I first learned how to make mead in the summer of 1972 at Kalamazoo College when a good friend of mine, Lisa Foltz, returned to campus after her career service quarter which she spent in Arizona near her family. While there she had spent time with the SCA people in Atenveldt, which was not yet a kingdom, and had learned the art of making chainmail, some things about fighting, and the art of making mead. Since we were planning on hosting a tournament at Kalamazoo College, which was the Canton of Three Hills, that summer we decided to try the recipe out. We got permission to use the steam tables at SAGA Food Service to brew the "must" (the unfermented mixture which over time is most magically turned to mead) and a group of us worked together to change a lot of honey (about 60 lbs.) into that noble elixer. I was there as was Lisa Foltz, Mark Hamlin, Gisela Mueller and maybe, if I'm not mistaken, Joan Sherman and Cindy Reid. We mixed the honey, the water, the spices and fruits, and then we carried the mixture in 5 gallon pickle buckets up to Mark's room in DeWaters Hall where we put it into a big trash can lined with plastic bags, added active brewer's yeast from the Kalamazoo Food Co-op, and fixed up a primative gas trap. All that summer the room smelled wonderful as each day we opened the mead and stirred it, then sampled how it was progressing. When the tourney came the mead was shared by all and was declared a great success, which made the first tourney I ever autocrated a great hit.
Since that time I have brewed quite a few batches of mead, known a good number of other mead makers, learned a lot about what to do and what not to do, but through it all my basic mead recipe has never changed. It is still the recipe that Lisa brought back from Atenveldt. It is a simple recipe and allows for a lot of variation, but the simplicity also makes it hard to go wrong. The recipe follows below.
To make mead first find a fermenting container. I use a 5 gallon glass carboy to make a 3-4 gallon batch. Some people brew in plastic buckets, but I prefer the glass which I can sanitize more easily and which I feel does not leave any taste as I believe plastic could. You need to have a somewhat larger capacity in the container than the liquid will take up because you will need room for the foam and bubbles the fermentation produces. You can make small batches in 1 gallon cider jugs if you like, but I find it more convenient to make a 3-4 gallon batch at a time.
Next you need honey. You will need to use between 3 and 5 lbs. of honey for each gallon of diluted mixture, or "must", that you are going to make. 3 lbs. per gallon makes a fairly dry mead with not much honey taste left and 5 lbs. per gallon makes a mead you could almost put over your pancakes for syrup because it's so sweet and thick. I prefer a 4 lb. mead. Mead is frequently referred to by poundage when speaking of its sweetness and in the short story "The Three Strangers" by Thomas Hardy there is a description of a mead made for a party which describes it as a 4 lb. mead and gives a recipe list much like the one I"m going to give you.
Mix the honey with hot water to dilute it to the desired quantity. Some people do this by boiling the "must" to sterilize it while others suggest that boiling destroys some of the more delicate flavors in the honey. Personally I put the honey directly into the fermentation container and add hot water, as hot as I can get from the tap, but I don't boil my "must".
Add flavorings, and nutrients for the yeast if you'd like. The flavorings I add work as nutrients to some extent. I usually add some citrus fruit as slices, rind and all, and that adds citric acid which helps fermentation. If I use oranges I add about one for each gallon, but if I add lemon I use half as much because it goes a lot farther and can leave a bitter or sour taste if you add too much. I also add a few raisens or grapes which gives a little flavor and also some pectin, pectin adding body and working a little as a fining agent to help things settle clear. I add a pinch of tea leaves for tannin, usually Earl Grey. I like to add a little bit of cinnamon- a few sticks or a small amount of ground cinnamon to taste. Sometimes I add a few cloves, but be very careful because cloves are very strong and a few go a very long way. For me about one clove per gallon is good enough, maybe two, but no more than that. You don't need to add any flavorings at all, but the list above makes a nice tasting mead and is very much like the list in the story by Thomas Hardy. I have sometimes used raspberries or lingonberries instead of citrus fruit, but be careful with raspberries because even though they make a wonderful tasting mead they have a lot of pulp which could plug up the fermentation lock (see the warning below). I know of a fellow who makes a wonderful mead flavored with toasted oak chips that he gets from a brewing supply shop. Really almost anything would work (though the onion mead one guy made was proof that NOT EVERYTHING is suitable).
