make 1 gallon total)
- 2 Medium oranges
- 1 Handful of raisins 
- Yeast 
- Yeast nutrient 
Sanitize all your equipment beforehand. Peel and roughly slice the oranges . Add the orange slices, raisins, honey, water and yeast nutrient to the primary. Put on the lid and shake vigorously to mix and aerate. Pitch in your yeast, seal the container , add the airlock and set aside until primary fermentation is complete. I ended up waiting about 3 weeks, part of which we lost power (and the house got cold). When primary is complete, rack the mead to a new, sterile container for secondary fermentation and conditioning.
I tasted the mead during the first racking. It’s good but a little sweeter than I expected. There were some off-flavors and a bit of alcohol “hotness”, which I expect to go away with a few months of aging. My racking wasn’t very clean, so I ended up with a bit of extra sediment that I will need to rack out, probably within the next month or so.
I’ll post updates along the way when I perform additional racks, bottle and finally drink this mead.
- I found a 5lb jug of “Local Honey” at a local farm market. That’s all it says on the jar, “Local Honey”. I don’t know what kinds of flowers it’s from, but it has an aroma reminiscent of alfalfa or buckwheat (it doesn’t have the dark color of buckwheat honey, however). Depending on the exact consistency of the honey, 1 pound is about one and a third cups. So three pounds of honey is about four cups (1 quart). On the internet, I’ve seen people do anything from one quart of honey per gallon (1:3) or one gallon of honey per 5-gallon carboy (1:4). For my purposes, I’m going to stick with about a 1:3 ratio until I get a hydrometer (or a scale) and can be a little bit more precise.
- Many recipes use raisins as a source of nutrients for the yeast, because honey doesn’t really have enough of the potassium or nitrogen to help keep the yeast healthy. I used raisins and a half-dose of chemical nutrient initially, and added another quarter dose of chemical nutrient about a week into the fermentation.
- I used the same Champagne yeast that I used for my Cherry Melomel and Cherry Cyser. It should be more than capable of fermenting to dryness. I’ve heard tell that this might not be a great choice, so in the future I’ll try different types.
- I’m looking at a staggered feeding schedule to keep the yeast healthier throughout the fermentation, produce fewer off-flavors, and hopefully produce a mead which doesn’t require so much aging to be drinkable. I added a half-dose of nutrient at the start, will add some about halfway through the fermentation, and will play things by ear after that.
- Many recipes I’ve seen involve slicing a single orange, peel and all, and throwing it into the fermenter. My oranges really were looking a little creepy on the outside, so I decided to cut off the peel, and just use the sliced innards of two oranges instead. The outer zest is where most of the flavor is, but the pulp and juice will add some much-needed nutrients and acid to (hopefully) keep the mead balanced. This isn’t intended to be an in-your-face Orange melomel, but the oranges will doubtlessly contribute to the flavor (and I don’t think an Orange Melomel would be bad, if that’s what it turned into).
- Yeast need oxygen to reproduce, and then then oxygen needs to be kept out to promote the anaerobic conversion of sugar to alcohol. My fermentation got off to a sluggish start, so I kept the bucket with the lid off (covered by a clean towel) for a few hours until the yeast became more active and the mixture built up a nice froth. After that, I put on the lid and airlock, and it’s been bubbling like a champ.