The following 101 on homemade mead comes from HOMEGROWN member Penny, a Seattle-by-way-of-Finland gal with a knack for baking, crocheting, and cheese pressing, in addition to mead making. (Check out all of her photos for the full array of her talents.) Thanks, Penny, and please keep the good ideas brewing!
I've been craving traditional Finnish-made Sima, or mead, lately so I dug out a recipe my friend Cute Sue shared with me. This version is seasoned with lemons, which is the most common type these days in my native Finland. If you replaced the lemon with ginger, you'd get ginger ale, but just a heads-up that it's a bit more complicated than simply dropping in the root, so you’d want to consult a recipe before attempting. Where I come from, mead has a very low alcohol content, and it’s considered safe for kids to try a glass. (Changes in sugar, yeast content, and brewing time affect the alcohol level. More on this below.)
In Finland, mead traditionally is still served alongside snacks such as tippaleipä, or doughnut-like pastries coated in sugar, on May 1, a.k.a. Walpurgis Night, a spring festival. Think Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day rolled into one big fest of drunken revelry, with silly costumes for adults, flag-waving parades for left-wing parties, and family events for those with kids. The first picnics of the year typically occur during this celebration, as the snow has usually melted by May 1. Usually.
Before we get started, a quick word on honey versus sugar: When sugar became a cheaper sweetener than honey, Finnish mead makers generally started replacing honey with sugar. If you want honey-based mead, substitute 50 to 100 percent of the sugar with honey. But beware: Honey is much sweeter than sugar. If you go the sugar route, you can use 100 percent white sugar for a lighter mead; for a deeper, darker mead, use only brown sugar.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
The following measurements have been converted from metric and aren’t 100 percent exact, but any rounding shouldn’t affect your final result.
» 8 qts water
» 1 lb brown sugar
» 1 lb white sugar
» 2-3 lemons
» 1/4 tsp baker’s yeast (You can use brewer’s yeast, too; it was just harder to come by where I grew up.)
» handful of raisins
WHAT TO DO
Pour all of the sugar into a heat-resistant container. A 12-quart stock pot would work great. Heat 3 to 4 quarts of the water until it's warm enough to dissolve the sugar then pour it into the same pot as the sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar. (This recipe produces honey-colored mead; if you want something darker, use only brown sugar.)
Now add the rest of the water—cold, not hot. This brings the total liquid yield to about 9 or 10 quarts, so you’ll need a big container. By now, your solution should be at a maximum temperature of 110 degrees F. Hotter than 115 may kill the yeast, so exercise caution.
Now add the lemon juice; freshly squeezed is best. I'm not sure just how much juice 2 to 3 lemons produces. It varies. This is why no homemade mead tastes the same.
Add the yeast and mix. Now let your batch cool in the container, ideally overnight. Leaving it out on the kitchen counter is fine. The yeast will begin bubbling away.
While your mead is cooling, you’ll want to find bottles to store it in. Emptied and cleaned 2-liter soda pop bottles work nicely. Put some raisins in each bottle. These will absorb some of the yeast scum that otherwise would accumulate at the bottom and will add a nice flavor. A word of caution: You can’t use glass bottles, as the pressure that builds up from the yeast can cause glass to explode.
Once your mead has cooled overnight and you’ve poured it in your raisin-laden bottles, put on the bottle caps—but don’t screw them on too tightly, at least for the first week of storage. Let the yeast work its magic.
Leave the bottles sitting out for that first week in a cool, dark place. My mother used the cold porch or the pantry floor. After that, tighten the caps and put the bottles in the fridge, out on the balcony, or down in the root cellar, unless you prefer room temperature mead.
HOW TO DRINK IT
If this is your maiden mead voyage, don’t drink the mushy dredges at the bottom of the bottle. That’s yeast, and you’ll only get a stomachache. Eating the raisins will do the same, although there’s nothing wrong with tasting one or two, as children do in Finland. It's recommended that you don’t let the mead grow older than a few days after it's ready, or it will gain a higher percentage of alcohol (unless you want it to, that is).
And while we're on the subject, basic mead is mildly alcoholic, just like homemade ginger ale or other beverages brewed with yeast. Even the commercially made mead available in Finland has a low alcohol content, about 0.7 percent versus the 4-ish percent average in beer, so it’s not sold to minors. I grew up in a country and culture with a lower legal drinking age, where it's not considered bad form for teenagers to toast with mead, so I was accustomed to a small glass on special occasions. You may choose to hold the mead in favor of sparkling juice. If you're unsure of your mead’s alcohol content, brewer's supply stores sell test kits that will let you get an accurate reading on your beverage before you serve it to minors.
And if you feel like experimenting, do! Mead can be flavored with all sorts of things. I’ve trying using citrus and spices, such as cloves and lemon, but you could skip the lemon in favor of candied ginger and fresh ginger juice for a recipe similar to home-brewed ginger ale. Cheers!
Got a meady dilemma and need Penny's advice? Or want to share your own twist on her recipe above? Post your comments below and keep the conversation rolling. On the topic of fermenting, you might be interested in Todd's Koji Rice 101, Shaye's Kombucha 101, or the collaborative Kefir 101. If you're looking for like-minded folks to bounce ideas off of, you might consider joining the Hey, I Could Ferment That! or the Brewers Pub groups. And you can always find more things to cook, preserve, plant, grow, make, craft, and drink in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
PHOTO: PENNY V.