Let the "must" cool to body temperature and add yeast. There is a lot of discussion that could be had about yeasts. Many people like particular wine yeasts, or champagne yeast. Some people like brewer's yeast. Some yeasts have a "killer" factor which makes them crowd out and kill any other organisms that might "infect" your "must". I know one fellow who developed his very own strain of "Frankenstein" yeast that would completely brew a batch in the refrigerator in three days- now THAT'S POWERFUL YEAST! Personally I appall most other brewers because of the yeast I use. I use bread yeast right from the store (but NOT quick rising, just the plain old sort). See, the way I figure it most Vikings probably weren't too concerned about specialized yeasts and the same stuff that made their bread rise made mead (medieval brewer's and baker's guilds were also closely related). Bread yeast starts easily and brews reasonably quickly. It may not have as high an alcohol tolerance as some yeasts, but it does plenty well enough for me.
Now that the "must" is done you need to add a fermentation lock. A fermentation lock is a device that allows the gas to escape but doesn't allow fresh air into the fermentation container. This is very important because fermentation is an anaerobic reaction which produces alcohol and biologically is referred to as anaerobic respiration. The second possible pathway for the respiration is aerobic respiration, which requires oxygen, and this breaks the alcohol down and also can make acetic acid, which is the stuff that makes vinegar sour. You can see then why you want to maintain a good fermentation lock because alcoholic mead is far better than non alcoholic or less alcoholic honey vinegar (or other even worse "infections" can take hold, leaving bitter scummy wastes). Fermentation locks are cheap and available from any brewing supply shop. If you can't find one you can make a simple gas trap like you did in science class by using a single holed stopper and runnung a tube from that to a large jar of water that contains an inverted jar holding air (if you just put the tube under water and the temperature falls the lower pressure in the fermentation container will make it suck the water in and can carry contaminants into the mead you are making). I strongly suggest finding a real fermentation lock.
Now that the mead is fermenting you need to monitor its progress. Put it in a safe warm place and check it a couple of times a day. It should begin to make a lot of small bubbles, a process referred to as "boiling", and produce a lot of foam. Swirl the jug a few times each day to keep the yeast from settling too much and help release the carbon dioxide gas and that will help it ferment and also keep the foam down to a managable level. Make sure the gas trap does not dry out! This is important because if it dries out it could ruin the whole batch!
Make sure your fermentation lock does not get plugged. This can be a problem because of citrus pulp or other fruit pulp which gets lifted into the fermentation lock by the foaming head in the jug. If the fermentation lock gets plugged it does not mean the fermentation will stop or that more gas won't be produced, in fact more gas WILL be produced and more gas produced will mean more pressure build-up in the jug! Too much pressure can have EXPLOSIVE results. Ever open champagne or a freshly shaken soda? Mead can be like that. You can even make a sparkling mead which is champagne like if you PLAN it right, but if the buildup of high and explosive pressure is unplanned the results can be very unfortunate. I was on the phone with a friend one day discussing his fermentation when he heard a loud noise from his basement. When he went down to investigate he found that orange pulp had plugged the fermentation lock and the pressure had built up until it blew the top off and the mead shot out everywhere. It's a pretty funny story until it happens to YOU. And if you bottle green still fermenting mead and cap it tightly the bottles can explode sending glass fragments flying. Be careful! Don't let the fermentation lock get plugged up and don't bottle the mead until it's done fermenting (for sparkling mead you need to have it ferment just a little more but then you use specially heavy champagne bottles and wire down the stoppers).
After a couple of months the fermentation slows way down and you don't produce lots of bubles when you swirl the jug. After that just let it sit and check it every so often to make sure the fermentation lock hasn't dried out or gotten plugged. In a few months the yeast will settle to the bottom. If there are slices of citrus fruit they, too, will eventually drop to the bottom. When the yeast has mostly settled clear and/or the fruit has dropped to the bottom siphon the upper layer of clear mead off into aging bottles (I use gallon jugs) leaving the "dregs" behind. Then you can clean everything up and sanitize the fermentation container so you can make the next batch while the present batch is aging.
Here's the hardest part for many people. Let the mead age. Just let it quietly sit there for about a year, or maybe longer. Sure you could drink it "green" and yeasty tasting, but it gets mellower and smoother if you let it age, and the last of the yeast settles out. Let it age. After it ages a year or so then and only then siphon it off one last time into the serving bottles and begin to drink it. It's the drink of the Gods, and it will have been well worth the wait. Best of luck!