or
The Making of Mead
By Stephen Pursley

 
Introduction

Ah mead! That mystical, magical golden drink that so many have heard of, but so few have tasted. With this work I hope in some small measure to correct this situation.

I have been making mead for over 15 years. I love the taste of good mead and enjoy making it. Mead has a history as old as any alcoholic beverage, and was a mainstay of alcoholic drinks until beer/ale became popular. It wasn't until the past few centuries that mead's popularity declined to the point where few people have tasted it.

Regretfully, much of the home brewed meads that are out there are, well, bad. Occasionally I have been presented with a sample of "mead" and asked my opinion. I have found there's lots of paint thinner out there. Must be paint thinner, since mead can't taste that bad. The reasons for this are simple: there are few commercial meads available, and few people who produce quality homemade meads. Most people have nothing to compare their efforts to.

For the mead maker who wishes to make historically accurate meads another problem arises. There are very few historical references available on the subject of mead making. One significant reference source that is available is regrettably late period, that being:

The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt Opened: Whereby is Discovered Several ways for making of Metheglin, Sider, Cherry-Wine, & c. together with Excellent Directions for Cookery: As also for Preserving, Conserving, Candying, & c.

While Digbie is late period, his work does give us a glimpse of what types of meads were being produced in near late period. One thing of importance to note about Digbie: it appears from the titles of many of his recipes that the meads he and his associates made were produced for the nobility. For example, here are the names of some of his recipes:

* White metheglin of my Lady Hungerford: which is exceedingly praised
* The Countess of Bullingbrook's white Metheglin
* Sir Thomas Gower's Meteglin for health

It therefore appears that Digbie is a poor source of information if your wish is to reproduce the meads consumed by the common man of his time. This is further compounded by the fact that by Digbie's time mead had fallen out of favor as a drink for the masses. If you are going to use Digbie as a primary reference source in your mead making, you should always keep the above points in mind.

All references to Digbie in this work refer to the 1669 edition.

In this work we will discuss the ingredients, techniques and equipment used in mead making. There is a section discussing the life cycle of yeast during fermentation. Then on to recipes for making your own meads and mead variations, including several period and near-period recipes. The work finishes with a discussion on bottling techniques, storage, ageing and serving tips.

Concerning the Recipes:
This work contains modern recipes, using modern techniques and equipment in an attempt to reproduce period style meads. Also included are several period and near-period recipes, along with a translation of those recipes into modern terms. "Period" refers to the historical period in which mead was a common drink, from approximately the beginning of man until the 14th or 15th century. The selection of the 14th-15th century as a cut off point is somewhat arbitrary, as mead remained popular in many areas (Africa for one) long after beer and ale had become the drink for the common man. Also note, while my interest in meads spans the globe, this work deals exclusively with the meads of Europe and Great Britton. The reason is simple, there is far more information available concerning the meads of Europe and Great Britton than of the fermented honey drinks of Africa, Asia or the New World. It is my hope, at a future date, to expand this work to include information and recipies from outside Europe and Great Britton.

My intention in writing this work is to pass on some of the information I have collected in 15+ years of mead making, and hopefully, in some small way, to improve the quality of the meads made by home brewers.

My thanks to Lady Tyrca Ivarsdottir for proof reading this work, and to my Master, Count Finn Kelly O'Donnell for his support and encouragement of my efforts.

The Making of Mead by Stephen D. Pursley
Copyright 1999 Stephen D. Pursley
All rights reserved



Mead?
What is mead? The simplest answer is this: mead is an alcoholic beverage made by the fermentation of honey diluted with water. Well, that's pretty simple. But it doesn't say much.

Most meads will be made with 2-5 pounds of honey per gallon of water. The yeast used for the fermentation will decide to a large degree how sweet or dry the finished mead is. A sweet mead is traditional, as our ancestors did not have the strains of highly alcohol tolerant yeast that we have. So a dry (low sugar/high alcohol) mead was not what was usually produced. Most meads were still (noncarbonated), but a sparkling mead (carbonated like champagne) is quite delicious, if not strictly all that traditional.

