Making mead is as simple as combining honey, yeast and water in a carboy, but making mead mead that begs you to have another glass can be quite a challenge.
Depending on your goals and techniques as a meadmaker, there are various methods and processes that can be adopted to aid in improving quality when making mead. The following list compiles a few ways to take control of certain aspects of the mead making process in attempts of producing a higher quality final product.
Try your hand at one or all of the suggestions and see if you can bring your meads to the next level!
Mead can only be as great as the ingredients that make up the must (unfermented mead). Ideally, all ingredients would come from your backyard garden, beehive and natural well. This allows for ingredients like fruits, vegetables, and herbs to be used at the ideal point of ripeness as well as the knowledge of what pesticides and other chemicals were used during cultivation. For most meadmakers, having such amenities in your backyard may not be realistic, but that doesn’t mean fine quality ingredients cannot be acquired with some careful sleuthing.
When seeking honey try to purchase from a local source, if possible. Small, community beekeepers typically produce quality honey that has not undergone a heavy filtration process (if any at all) and is not treated with any sort of heat. This is important because it will allow the honey to maintain the rich flavors and aromas found in its raw form. Similarly, it is ideal to find ingredients, such as fruits, in their raw forms from local farmers who have knowledge about the product. Talk to your local orchard or berry farm about optimum points of ripeness, how the fruit is treated during cultivation, and any other concerns that may affect its use when making mead.
All of this considered, raw honey and perfectly ripened produce may not be available to folks, especially during specific points of the year, and meadmakers must make the best of what they have available. Great mead can still be made with fruit concentrates or honey that has been heat-treated and filtered, but it may not be as rich and flavorful as the same mead made with fresh fruit and raw honey. Put some effort into hunting down the best ingredients you have available, and you will likely experience a higher quality mead.
No-Boil Pasteurization Methods
A “hot” area for debate in the mead making community is whether or not to treat the honey with some sort of heat as a means of pasteurization because of the risk of contaminants from wild yeast and bacteria. Recently, it has become widely accepted to try and avoid any sort of heat treatment of honey, either before or after purchasing, because it is said to drive off flavors and aromas that are favorable when making mead. For this reason, it is becoming more and more popular to forgo any sort of heating when preparing the honey.
In many mead recipes and mead making books, it calls for the honey to be boiled in a gallon or two of water for 15-30 minutes as a means of sanitation. Some still prefer to treat with lower levels of heat, while others use methods that avoid heat all together, but for many the boil method has become somewhat of the “way of the past.”
The following methods can be used in lieu of boiling when treating honey for making mead:
- Low-heat pasteurization: With the same preparation as you would take if planning to boil honey, a low-heat pasteurization can be utilized that does not bring the honey-water mixture to a full boil. For this method, bring the honey-water mixture to 150°F (66°C) and hold for 5 minutes, or to 140°F (60°C) and hold for 22 minutes. The lower heat method for 22 minutes is recommended if pursuing this approach.
- Sulfite: Potassium metabisulfite, also referred to as “meta” or “sulfite,” is a chemical additive that can be used to sanitize must without the need for heat. Sulfite is popularly used by homebrewers, cider- and meadmakers in the form of Campden tablets. Generally speaking, 1 tablet per gallon of traditional mead should be used for pasteurization while up to 2 tablets per gallon of mead containing ingredients like fruit is advised. Note: Sulfite can bleach out the color of some fruits, which may be undesirable. There is also some concern that sulfites may cause reactions with asthmatics.
- No-Heat, No-Sulfite: Recent data and experience from notable meadmakers has developed a third option for preparing honey must, which is doing nothing at all. Simply clean and sanitize every piece of equipment thoroughly, mix the ingredients in your carboy, pitch the yeast, aerate and let it go. No form of sanitizing the must is used in this mead making technique. It is believed that the wild yeast and bacteria in the honey will not be able to put up a fight against the amount of yeast being intentionally pitched, and thus are not a concern. If wanting to avoid any heat pasteurization as well as chemical additives, this is the method to pursue, but exceptional cleaning and sanitation is essential to success.
Staggered Nutrient Additions
As you may have gathered from the mead making tutorial or other mead related literature, yeast nutrient and energizer is crucial in providing yeast with the environment and available micronutrients needed for healthy and clean fermentation. Older mead recipes may not call for nutrient or energizer at all, more recent recipes call for nutrients and energizer to be added when preparing the must, but most recently a technique known as staggered nutrient additions (SNA) is hailed as an exceptional means of adding the micronutrients yeast require in the most efficient way.
Staggered nutrient additions is the process of supplying the must with a full dose of nutrients over the course of multiple days. This is a method that is widely accepted by notable home and commercial meadmakers alike, though each has their own measurements and schedule. The result is significantly faster and cleaner mead fermentation.
