by Bray Denard, PhD
(aka loveofrose on the forums)
I love making mead. I've been making mead for many years and I often try to help others on the forums. As a result, I've found that the same mistakes are often committed by different folks over and over again. While there are many good sources of mead making information, most beginning mazers don't know about it. They come to the boards looking for enlightenment, but often end up confused by the acronyms and terminology that seasoned mead makers already know. This article is my attempt to resolve this issue.
Most seasoned mazers (mead brewers) will tell you that mead needs at least a year of age to be drinkable. So why does mead take so long to be drinkable? If you had to answer that question in one word, it would be "fusels". Fusels are the hot, solvent like taste (many folks say gasoline, paint thinner, or rocket fuel) you generally get in a young mead. When fusels are present, you have to age the mead until the yeast metabolize them. Aging time to drinkable mead largely depends on the amount of fusels produced to begin with.
So how do we avoid fusel production from the start?
First, let me list known causes of fusel production and the "cure". By cure, I mean we can cut down on fusels significantly, but probably not all together. If you follow all suggested practices, your mead will be drinkable faster. How fast is "fast" largely depends on the yeast you use as some yeast produce more fusels than others even in optimal fermentation conditions.
1. Fermenting Temperature (especially hot temperatures) - The fermentation temperature considered too hot is dependent on the strain of yeast you choose. For example, D47 is known to give horrible fusels over 70ºF, but Wyeast 1388 is quite clean at 75º F. You can look at the manufacturers website for the temperature range of your yeast. Try to stay in the middle of the range as opposed to the extremes. High end temperatures makes fusels and the low end generally leads to stalled fermentations.
2. Leaving mead on the gross lees (yeast cake) too long - This is another yeast dependent issue that comes up. Generally speaking, it is good practice to rack after primary fermentation. (Rack means to siphon the mead off the yeast that have settled on the bottom of you fermenter. This also aids in clearing) Some yeast are notorious for producing fusels if left on the gross lees (yeast cake) too long (71B) while others have little to no issues (DV10, KIV1116, EC1118, Wyeast 1388). It is generally good practice to rack mead as soon as the Final Gravity (FG) is reached to avoid any off flavors. Racking before FG leads to stalled ferments!
3. Low nutrients - Honey is naturally very nutrient deficient. We generally supplement free nitrogen through diammonium phosphate (DAP) and trace minerals/vitamins with Fermaid K. You will see this called Staggered Nutrient Addition (SNA). Too little nutrients will cause fusels, slow ferments and even stalled fermentations.
4. Unbuffered pH (ie. pH dropped below 3) - As implied in the fact that honey is nutrient deficient, honey is also lacking in pH buffering salts. Starting pH can vary widely in honey must (3.5-6!) depending on the honey source. Many folks think if the starting pH is high, then they don't need to add K2CO3 (you will see this called potassium carbonate or K2CO3; potassium bicarbonate or KHCO3 is also used). High starting pH does not equal buffering capacity. Once again, high starting pH does not equal buffering capacity! High starting pH improves the chance you will get through ferment without hitting pH 3, but without buffering salts, your pH will drop like rock as soon as fermentation begins. You may still end up with a pH below 3 even if your starting pH was 6! Buffering with K2CO3 prevents these massive pH swings and keeps the pH above stalling range.
Note: Potassium is also a limiting nutrient in honey so two birds, one stone. Potassium (and solubility) is also why K2CO3 is preferred over calcium carbonate. Also, calcium carbonate can lend a chalky taste if over used.
Note 2: This fast pH drop during fermentation is also why adding lemon juice or acid blend upfront is no longer advised. Make these additions post fermentation to taste.
5. Yeast Rehydration - This section is only for dry yeast. Dry yeast need to be rehydrated before they are introduced to must. Otherwise, they encounter a very stressful situation upon introduction to the must and produce fusels. Simply hydrating a pack of yeast in a 1/2 cup of warm sterile water for 15 minutes can really help your ferment get off to a good start. If you add 1 tsp GoFerm nutrient to the rehydration water, the yeast will be even better prepared for a clean fermentation.
6. Yeast Strain - Some yeast naturally produce more fusels than others. In the case of wine yeast, there has never been selective pressure for clean wine yeast. Why? Historically, wine makers have aged wines for many years before consumption. Most of the fusels have aged away at that point anyway, so who cares if it's clean early? Beer yeast have had this pressure applied for quick turnaround and are generally cleaner. So why use wine yeast? Well, wine yeast consistently hit high ABV. They also provide a completely different ester profile that many find appealing in mead over beer yeast. Some beer yeast make mead "taste like beer" which is good or bad depending on personal taste. Some beer yeast like Wyeast 1388 in my BOMM (Bray's One Month Mead) recipe break the mold and do mead very well without the beer taste. In my hands, DV10, KIV1116, EC1118 wine yeasts are all fairly clean (for wine yeasts) and not too fussy (although they all have very distinct ester profiles). I've heard good things about D21, but I've not tested it yet. As far as beer yeasts go, Wyeast 1388 following the BOMM protocol is the champion, but US05, Nottingham, and S33 (in that order) aren't bad if you don't mind some beer flavor. The difference is that (with optimal conditions) mead made with beer yeast will be ready in a few months while wine yeast will require 8 months to years to be drinkable; however, the end product will taste very different.
