Northern Brewer isn’t just about brewing beer! Read about mead-making techniques, the history of mead,  mead styles, and more.

Short Pour Notes from Our Brewmasters - Making Mead

Short Pour – The Need for Mead

Considered the grandparent of fermented beverages, Mead and its offshoots have been around almost as long as recorded history.


Short Pour – Making Hard Cider

Apple harvest season is fast approaching. It’s a favorite time of year for myself not only for the numerous varieties of apples available at the grocery store but also the abundance of fresh pressed cider.

How to Make Hard Cider

Easy Guide to Making Hard Cider

Sparkling, still, sweet, dry, strong, or mild – make it how you like it! Hard cider (or “cider” to the rest of the world) and perry, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented pears, are classic beverages that have been around in some form or another since the middle ages. Hard cider is a classic way to express a range of flavor concepts, from wild and rustic to delicate and refined. It can be simple or complex, young or aged, bright and tannic or sweet and intense. The range of possibilities largely come from the juice of the apple itself, but can be manipulated with a little know-how and a sense of adventure. Find your path with our selection of equipment and ingredients. Please refer to our “How to Make Hard Cider” video or our “A Basic Overview of Making Hard Cider from Juice” document for basic and advanced cider making techniques.

Cider Products

Stirring, aeration, and Mead

It’s easy to mix honey and water together; the real challenge in mead making is keeping your yeast healthy and happy. Stirring and aerating are both important parts of the mead making process that will help keep your yeast going and make a great tasting final product.

During the first stages of fermentation the yeast uses oxygen to reproduce. When oxygen is present the yeast cells do not produce much alcohol, but rather use the available oxygen to engage in cell division. This creates rapid growth of the yeast colony, which is beneficial to the fermentation. Supplying your must with a lot of oxygen can greatly aid the fermentation and avoid unpleasant off-flavors caused by yeast stress. Many mead makers will vigorously stir or splash their must to work oxygen into it prior to fermentation. Using a mix-stir or wine whip makes this a lot easier and less time consuming. An aeration system that injects air or pure oxygen through a diffusion stone is even easier to use.

Some mead makers will continue to supply oxygen to the mead through the first few days of fermentation in order to increase the yeast culture size even more. This practice is fine up until the point at which 1/3 of the sugars have been consumed. After this point the oxygen could contribute to oxidative staling, and should be avoided. Stirring after fermentation has begun has the added benefits of mixing the solution and removing co2 from the solution. Be sure to start stirring slowly, otherwise the rising co2 can cause excessive foaming.

Sweet and Dry Mead

The big question for mead-makers is “Sweet or Dry?”. Though mead is often thought of as a sweet drink, everyone has their own preference, and you as a mead-maker get to decide what you like. Dry mead can be absolutely spectacular by displaying a very pure representation of the ingredients. Sweet mead has the wonderful honey sweetness that many drinkers are looking for in a mead. A semi-sweet mead is between the two and can have the best of both worlds. There are a few ways to adjust the sweetness of your mead. We’ll start by explaining how the alcohol tolerance of the yeast can be used to make sweet mead.

Though mead is similar to wine in many ways, it differs greatly when it comes to the starting and finishing gravities. Wine is usually limited by the sugar that the grapes can provide, which keeps most wine in the 1.080-1.110 range, or about 12-15% alcohol by volume. Most wine yeast can handle this alcohol content range without trouble, and usually will ferment the wine dry, meaning no or very little sugar remaining. On a hydrometer this is somewhere in the range of 0.994-1.000 or so.

Honey is so concentrated that you can make your starting gravity whatever you’d like. This means that you can easily start out at 1.140, for example. If a mead of this sugar content were to ferment dry, it would be over 19% alcohol! Most wine yeasts, however, cannot withstand this level of alcohol and will stop fermenting before all the sugars are gone. That means that some sugars will be left over, which will make the mead sweet or semi-sweet. By paying attention to your yeast strain’s alcohol tolerance level, you can select a strain and starting gravity that give you the desired level of sweetness remaining. The Lalvin 78-B Narbonnes strain is an excellent one for making sweet meads in this fashion, as it has a relatively low alcohol tolerance and makes a mead that is usually ready to drink relatively quickly.

This method is not an exact science; depending on the conditions yeast can stop before or after their usual alcohol tolerance level. In addition, mead has a finicky way of starting back up again just when you think it’s done fermenting for sure. An alternative method of making sweet mead is to use potassium sorbate, a chemical that prohibits further fermentation. Potassium sorbate cannot stop a fermentation that is in progress, but if you have a completed fermentation, using potassium sorbate allows you to add additional sugars back to the wine without the yeast starting up again. You should still age the mead after sweetening to make sure that all fermentation has stopped (the gravity should remain constant). If you are planning to use potassium sorbate, it is a good idea to use potassium metabisulfite from the beginning of the brewing process. Sulfite will prevent malolactic bateria from getting in your mead, and the combination of potassium sorbate and malolactic bacteria can produce some unwanted, “geranium” like off-flavors.

Sweet meads can be anywhere up to about 1.040 in finishing gravity. Very sweet and strong meads are sometimes called “sack” mead. The sweetness is usually balanced by the alcohol content as well as the acidity. If you wind up with a mead that is too sweet adding some acid can help balance it out, our acid blend is a good option. If you are back-sweetening, or adding sugar/honey to an already fermented mead as in the potassium sorbate method above, you can add honey to taste by adding it in small increments and taking samples.

If you are trying to make carbonated sweet mead, forced carbonation with co2 is the only way to go. Trying to add priming sugar in won’t work, as the yeast cannot consume the remaining sugars. Trying to time the bottling to have just enough sugar remaining to carbonate is a recipe for disaster and potentially very dangerous. Using a kegging system and a co2 tank works quite well, however, and is the easiest way to reliably carbonate any mead.

Dry Yeast vs. Liquid Yeast

Cleaners and Sanitizers

B-Brite, and PBW.
Cleansers remove surface grime and particulates. Cleansers are essential to allow sanitizers to do their job. You can’t sanitize a surface if it’s not clean of grime and debris, which is where cleansers come in. These products should be used on bottles, fermentors, and other equipment which has extended contact with beer. Cleansers should be rinsed after use. Don’t soak your equipment in a cleanser solution for longer than the time recommended on the packaging.Sanitizers
Star San, Iodophor, Saniclean, Easy Clean, IO Star, and One Step.
These kill microbes and surface bacteria and make equipment safe to use with beer. Arguably the most important component of the brewing process. Without sanitizers beer would be full of other organisms that turn beer sour and undrinkable. A key feature of these sanitizers is that they’re “no-rinse” so your equipment can be soaked in sanitizer and then immediately used for brewing which reduces any risk for re-contamination. A note: some sanitizers are not classified as such by the FDA (like Easy Clean and One Step), but for brewing purposes they work as well as those that are. For some reason, many include the word “clean” in the name. However, all the above mentioned products are effective sanitizers.

Glass vs. Plastic Carboys