At this point let me say that I like sweet meads. If you like dry meads, that's great, but dry meads are not as historically accurate, in general, as sweet meads. Every piece of documentation I have found (and I have been looking for over a decade) indicate that the meads that our ancestors made were generally sweet.

Let's start with the basics. Water, honey and yeast are the three primary ingredients used to make mead.

Water
The single largest component in your finished product will be water. Some people consider water to be so important in their brewing that they have routine water analysis done. You can get deeply involved in the hardness (dissolved minerals), bio-burden (amount of microorganisms) and chlorine content of your water. If such is of concern to you, have fun. I have found through trial and error that if your water tastes good to drink, it produces a fine mead.

Some brewers/vintners use only bottled water. Unfortunately most bottled water is just filtered tap water. This filtration does remove most suspended solids and chlorine. If your water tastes bad and you can get bottled water that tastes good, use the bottled water.

Chlorine
A good practice is to boil your water for ten minutes before brewing so as to drive off most of the residual chlorine found in your municipal water supply. Chlorine can retard or stop fermentation by killing off the yeast. Most municipalities use so little chlorine in their water that this is not a major concern.

Hard vs. Soft Water
In the brewing of some beverages (beer is the best example) the hardness of your brewing water can have a significant effect on the final product. With meads, however, the hardness of the water used will have little if any impact on the finished mead.

One notable exception is in the making of a braggot. A braggot is a cross between a mead and a beer. The hardness of your water can significantly affect the drink. We will cover this in the section on braggots.

Honey
Oh my! I could write thirty pages on this subject alone. There are so many different types of honey available that two very different meads can be made with the same recipe simply by using two different honeys. There are light clover, alfalfa and orange blossom honeys available, and dark honeys (especially some of the honeys from New Zealand) that look more like maple syrup. Mesquite honey is hard to find, but well worth the search. It will produce a very unique tasting mead. There are so many types of honey available to the modern mead maker that we won't be covering them in detail. In general, if you like the taste of the honey, you will like the taste of a mead made from it. I recently took a bronze medal at the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) National Homebrew Competition in the Traditional Mead catagory (Catagory 25)

The type of honey used is a matter of personal choice. Until you have had the opportunity to try meads made from different types of honey, I suggest that you use the less exotic (and less expensive) types of honey. This will also save you a great deal of money.

Once you have some experience, try replacing one or two pounds of the less expensive honey with some of the exotic honeys. Using a dark strong honey by itself will produce a very strong flavored and very expensive drink. Not a bad thing, just not a good place to start. Adding a small amount of one of the strong dark honeys to your less expensive lighter honey is a good compromise.

Purchase your honey in bulk, if possible. Check in the yellow pages under honey for a supplier. If that doesn't work, check at local health food stores (this can be expensive) or at a local "warehouse" store. Another good place to look is at your local farmer's market.

The larger the container, the lower the cost per pound of honey. Whenever possible, purchase filtered honey. Unfiltered honey will contain more wax and insect parts (well, it is a natural product). Some people advocate using unfiltered honey, thinking something essential is lost from the honey by the filtration process. This is not so. Filtering removes large items like clumps of wax and dead bees (the filter is a course screen). The only thing that you will loose by using filtered honey is aggravation.

Avoid using the table honeys available at your local grocery story, as these honeys tend to be rather bland.

For the novice mead maker I recommend using orange blossom or clover honey. These are nice medium amber colored, medium flavored honeys. Avoid using alfalfa honey, as it tends to be very light in color and flavor, and meads made from it will tend to be rather bland.

Note: in this work I sometimes refer to honey as sugar (which is what honey is mostly made of, after all). When I refer to sugar I am referring to honey, not cane sugar.

Yeast
DO NOT USE BREAD YEAST!
You might guess that I feel rather strongly about this point. The strains of yeasts used to make bread have been selected for that purpose. You can make good bread with bread yeast, but you will make lousy mead.

