Yesterday we had some friends and family over who wanted to learn how to brew, both mead and beer. Jaimie is better at beer making and I do more of the mead. One group of people just wanted to watch the mead process. Another group wanted to brew both mead and beer, but started their yeast "smack pack" a little late (for the refrigerated yeasts, you are to wait at least 3 hours before pitching it). I am grateful that my friend taught me how to brew, because it is a lot of fun and the end result is delicious.
The first three rules of brewing are:
Supplies needed: 5-6 gallon food-grade bucket with lid (the lid must have a 1/2 inch hole to fit the airlock. Brew stores sell in both sizes); an airlock (also called an s-tube for ones that look like an S, but not all do) & cap; canning kettle (or some other large pot); long stir stick; floating thermometer; siphon tubes; second bucket or carboy with a lid and airlock; bottles; corks; corker; hygrometer (optional - if you want to measure your alcohol content). For sanitizing, you could boil everything, which would be time-consuming. Most brewers will buy some powdered sanitizer (the brand we usually use is One-Step) and just add that to water.
Brew stores would have all of those supplies (maybe not the canning kettle), though you could buy 5-gallon buckets at the hardware store and drill your own hole in the lid (You do want a 6-gallon bucket if you are going to use fruit). The brew store will have the grommet to fit the lid, and you could save some dough that way. It's the start-up costs that are expensive.
Mead is, legally, a wine. It's a honey-based wine that's easy to brew. They sell it at some liquor stores but not in many varieties of flavors, and it's rather expensive considering you can make a batch on the cheap. All you need is water, honey & yeast. Everything else is flavoring, additives for controlling it to prolong or stop the process, or up-selling. For a five gallon batch (the most common batch size in this house), you start with one gallon of water. Heat that up on the stove and add one gallon of honey (12 lbs, or 16 cups). If your honey has crystallized, that's okay. Honey doesn't really ever go bad. I mean, it does, but it won't go bad till long after we're all dead. Did you know that they found honey is the pyramids that was still good? So don't worry if your honey is "old." There's no honey that's too old for eating or mead-making.
Melt that honey into the water. If you want your honey to take center stage in your mead, just warm it. You just need to get all the honey melted. There are some great flavors of honey, depending on where the bees went. Some friends had some sage honey that made a lovely mead. White Tupelo is the most expensive, but wonderfully tasty, honey. Orange blossom honey would make a great mead. Commonly, the brew stores sell wildflower honey, which is also good. If you are going to add flavoring to your mead, I'd buy the cheapest honey available, generally an amber blend, because the flavor will overpower the subtleties in the honey and it won't be worth the extra cost. We buy our honey from a local apiary and we buy it in bulk - 10 gallons at a time - and that lasts us about a year.
If you are flavoring your mead, go ahead and get that honey pasteurized, stirring it for 10 minutes or so (don't allow it to boil). You also don't want to just leave it on the heat without stirring, because you'll end up with honey burnt on the bottom of your pot. Again, if not flavoring, just get it to melt or you could lose some of the flavor (not that the mead would be bad at all though).
Now that you've got 2 gallons on the stove (1 gallon of water to one gallon of honey), put that in your sanitized bucket. This bucket is called your primary. (The carboy is the secondary, followed by bottling. Each time you move it, you are racking it). You want to bring down your temperature of the honey water to what it says on your yeast packet. If using a smack-pack, then you'll have waited the 3+ hours. If using a dry yeast, you would put that in lukewarm water and let those babies come alive. At least one person we know likes to use pineapple juice to get the little beasties going, because yeast loves sugar.
To get the 2 gallons to cool down, you start adding more water. Add another 3 gallons. I find that if I just put in cold water then it gets down to the temp needed. Keep your thermometer in there and read it as you add. You can always wait a bit for the temp to lower, but if you need it higher then you've got to heat some of it back up, or add more (more water won't damage the mead, but the recipe is really for 5 gallons). Once it's at the right temp (generally 109 to 114 for the dry yeast), add the yeast. You'll hear it called "pitching" the yeast, but really, it's just adding it to the honey water.
Then, you stir, almost frantically, with that same long stir stick you used on the stove, to aerate your mead. Set a timer and do this 5-10 minutes.
Want flavoring? It's easy enough. It's worth experimenting because you really can't easily screw it up.
You can add a 4 oz. bottle of flavoring from a store (4 oz. will flavor one 5-gallon batch). You could even mix and match half of a bottle with a half of another flavor. The brew store has many flavors, but I've found some exciting flavors at the Asian market too. You can add before or after stirring.
You can add frozen juice concentrate. It MUST be 100% juice. You'll need 4 cans of it for your 5-gallon batch. Thaw it out and add it in before stirring.
You can add 10-15 lbs. of fruit. (If you add fruit, you really want to use a 6 gallon bucket so that it doesn't bubble through your airlock and get fermented fruit everywhere). For cleanliness sake, we add after stirring. (Bonus: you can use the fruit in smoothies or such when done with it in the primary).
You can add herbs or flowers. We sew a sachet of lavender and add that in before stirring. Lavender mead is delicious.
Put your (sanitized) lid and airlock on the bucket. Fill your airlock. A lot of sites or stores will tell you to fill the airlock with water but we fill it with vodka. It's sterile and anything that makes it into the capped tube will not be making it into the bucket. You want to keep all hair, dust, etc out of there.
Put your bucket in a warm enough place to let it sit and ferment. You don't have to leave the heat on high for it, but you don't want to put it in your cold basement either (that will make the yeast go dormant and you will end up with them waking when the bottles are left out, leaving exploding bottles and stickiness all over). When you no longer hear bubbling (a few weeks, a couple months, whenever you eventually get to it), you are ready for part 2.