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Everyone who brews develops their own methods and they have their own ways of doing things and you learn as you go. This document reflects how we at U2M do things. If you are unfamilar with brewing search out some other resources. There are a few listed on the Meadery Home page. Your local brew shop is also a good place to ask questions. This page was revised in November 2019, to reflect some things learned since we started in 1994.
Bacteria and wild yeasts can ruin a batch of mead. Maintaining good sanitation throughout the brewing process will keep unwanted bacteria and wild yeasts at bay and result in consistently better meads. At U2M we take sanitation seriously. Other stuff not so much. U2M has long used a dilute bleach solution, soaking items for 20 minutes and rinsing before use. Your brew store has better things to use. Sanitizing solution can be mixed in a spray bottle and sprayed onto or into equipment. The instructions on the label will say to let dry and that is best, but for quick sanitization of some equipment you may follow with a rinse.
Yeast may be started a day or two before brewing to give it a head start. Yeast may also be rehydrated at the time of brewing. It never hurts to prestart the yeast, but we've had good results with the brew night rehydration.
To prestart yeast you'll need to give it something to eat and yeast likes sugar. We have used honey, but this is not necessarily the best medium. The instructions below use apple juice concentrate. Other fruit juices may work, though you'll probably want to stay away from those that are highly acidic (like grapefruit juice).
Rehydrate the yeast first by sprinkling it on warm water and let sit covered for 20 minutes. Mix gently. Yeast engergizers or starters may be added and also rehydrated.
Pasteurize 1/3 of a large can of frozen apple juice concentrate with water. Pour apple juice and yeast into wine bottle using a funnel. Add more water if necessary. Put bubble lock on and store in a warm place.
Over time we have jotted some notes about various fruits. Measurements and conversions are approximate. As always, your mileage may vary.
Sanitize all brewing equipment before use. It is best to use a food grade plastic bucket for primary fermentation. We used to start meads in carboys, but that can get messy. If you must use a carboy you should also use a blow-off tube (this fits into the neck of the carboy with the other end submerged in water).
Measure honey into a large kettle. We usually use about 10 pounds of honey per 5 gallon batch. Add water and start heating slowly, stirring constantly until the honey has fully disolved.
If the yeast was not pre-started then start rehydrating yeast.
Keep watching the kettle, stirring often. We don't boil our honey. Use a thermometer. Temperatures around 160F will pasturize the mixture without boiling. We never let it get over 180F. We have added fruit or juice after the honey/water has come up to temperature. Generally it is better to use a bucket for primary fermentation and put the additives in the bucket without cooking first. I have also learned that additives such as fruit should go in a mesh bag that can be removed before racking.
We use a must chiller that we made by wrapping copper tubing around a jug, and then around a wine bottle for a smaller coil. Both ends of the copper tube should be on top with plastic tubing attached to each end. When the must is ready to cool the kettle can be transfered to the sink where we run cold water through the coil.
Put the chiller in the kettle once the temperature gets to 160 F so it gets heat sanitized. Let the must, and chiller, stay hot for 20 minutes. The chiller makes it harder to stir, but your kettle should be enough wider than the chiller so that you can stir by moving the chiller around. Don't let the must overheat while cooking and don't over-chill the must after. You want the temperature to be 80-90F when pitching the yeast. Your primary fermentor should be sanitized and ready to go. Pour the must into the primary (plastic bucket is really best, but in the early days we started mead in carboys). Use the funnel to pour the cooled must into the carboy, or just pour it into the bucket. When we put fruit into the kettle we would use a strainer to strain the must. Adding fruit in the bucket is better. Add some water to top off fermenter to the desired level. Pitch yeast and stir with a big spoon. Our bucket has a lid with a small hole where a bubble lock fits, but at Talisman we use a plastic sheet, held in place with a stretchy cord. In any case, keep it covered, but allow for fermentation gases to escape.
The first racking should happen within a month of brewing. Each U2M recipe page will contain the date(s) of racking and we haven't always practiced that as well as we should. Racking should be done when the sediment on the bottom of the carboy becomes thick. Bottling should take place when fermentation is over. Specific gravity readings are useful for determining when fermentation is over, but we have generally skipped that step. However, in addition to telling you more about the state of your mead it is a good chance to taste your mead and see how it's coming along.
Fermentation will stop when the alcohol level kills off the yeast, or when the sugar content is exhausted. In the later case it is possible to create a sparkling mead by adding a small amount of sugar to the batch. We usually use 3/4 cup of corn sugar, boiled in one cup of water, which is then poured into a sanitized bucket. Rack the mead into the bucket with the sugar, and remember to stir. If the sugar water is not stirred in well a few bottles will get all the sugar, and may explode. Personal experience. Glass grenades in your mead cupboard can be messy. Stir well, but stir gently to avoid adding oxygen.
At Talisman mead is racked into a corny keg and carbonated with CO2 before bottling.