I've had a few people tell me that they have made wonderful meads using bread yeast. More power to them, but you won't find it in my meads. Bread yeast is usually available as a freeze dried powder. As with all freeze dried yeast, most of the yeast cells in the package are dead (making initial fermentation sluggish). Also, bread yeast doesn't settle out very well. The flavor that it adds to mead is, well, bread-like. It's also difficult to get consistent results using bread yeast in the production of meads.

Mead Yeast
Mead yeasts have been selected for the flavors they contribute to the mead, for their ability to settle out after fermentation so you get a clear mead, as well as for their ability to produce alcohol. Go to a local brewing supply shop and see if they stock mead yeast. If they don't they can usually order it. Mead yeast is your best choice in mead making.

You will generally find two types, sweet mead yeast and dry mead yeast. A sweet mead yeast is less alcohol tolerant. As the yeast converts the sugar in the honey to alcohol, the yeast will die off at around 5-8% alcohol (the alcohol poisons the yeast). If there is sugar left after the yeast is done, you will have a sweet mead. A dry mead can be produced with a sweet mead yeast by using less honey, so more (or all) of the sugar is converted to alcohol. This is the paint thinner mead I referred to earlier. A dry mead yeast is just what you suspect, a more alcohol tolerant yeast (10-15% alcohol before the yeast dies off from alcohol poisoning or lack of food). As a sweet mead yeast can produce a dry mead under the right conditions, a dry mead yeast can produce a sweet mead if you use lots of honey. Mind you, it will be a sweet mead with a lot of alcohol.

Note: When we discuss a dry mead yeast, we are referring to its alcohol tolerance, not to powdered yeast.

Wine Yeast
Wine yeast usually produces 12-18% alcohol and is the best choice if a mead-specific yeast isn't available. The flavor it adds is much the same as a mead yeast. In fact, many dry mead yeasts you will find are the same as most wine yeasts.

Ale Yeast
Your next best choice is ale yeast. Ale yeast is easier to find at a brewing supply shop than mead yeast. It doesn't add much to the flavor of the mead, and acts like a sweet mead yeast and will produce a drink with 5-8% alcohol.

Champagne Yeast
This yeast is highly alcohol tolerant. Under the right conditions it can ferment as high as 20% alcohol or higher. The flavor it adds to the mead is noticeable and delicious. If you hate the taste of champagne you should avoid this yeast, since some of champagne's characteristic flavors come from the yeast.

Viekra Mead Yeast
If you like high alcohol meads, this is the yeast for you. This mead specific yeast from Germany is hard to find. The manufacturer is:

USE Viekra
Friedrich Sauer
7302 Ostfildern 3 (Scharnhausen)
Germany

If you can find this yeast, be advised that it can ferment for a very, very long time. I have produced several meads with this yeast that were 25% alcohol (50 proof mead!). One batch of very strong mead that I made with this yeast (6 pounds of honey per gallon of water) fermented for a year and a half and became known as "The Mead That Would Not Die." It turned out quite wonderful. It just had to age for five years before it was drinkable.

How Yeast is Available
Yeast is available in three forms: powdered, as a liquid culture, and a powdered yeast packaged with a starter.

Powdered Yeast
This is the most available, least expensive, easiest to store and least desirable yeast for mead making. Whenever you use powdered yeast you should prepare a starter bottle (we will cover this in a moment). Adding powdered yeast without preparing a starter bottle will produce a slow initial fermentation. Powdered yeast should be stored in a cool dry place. I keep mine in the freezer (what little I use). Freezing powdered yeast is not a problem, as the yeast cells are buffered prior to the freeze drying process.

Liquid Culture
A liquid yeast culture is what powdered yeast is made from. The yeast is grown in the lab on a gelatin surface which contains nutrients. When the yeast is to be used, it's washed off the gelatin surface with sterile water or a nutrient broth. This culture must be stored refrigerated to keep it from spoiling. Once the culture is more than a few weeks old it will contain so few live yeast cells that it will be nearly useless. When you go to buy a liquid yeast culture, take a container of ice with you to put the test tube in. Keep it cold until you are ready to use it, and use it within 2 or 3 days. DO NOT FREEZE A LIQUID YEAST CULTURE AS THIS WILL KILL OFF MOST OF THE YEAST CELLS. Liquid yeast cultures are preferred over powdered cultures. The yeast cells tend to be much healthier than in a powdered culture, thereby giving you a faster initial fermentation.

