This week I take a look at the fundamentals of modern mead making, including staggered mead nutrients, degassing and finishing a mead.
Modern Mead Making
I started making mead a few years back, and it has been an enjoyable addition to my beer brewing hobby. Most home brewers have the equipment for mead making with the possible addition of a wine whip (see below) and a few ingredients. I also added support for meads into the BeerSmith 3 release, which has a lot of great tools to help you make mead.
As little as 10 years ago, mead making was a very long, involved process often spanning a year or more. However over the last 10 years or so, the development of staggered mead nutrients and a few other techniques, it is now possible to complete low gravity meads in a few weeks and even make high gravity complex meads in 60 days.
The key components of the modern technique are:
- A No-Boil Method – where the ingredients are simply mixed together with properly hydrated dry yeast.
- Staggered Mead Nutrients – Nitrogen rich nutrients are added over the first week of fermentation to promote a rapid fermentation of the honey. Typically four additions are made at 24, 48, 72 hours and the last at about a week.
- Degassing During Fermentation – Unlike beer, the mead is degassed with a wine whip twice a day during fermentation until you reach roughly the 2/3 sugar break (2/3 of the way through fermentation).
- pH Management – While not a concern for low gravity and most pure honey meads, many acidic fruit meads (called Melomels) require monitoring of the pH which can drop significantly during fermentation.
- Stabilization and Finishing – Since honey can sometimes continue to ferment as conditions change, most mead makers stabilize their mead with Sulfites and optionally Sorbate to prevent fermentation in the bottle.
Mead Recipe Design Considerations
The easiest mead to make is a lower gravity, all honey mead. Often this is made with a flavorful variety of honey to highlight the honey itself. However, as with beer, there are a huge number of mead possibilities. Many meads incorporate spices, fruits, beer (Braggot), or a combination of ingredients. My personal favorites are very high gravity fruit meads made with acidic fruits like berries, currants, and cherries that play the sweetness of the honey off against residual acidity of the fruit.
Since the sugars in honey are almost 100% fermentable, most meads will not have the sweetness you associate with honey, and will have a very dry finish. There are techniques to either preserve some sweetness by limiting fermentation or backsweeten your mead, but these are more advanced topics. I plan to do a series on high gravity fruit meads where I’ll cover some of these more advanced topics, since fruit mead is one of my favorites.
The No Boil Method and Yeast Hydration
Making a simple mead starts with mixing honey and water. Most of us use a large plastic bucket for this initial phase of fermentation, as it gives you easy access to de-gas the mead as well as measure and manage bags of fruit if needed. Because the degassing liberates a lot of foam, I recommend a large bucket with a lid – perhaps 8 gal (30 L) for a 5 gal (19 L) recipe.
Measure out the honey by volume or weight, and simply mix it into your pre-calculated water volume at room temperature. Honey dissolves very easily so it does not take a lot of effort to get a good mix. This honey-water mix is now called “must”.
The next step is to hydrate your yeast. Dry wine or Champagne yeast is most often used in mead making as it has a high alcohol tolerance and provides good balance. My favorite is Lalvin 71B Narbonne dry yeast. The method I use is to add warm water and a bit of Goferm and then slowly reduce the temperature by mixing in some of the honey-water must. I’ve covered this step in some detail in this article, which I recommend reading before hydrating. Once the yeast is fully hydrated, add it to the must.
Staggered Mead Nutrient Additions
Unlike malted barley used in beer making, mead lacks several essential nutrients to support rapid fermentation, most notably nitrogen. While you can make mead without nutrients, it will take many months to a year to complete. To save time, virtually all modern mead makers use a staggered nutrient addition which can finish out the bulk of fermentation within two weeks even on a high gravity mead.
The two latest mead nutrient schedules are TONSA and TiONSA which use Fermaid-O and Fermaid-K nutrients split into four separate additions made at 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours and 1/3 sugar break when 1/3 of the sugar is gone, or 5-7 days if you are not tracking gravity closely. The main difference between the two is that Fermaid-O is organic while Fermaid-K is synthetic.
You can use BeerSmith 3 or an online calculator to calculate the entire amount to add as well as the individual additions – I’ve covered it in detail in this article, which I recommend reading before adding your additions.
Some older references use a combination of DAP and other additives as a nitrogen source. This also works, though the use of DAP has been discontinued by some mead makers as they claim it can promote an overly rapid fermentation resulting in some off flavors. However I know of at several top mead makers still using DAP.