In part 1 of this series, we provided information about honey—the primary ingredient in mead. Here, we look at the process of making mead, which is a bit simpler than that of brewing beer, and the mead brew day can be quite short—maybe an hour by yourself.
You basically mix the honey and water together, add the mixture to a carboy, and add yeast. If your honey is crystallized, the best practice is to warm it up. The trick is not to warm the honey above 110°F (43°C) because then you start losing aromatics. An electric blanket around the carboy works well, or anything else you can set for a temperature and hold it. If you can’t get all the honey mixed in, don’t worry. Just take a gravity reading and write it down, then take a gravity reading the next day. The gravity the next day will likely be higher as the honey will dissolve as it sits in solution.
Yeast for Mead Makers
As a mead maker, you have a wide selection of yeasts. The most popular ones are wine (both white and red) and champagne yeasts. However, an important difference between beer brewing and mead brewing is that almost all available yeasts are dry yeasts. For the mead maker, more so than for the beer brewer, proper yeast rehydration is very important. Without it, you can end up with malformed yeast cells with up to 50 percent of the cells becoming useless for fermentation.
Fortunately, rehydration aids for dry yeast, such as Go-Ferm and Go-Ferm Protect Evolution (for difficult or stuck fermentations) from Scott Laboratories, make it easy to properly rehydrate your yeast. Just follow the instructions on the package and then make sure not to throw the mixture into your must (must is to mead what wort is to beer) too hot. Generally, there should be no more than a 20°F/11°C temperature difference between the rehydration aid and the must, but only 15°F/8°C is better.
One of the biggest differences between fermenting beer and fermenting mead is the naturally occurring level of yeast assimilable nitrogen (YAN). Wort generally has enough YAN for the yeast while honey has effectively none.
There are three ways to deal with this nutrient deficit: you can add no nutrients, you can add them all up front, or you can stagger the nutrient additions. I’ve made good mead—in fact, award-winning mead—with all three methods. Before we look more closely at the three methods, let’s look first at the nutrients themselves.
Because honey lacks YAN, there are various yeast nutrients you can use to help your yeast during fermentation. These nutrients provide either organic nitrogen, inorganic nitrogen, or both.
As its name suggests, organic nitrogen comes from organic sources (e.g., fruits and malt). Yeast is generally conditioned to use nitrogen from organic sources, and a yeast nutrient that supplies organic nitrogen usually creates few off-flavors if the fermentation is done well. These types of nutrients can be added at almost any stage of fermentation.
Nitrogen from inorganic sources (generally ammonia salts) lets the yeast use a faster pathway to produce ethanol, and this faster pathway can produce harsh alcohols if you use too much. I generally try to keep this nutrient source under 40 percent of my nutrients. Adding inorganic nitrogen during yeast hydration is harmful and can kill some of your yeast. Added after 50–66 percent sugar break will result in urea-like off-flavors.
Diammonium phosphate is an inorganic source of nutrients. It provides 210 parts per million (ppm) of YAN per gram per liter of must. Thus, 1 gram (0.3 oz) of DAP in a liter (1.06 qt) of must will give you 210 ppm of YAN. DAP is available at homebrew-supply shops and online and is generally very cheap. Just be careful not to use too much.
This product from Scott Laboratories is a 100 percent organic nutrient. It also has some other good micro-nutrients that yeast needs. It provides 65 ppm of YAN per gram per liter of must; thus, 1 gram (0.3 oz) of Fermaid-O in 1 liter (1.06 qt) of must provides 65 ppm of YAN.
This product, also from Scott Laboratories, is a blend of organic and inorganic nitrogen sources. It provides 65 ppm of each per gram per liter, so 130 ppm total per gram per liter. Adding 1 gram (0.3 oz) of Fermaid-K is adding the same amount of organic and inorganic nutrients as 1 gram of Fermaid-O and .31 gram of DAP.