Powdered Yeast Packaged with a Starter
The final type of yeast packaging is the one I use the most. A package of a powdered or liquid yeast culture is placed inside of a sealed package containing a sterile starter (usually made from barley malt). The small inner package is ruptured by placing the package on a hard surface and striking it. The package is then shaken and left out (un-refrigerated) for a day or two so that the yeast can multiply. The package will swell since the carbon dioxide produced by the fermenting yeast can't escape. The package should be used before it becomes over pressurized (boom!). Follow the instructions on the package for the best results.

Wyeast produces some of the better yeast cultures around, and they have a wide variety of yeast available. Check at your local brew shop. Click here to see a list of Wyeast cultures.

The single most important thing to keep in mind is to get the freshest yeast you can. Most brewing/vintning yeast out there will have a "best if used before" date on the package.

Starter Bottle
Why make a starter bottle of yeast? When the honey/water mixture (called must) has cooled below about 170 deg. F it is highly susceptible to becoming infected with wild yeast (those floating around in the air, on your skin, on the cat and so on) and/or wild bacteria. Wild yeast and bacteria can produce strange flavors in the finished mead. The best way to combat the wild yeast/bacteria problem is to make sure that everything that comes into contact with the must is sterile, and to pitch (add to the fermenter) a large quantity of the desired yeast. This way the yeast will become the dominate microorganism in the must, and will tend to overwhelm any wild yeast/bacteria that may have slipped past your efforts at cleanliness/sterilization.

When we use a liquid yeast culture, a starter bottle is not needed. A liquid culture will tend to contain a large volume of yeast. Packages of powdered yeast, on the other hand, tend to contain relatively little viable yeast. Therefore fermentations using powered yeast will tend to ferment slowly, giving wild yeast/bacteria a greater change to become plentiful in the must.

When we make a starter bottle using powered yeast, we are in effect making a liquid yeast culture.

How to Make a Starter Bottle
Boil 1/4 cup of powdered malt extract (brew shop again) in two pints of water for 5 minutes. Be careful, as it will try to boil over on you. Cover and remove from heat. Let cool to 70-80 deg. F and place in a clean, sterilized glass jar or jug. Add the powdered yeast and gently swirl it into the malt/water in the jug. Cover with a double thickness of paper towel and rubber band into place (or use a cork and airlock. We will discuss these in the section on equipment). Place in a warm place (70-85 deg. F) and let it sit for 12-24 hours before pitching. Use malt, not honey, in your starter bottle because you will get many more yeast cells with malt. Honey by itself does not have the needed nutrients for healthy yeast growth, malt does.

Cane sugar should not be used in mead making, as it adds a harsh cider flavor when fermented. It can, however, be used to make a starter bottle of yeast, as very little is used (1/4 cup in two pints of water).

Needless to say, it makes sense to prepare your starter bottle the day before mead making.

Short and Long Meads
A short mead (also referred to as a quick or small mead) is a mead with lower amounts of initial fermentable sugar (say from 1-3 lbs. honey/gallon) than a long mead. These meads tend to ferment to completion much faster than a long mead (a mead with over 3 lbs. of honey/gallon). Short meads can be fermented to completion in a few weeks, while a long mead will usually take two months or longer to finish.

Most of the recipes in this work are either long meads, or meads on the borderline between a short and long mead. To convert any of the recipes to a short mead, simply reduce the amount of honey used to the 1-3 lbs. honey/gallon range, and use a less alcohol tolerant yeast (or you will end up with paint thinner mead).



The Life Cycle of Yeast
(not as dull as it sounds)

Ya, right! Well, it may not be exciting, but as a mead maker you should be familiar with the life cycle of yeast. Otherwise, you won't know what's going on in that carboy.