7. Degassing/Aeration - While not always as important, getting some oxygen into the must early in the ferment definitely helps speed things along. Yeast need oxygen early in the ferment to multiply their numbers. You are also removing CO2 which is acidic and can drop your pH. This point is more important for high gravity sack meads and show meads that are unbuffered.
8. Very High Starting Gravity - A very common newbee mistake. Almost every new mazer wants to push the ABV to the max. Pure honey is nearly impervious to infection. The sugar content is so high that the osmotic pressure on yeast is too great for the organism to survive. The same is true for must made at gravities exceeding 1.14. Not only does this stress the yeast into producing fusels, but it also causes stalled fermentations. It is far better to start with a lower gravity in the 1.1-1.12 range and allow the fermentation to go to 1.000. At this point, add honey to your desired FG and allow it to ferment again. Repeat this process until your mead stays at the FG you want indicating the yeast have given up. This method is called step feeding and has the advantage of never producing stupidly sweet mead. Be warned, a high ABV mead made this way does usually require extra aging time to be drinkable. For your reference:
FG <1.000 = Dry Mead
FG 1.005-1.01 = Semi-Sweet Mead
FG 1.01-1.02 = Sweet Mead
FG >1.02 = Dessert Mead
Well, I hope that dissertation helps. If you are a new mazer, I highly suggest you make a JAOM (Joe's Ancient Orange Mead) first for a fix and forget first mead, then a BOMM (Bray's One Month Mead) to learn SNAs, pH buffering, and degassing practices. In fact, using the BOMM protocol with any yeast will improve your mead due to the good practices used. It just won't be ready in a month unless you use Wyeast 1388.
After that, it's up to you. Just remember to keep your yeasties happy. If you do, they will give you fast, clean ferments!
JAOM - This mead appears to break all the rules, but in actuality the fruit provides all nutrients and pH buffering required by the yeast. It definitely needs 6-8 months aging in my opinion though. Copied verbatim from Joe:
Ancient Orange Mead
(by Joe Mattioli)
1 gallon batch
3 1/2 lbs Clover or your choice honey or blend (will finish sweet)
1 Large orange (later cut in eights or smaller rind and all)
1 small handful of raisins (25 if you count but more or less ok)
1 stick of cinnamon
1 whole clove ( or 2 if you like - these are potent critters)
optional (a pinch of nutmeg and allspice )( very small )
1 teaspoon of Fleishmann’s bread yeast ( now don't get holy on me--- after all this is an ancient mead and that's all we had back then)
Balance water to one gallon
Use a clean 1 gallon carboy
Dissolve honey in some warm water and put in carboy
Wash orange well to remove any pesticides and slice in eights --add orange (you can push em through opening big boy -- rinds included -- its ok for this mead -- take my word for it -- ignore the experts)
Put in raisins, clove, cinnamon stick, any optional ingredients and fill to 3 inches from the top with cold water. ( need room for some foam -- you can top off with more water after the first few day frenzy)
Shake the heck out of the jug with top on, of course. This is your sophisticated aeration process.
When at room temperature in your kitchen, put in 1 teaspoon of bread yeast. ( No you don't have to rehydrate it first-- the ancients didn't even have that word in their vocabulary-- just put it in and give it a gentle swirl or not)(The yeast can fight for their own territory)
Install water airlock. Put in dark place. It will start working immediately or in an hour. (Don't use grandma's bread yeast she bought years before she passed away in the 90's)( Wait 3 hours before you panic or call me) After major foaming stops in a few days add some water and then keep your hands off of it. (Don't shake it! Don't mess with them yeastees! Let them alone except its okay to open your cabinet to smell every once in a while.
Racking --- Don't you dare
additional feeding --- NO NO
More stirring or shaking -- Your not listening, don't touch
After 2 months and maybe a few days it will slow down to a stop and clear all by itself. (How about that) (You are not so important after all) Then you can put a hose in with a small cloth filter on the end into the clear part and siphon off the golden nectar. If you wait long enough even the oranges will sink to the bottom but I never waited that long. If it is clear it is ready. You don't need a cold basement. It does better in a kitchen in the dark. (Like in a cabinet) likes a little heat (70-80). If it didn't work out... you screwed up and didn't read my instructions (or used grandma's bread yeast she bought years before she passed away) . If it didn't work out then take up another hobby. Mead is not for you. It is too complicated.