Generic Brand Nutrient
You might see some nutrients called “Yeast Nutrient” or similar. Most of these don’t label what they provide, so it is a bit hard to use them precisely. I’ve just treated them as Fermaid-K and used my nose for fermentation off-flavors, but that is not ideal.
Now, on to the methods of adding the yeast nutrients.
It probably goes without saying that the no-nutrient method takes the least amount of effort. However, the mead can take years to get really good. If you don’t add any nutrients, the mead can suffer from nutrient-deprivation-related effects, such as incomplete fermentation and fermentation-related off-flavors. In addition, long-term aging is required to settle the mead.
However, there are some tricks that you can use. One trick is to add a lot of fruit, particularly dried fruit, because fruit has decent amounts of YAN and dried fruit much more by weight. Another trick is to keep the sugar content and alcohol low, below 10 percent ABV. This makes the mead drinkable earlier, but you still risk the nutrient-deprivation issues.
The advantage most people see with the no-nutrient method is simplicity: you mix up the mead and then leave it alone. You can make good mead with this method, but it takes a couple of years to mature and requires the absolute best honey. If everything works and ages well, you will have only minor off-flavors.
All Up Front Method
The second method of dealing with the nutrient deficit is adding all the nutrients up front—or at the end of the lag phase. This method isn’t much more work than the no-nutrient method; it produces a better mead in easily half the time, and it produces fewer fermentation off-flavors than the no-nutrient method.
The biggest problem with adding all the nutrients up front is a big biomass bloom. The greedy yeast cells consume the nutrients quickly and reproduce fast. This adds a lot of heat to the system, which can cause hot-fermentation issues—in particular the production of fusel alcohols. It also means that you have a high chance of a stuck fermentation, leaving the mead sweeter than intended as well as leaving intermediate yeast by-products. Meads made with this method tend to take quite some time to lose their yeast characteristics and become honey dominated.
Staggered Nutrient Addition
The method I use currently—and the one widely regarded as the best method to make good mead quickly—is staggered nutrient addition (SNA). When done well, SNA gives the best mead the quickest . . . and is, of course, the most work. To me, it is the equivalent of an all-grain brewer using water salts, yeast starter, and fermentation temperature control. But easier.
If you’ve homebrewed big beers, you may be familiar with the SNA concept. With SNA, the yeast cells don’t gorge on one big meal, but rather have a few smaller meals. The yeast cells still get the same amount of food, just spread out over a longer period of time when they actually need it.
Yeast cells tend to need nutrients early in the fermentation, typically before 50 percent sugar break. There are quite a few different schedules you can follow for adding nutrients, and there is active research on the topic. Here are some general recommendations:
- Don’t add DAP during rehydration.
- Yeast cells use the nutrients best before about 30 percent sugar break, so add most of the nutrient then.
- The more you spread out the nutrient additions during the first 30–50 percent of fermentation, the more even the fermentation. You’ll get smaller biomass blooms and a steadier fermentation.
- Don’t add nutrients after 50 percent sugar break because the yeast can’t use them as well, and nutrient off-flavors are much more likely to develop.
Several times above, I’ve mentioned “sugar breaks.” The basic concept is that when you hit X percent sugar break, X percent of the sugars that the yeast will eat have been eaten. For example, at 20 percent sugar break, 20 percent of the sugars will have been consumed.
To calculate sugar breaks, you need both your starting gravity and estimated final gravity. In a dry mead, you can just use .997 as your final gravity. In sweeter meads, you have to make an educated guess. I often use the ABV calculator at Brewers Friend with the alternative equation and put in my starting gravity. Then I play with final gravity until it hits my potential alcohol for my yeast. Then I can calculate the spread and divide by ten. For example, 1.120 OG to 1.015 FG is 105 points, and every 10.5 points of gravity is 10 percent of the sugar break.
With the honey and the process under your belts, we’ll look at fermentation, aging, and bottling in part 3 of the series.
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