So you want to start making mead, but you’re worried about how much you’ll have to spend on equipment and supplies. Not to worry, it’s pretty cheap, or at least cheaper than a typical setup for beer or wine.
The first thing you need is something to hold the batch. Actually you’ll probably need two, so you can “rack” it from one to another. (I’ll probably explain that in another “basics” post later.) Your three main choices are:
A quart or larger Mason-type jar. This is fine if you’re not really sure if you want to make mead, or you’re on a very tight budget. You can start by just covering it with a piece of cloth, held on with a rubber-band, but if you get serious (but still make such small batches) you’ll want a lid with a grommeted hole for an airlock (see below). Once you know you want to make more mead once in a while, you’ll almost certainly want something larger.
A one-gallon carboy, usually jug-style and made of glass. This is typical for low-volume hobbyists like me. If you’re on a tight budget you could reuse a jug from apple juice or wine. If you really get into making mead, these are also common in five-gallon and larger sizes. To close it, you’ll want a bung (rubber stopper) or cap, with a hole for an airlock (see below).
A brew-bucket, typically of about two gallon capacity. This is also common for low-volume hobbyists, but available in much larger sizes if you get serious. Not just any bucket will do, mind you, it must be of the right kind of plastic to withstand the alcohol and acidity of mead. To close it, you’ll need a lid with a grommeted hole for your airlock.
There are larger things, and fancier things, but I don’t generally recommend them until you are ready to really commit.
Regardless of what you use to hold your mead, you’re going to need multiple things, so you can transfer it from one to the other. (Why would you do that? I’ll probably cover that later. Meanwhile, if you’re curious, you can web-search “rack off the lees”.) If you’re starting with small jars, okay, just get two jars, else I’d recommend one plastic bucket and one glass jug-type carboy.
So how do you do that transfer? With quart jars and such it’s not worth it to do anything other than “pour carefully”. With gallon-plus containers, though, the best way is an autosiphon, but be sure to get one properly sized (in length and width) for your containers. It’s very frustrating to find at the last minute that you can’t autosiphon your mead out of your jug because your autosiphon is too wide to fit! How long a siphon tube you want on that depends on how you’re going to do the transfers. You may also want a bottling wand on the other end of the tubing; that will also reduce the length of tube needed. You can find an auto-siphon, bottling wand, and tubing, all sold together as a kit, maybe even assembled.
I’ve already mentioned airlocks; you’ll need at least one. There are several kinds, most notably “S” and “three-piece”. The S type is much easier to read, is generally cheaper, and makes more of a fun “bloop” noise. ;-) The three-piecer, however, is easier to clean (by taking it apart), is usually shorter (important if you’re tight on space, vertically), and can serve as an adaptor for a blow-off tube, which is something I might cover in some later post.
One piece that many beginners regret doing without is a hydrometer. This tells you the Specific Gravity of your mead (or your must, your “mead to be”). I’ll spare you for now why you care about that. They’re usually glass so they’re a bit fragile, so buy two, or a plastic one. You’ll also need a sample tube, which is rather like the graduated cylinders you used in chemistry or maybe physics class in school. (They may even be graduated, but that’s not necessary for this purpose.) With a large enough batch of mead, you could drop the hydrometer right in, but it could break and ruin your batch, or it could be difficult to extract from a jug-type carboy. And to get the sample into the tube, you may find a turkey-baster useful — yes, like you probably already have, though I’d recommend a dedicated one.
Before any of this touches your mead/must, though, it should be sanitized. So you’ll need some sanitizer concentrate, such as Star-San, and some decently large container (like that two-gallon bucket I mentioned above!) to mix it up in. You could use bleach instead, but be sure to rinse thoroughly to get rid of the taste.
If you’re going to leave some sugar in it, and make more at once than you can drink in a week or three, you’ll also need a way to stabilize it. This can be done with heat, but that’s rather tricky, so the usual way is with chemicals, such as the combination of potassium metabisulfite and potassium sorbate (aka K-meta and K-sorb) or similar chemicals.
There are some other things that are optional but recommended, especially if you’re going for gallons or larger:
- yeast nutrients (no, raisins do not provide significant yeast nutrient)
- yeast energizer (very similar but used to start the yeast)
- pH buffering agents, and a pH meter or test strips
- “clearing” or “fining” agents, such as bentonite or SuperKleer
Of course, there is an endless variety of things you could go buy, including books to detail it all.