GENEVA, N.Y. — An area famed for its wine trails and expanding beer trails, the Finger Lakes region is becoming a hotspot for craft beverage creation — including mead.
“So much is going on with craft beverages in upstate New York,” said Kaylyn Kirkpatrick, an Extension associate at Cornell AgriTech as she opened her remarks at the recent New York State Mead Making Immersive Conference. Experienced in beer brewing, she manages the Cornell Brewing Extension program. She spoke about how the various aspects of honey — mead’s star ingredient — affect the end product during mead making.
Hosted by Cornell and funded with a Farm Credit Northeast AgEnhancement Grant, the conference drew about 30 attendees from across several states, some of whom already make mead and desired to improve their skills. Other attendees are a little newer at the craft. Pilar McKay, agriculture economic development educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ontario County, served as emcee.
“We are doing our best to make Ontario County the capital of honey and mead,” she said.
Kirkpatrick told attendees to feel free to contact Cornell Brewing Extension Program.
“We’re your beverage people; please reach out to us,” she said.
Kirkpatrick spoke about the complexity and limitations of honey, which contains sugar, protein, organic acids, vitamins and minerals.
“Honey is incredibly complex,” she said. “It has 200-plus compounds. They contribute to flavor and quality.”
Honey contains both monosaccharides — glucose and fructose — and disaccharides — sucrose, maltose and more. Monosaccharides are simple sugars that are very accessible to yeast and disaccharides are not simple.
“These make up different flavor characteristics,” Kirkpatrick said.
She also described honey as “bioactive,” since bees have metabolized honey and it still contains enzymes. That aspect of honey means that it can alter mead.
“It can change on the shelf, especially if raw and not pasteurized,” Kirkpatrick said. “Heat and oxygen can change it.”
Those changes can include degrading any starch and sugar present.
Honey also offers a bit of vitamins B and C and minerals, mainly potassium.
The protein honey contains is such a small amount — about 1% — that it’s not enough to meet the needs of the yeast to make mead.
“We can add that during fermentation,” Kirkpatrick said.
Gluconic acid is present in many foods including honey, and throughout fermentation, the level of gluconic acid changes. Honey also contains citric acid. The level of Brix, pH, sugars, protein and other compounds of honey vary from different honey sources, as bees in different areas make different honey.
Honey’s various compounds offer the mead making process fermentable sugar, flavor and color. But it carries a few caveats. Its low protein content means mead creators need to add it.
“Yeast needs protein like we need protein,” Kirkpatrick said. “Honey is acidic and there’s not a lot of buffering capacity.”
It’s also thick and needs thinning out with water.
While all of these variations of the compounds in honey may seem like a means to create better variety among brands and types of mead, Kirkpatrick said that it’s important to stay within the law’s definition of mead.
According to the Alcohol, Tax and Trade Bureau, if water’s added to help in the fermenting process, the density of the honey/water mix cannot go below 13 degrees Brix. The law also regulates adding other ingredients to mead, such as no more than a pound of hops per 1,000 pounds of honey. Dry sugar or honey for sweetening, if used, should be added after fermentation. It still must be under 14% alcohol by volume and 35 degrees Brix to be legally called “mead” and for its recipe to pass muster.
Some mead makers add fruit and botanicals as flavoring agents.
“Some things are allowed to be added and some things are not allowed,” Kirkpatrick said. “You can do anything, but it may affect how you label it and how you are taxed. You need to work with your regulatory people.”