If you were successful, which I am 99% certain you will be, then enjoy your mead. When you get ready to make different mead you will probably have to unlearn some of these practices I have taught you, but hey--- This recipe and procedure works with these ingredients so don't knock it. It was your first mead. It was my tenth. Sometimes, even the experts can forget all they know and make good ancient mead.
Bray's One Month Mead (BOMM) Recipe - 1 gallon
(Updated for clarity & post fermentation options)
Start with 1 gallon spring water.
Remove 1/2 cup water to compensate for smack pack volume.
Draw line on jugs at this water level.
Remove an additional 3.2 cups of water from jug (757 ml).
Add Orange Blossom honey (or your favorite varietal honey) back to line.
-About 2.5 lbs. SG 1.099ish.
Add 1/4 tsp DAP and 1/2 tsp of Fermaid K. Add these again at 1/3 (1.066) & 2/3 (1.033) sugar break.
-These are nutrients you can get at morewine.com or Amazon. Diammonium phosphate (DAP) is a free nitrogen source. Fermaid K contains vitamins, minerals, and trace nutrients. Honey is very deficient in nutrients so you need both to prevent fusel production and stalled ferments.
Add 1/4 tsp K2CO3. One time addition.
-Potassium carbonate (K2CO3) is preferred due to high K+ levels, but potassium bicarbonate (KHCO3) will work fine. This is for pH buffering and to provide K+ for the yeast.
Shake with the top on until honey is fully dissolved. It will require some effort! You're earning your mead!
Add activated Wyeast 1388 yeast smacked for about 2 hours.
No water in airlock for 7 days or the gravity falls below 1.033. Whichever comes first, add water or vodka to airlock.
Ferments dry in about a week.
NOTE: Wyeast 1388 is NOT sensitive to temperature. Temperatures of 65-75 F all yield clean mead free of fusels. The yeast do ferment the fastest at 68 F however.
Post Fermentation (Optional!)
Add 1 vanilla bean, 5 cubes American Medium toast oak for 2-4 weeks to taste.
You can also step feed small additions of honey until the yeast give up to sweeten. Just be sure your gravity is stable over several weeks to avoid bottle bombs!
I've also had good luck racking on 3-5 pounds of frozen berries to make a melomel.
JAO BOMM - 1 gallon
Note: This is a hybrid recipe for those who cannot obtain the nutrients needed for a BOMM or want a true 1 month JAOM.
Start with 1 gallon spring water.
Remove 1.5 cup water and draw a line at this water level.
Remove 4.66 cups of water.
Add honey back to previous line (3.5 lbs).
-Sue Bee Raw Honey is fine or your favorite varietal honey.
Add zest and fruit of one organic Valencia orange, minimal pith. If you like pith bitterness, add 1/4 of the orange pith.
~25 raisins (a small box)
1/2 cup of dried currants for additional K+ and nutrients.
1/2 small clove
1/2 cinnamon stick
1/8 whole nutmeg and 1 allspice berry
1 vanilla bean
Smack pack of Wyeast 1388 activated for 2 hours.
This mead may or may not be clear in a month, but is perfectly drinkable in a month. Age doesn't hurt it though!
If you really want it clear, apply SuperKleer according to directions. Afterwards, cold crash for a week. Bottle the semi-clear mead and it will clear in the bottles in a matter of weeks.
Using the highly technical pin pricked balloon airlock for JAOM authenticity!
Cyser BOMM - 1 gallon
Start with 1 gallon of sprouts apple cider.
Remove 2.33 cup of juice to compensate for volume of othe ingredients.
Added 2.4 oz dark brown sugar, 1.6 oz dates, and 1.33 cups orange blossom honey.
Added 1/2 tsp pectinase.
Add 1/4 tsp DAP and 1/2 tsp of Fermaid K.
-Add again at 2/3 & 1/3 sugar break.
Add 3/4 tsp K2CO3
Shake like hell to mix honey and aerate.
SG - 1.099
Add 1 smack pack of Wyeast 1388.
After it reaches 1.000, rack into secondary.
Add 1 vanilla bean and 5 medium toast Hungarian oak cubes 1 month before bottling or to taste.
The Compleat Mead Maker, by Ken Schramm
www.gotmead.com - By far the best site for anything mead related.
www.homebrewtalk.com - Newbees there taught me more than the seasoned professionals at gotmead.com on what NOT to do. I appreciate it and think it deserves mention.
My "Oak Experiment" thread at gotmead.com and homebrewtalk.com. Great if you are learning what oak provides what flavor profile.
"Is wine yeast best for mead - Ale yeast experiment" and "Belgian Ale Experiment" at gotmead.com. These post are my documentation of how the BOMM recipe was discovered. Good information about many ale yeasts in mead.