Generally speaking, you want to take the total amount of nutrients required and divide it up into three or four equal parts that will be added on the day the yeast is pitched and every other day after that. On the days in between the nutrient additions, the mead is degassed either with vigorous stirring, twirling the fermenter or using a wine degasser. This way the yeast is given the micronutrients in installments at different points in the fermentation instead of providing it all at the beginning which may result in much of the nutrient and energizer not being utilized.
Here is an example staggered nutrient addition schedule that can be used for your standard 5 gallon batch of mead:
- Day 0: After pitching the yeast, add 4.5 g of Fermaid-K and 2 g Diammonium Phosphate (DAP)
- Day 1, 3, 5, 7, 8: Degas mead by gently stirring, twirling the carboy carefully, or using a wine degasser
- Day 2, 4, 6: Gently stir and add 4.5 g Fermaid-K and 2 g of DAP
- NOTE: When degassing and/or adding nutrients, do so very slowly to avoid foam ups reminiscent of an elementary school volcano in the science fair.
Mead and pH
Ensuring the fermenting must is in a specific pH range can aid in optimizing conditions for yeast to conduct a quick and clean fermentation. While some experts and renowned meadmakers may say not to bother with pH, a few easy steps can be taken to monitor and control the pH, which can greatly benefit the final product.
There are multiple reasons why pH of must can start low before pitching yeast or drop during fermentation. Certain types of honey are high in acid content, which can cause the initial pH of the must to fall below the 3.7-4.6 range that is ideal. When fermentation has kicked off, pH can also become more acidic and fall below 3.7. This happens because the yeast gathers the micronutrients from the honey, yeast nutrient and energizer, which aid in keeping the pH in the ideal range. As the yeast absorbs the nutrients the pH can become too acidic (<3.7), causing the yeast’s metabolism to slow down and ultimately bring the fermentation process to a crawl. The yeast that are still working become stressed from this environment, which instills unfavorable flavors and aromas in the final product. For this reason, it may be a good idea to monitor and adjust pH if the must is found to be too acidic.
Measuring and adjusting pH in mead is relatively easy. A means of measuring the pH is necessary, with paper test strips being the cheapest option and a battery-powered digital tester being ideal because of the degree of accuracy. It is recommended to test the must before pitching the yeast and then 7-9 days after pitching when fermentation appears to slow. If you find the pH is too acidic, simply add 1/2 teaspoon of calcium carbonate at a time, stirring, and testing again until the pH reaches about 3.8. Other compounds, such as Potassium Carbonate, Potassium Bicarbonate, and Potassium Hydroxide can be used, but follow the directions in order to avoid instilling harsh chemical notes or other unfavorable qualities to the final product.
Cool Fermentation Temperatures
While some yeast strains used in making mead can list tolerable temperatures up into the 80’s °F, many meadmakers suggest cooler fermentation temperatures to optimize the final profile of their mead. This can mean fermenting at the bottom end of your chosen yeast’s temperature range, or even slightly below. The trick is not to go so cool that the yeast go dormant and cease the fermentation process.
When fermenting at warmer temperatures the yeast kick it into high gear, which makes for a very vigorous fermentation. When fermentation is highly active, large quantities of CO2 are being blown out of the fermenter, and the gas takes a lot of the favorable honey (and other ingredient) flavors and aromas with it. Warm fermentation can also instill unpleasant alcohol qualities, which typically subside with further aging. By keeping temperatures cooler a less vigorous fermentation can be conducted, which helps preserve the flavors and aromas of the ingredients being used, and the alcohol heat can be less apparent when the mead is still “young.”
This technique is also popular among cidermakers.
Ideally when formulating a mead recipe a meadmaker will determine the desired final gravity, which will help determine the residual sweetness, and use enough honey and the correct yeast to achieve this target. Sometimes reaching this target may not be possible depending on variables like target strength or a specific yeast strain, or the target is missed by accident. If you end up with a drier mead (lower final gravity) than anticipated, fear not, as this is a relatively easy fix as opposed to not fermenting enough which is slightly more difficult to remedy without instilling unfavorable characteristics in the final product.
To create more residual sweetness, more sugar is added to the fermented mead, but the following steps must be taken to ensure fermentation will not continue and eat away the sugar being added which will result in a stronger, dry mead.
- Add 1/2 teaspoon of potassium sorbate per gallon of mead and and stir to halt fermentation. Potassium sorbate does not kill yeast, but prevents them from converting anymore sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol.
- After at least 24 hours, additional sugar (typically honey) can be added to the mead without the risk of fermentation.
- The desired sweetness will depend on your personal preference. It is recommended to add 1 cup of honey at a time, thoroughly stirring, and then testing until the desired sweetness is obtained.
If wanting to backsweeten mead that will be carbonated, it is recommended to follow the steps above and then force carbonate in a keg. Backsweetening and bottle conditioning can very easily end in dreaded bottle bombs.