Yeast is a single-cell microorganism (a fungus), that reproduces by budding. It will go through four distinct phases in its life cycle. They are:
  1. Respiration

  2. Fermentation

  3. Sedimentation

  4. Autolysis

Respiration
When the yeast is added to the must (pitched), it will take in what oxygen is available, some of the sugar that is available and will produce more yeast. During this stage, there is no appreciable amount of alcohol produced, just more yeast. For the yeast to reproduce in large quantities, oxygen is needed.

When the hot must is poured into the carboy, there will be very little dissolved oxygen in it. Be careful NOT to aerate the must when it is hot, as this tends to make the finished mead unstable (this is called hot side aeration, by the way).

When you use the shaker method, you will put much of the oxygen that is in the head space of the carboy (the space above the liquid level) into suspension after the must has cooled (this is why we let the mead sit for a day after pitching the yeast before we start shaking it, to let it cool), thereby giving the yeast plenty of oxygen to work with.

This stage usually lasts a few hours.

Fermentation
During this stage the yeast will produce more yeast as in respiration, but the yeast will also begin taking in food (sugar) and putting off alcohol. This stage can take from several days to several years.

The variables that most affect the length of a fermentation are:

  • Temperature
    The higher the temperature, the faster the fermentation. Up to a point that is. Most mead yeasts work best in the 55-75 deg. F range. At higher temperatures they WILL ferment faster, but they may also produce some nasty flavors. Above 120 deg. F most yeasts die (but who ferments in the oven anyway?). The fermentation temperature range I shoot for with most of my meads is 65-70 deg. F.

    If your fermenter will be in an area where there are significant temperature variations (10-15 deg. F changes), move it to somewhere more stable, or place it in a container filled with water. Or wrap it in a spare sleeping bag. Any one of these techniques will tend to even out temperature changes.

  • pH
    Very high acidity can slow fermentation. The next time you make up some mead, check the pH of the must. You will be surprised.

    Some recipes call for the use of acid blend to acidify the must. With honey sitting at a pH of 4.5 - 5.0 this is unnecessary. Boy is it unnecessary.

  • Nutrients
    Honey does not contain many nutrients. If you don't add some, you can expect a very slow fermentation. Adding small amounts of yeast nutrient and yeast energizer will provide the yeast with everything needed to ferment quickly.

    Note: If you are making a Braggot, you don't need to add any nutrient or energizer, as the malted barley will provide everything needed for good yeast growth and fermentation.

  • Amount of fermentable sugars
    If there is no sugar, you get no alcohol (sorry to state the obvious). If you have excessive amounts of sugar, say over six pounds of honey per gallon, fermentation can actually be slowed.

  • Alcohol tolerance of the yeast
    The more tolerant, the longer the fermentation.

  • Amount of oxygen originally dissolved in the must
    The more there is the faster it will ferment, as more yeast will have been produced during respiration.

  • Type of yeast used (powdered, liquid culture)
    Liquid cultures tend to start off faster they powered ones. Also, the more yeast you pitch, the faster the fermentation.


Sedimentation
When the yeast starts to run out of food (sugar) it will begin to settle to the bottom of the carboy. Some yeasts tend to stay in suspension more than others and have to be coaxed out of suspension with clarifying agents (more on clarifying agents later). Sedimentation can take from several weeks to several months.

Autolysis
Once the sugar supply is gone, the yeast will begin to digest each other. Autolysis tends to produce a significant yeasty flavor in the mead. In general, it is best to get the mead off of the yeast sediment (also call lees) within a month or two. Once visible signs of fermentation stops, and a significant amount of yeast has settled (1/2" or more), rack the mead into a clean sterile carboy, leaving the sediment behind. Once more yeast has settled out, rack it again. Continue doing this until the mead is clear (this will usually take 2-4 rackings). To get a truly clear mead, you will have to sacrifice some of it. When you rack the mead, don't try to get every last drop. If you do, you will most likely get some of the sediment.

If you are making a sparkling mead, the small amount of yeast sediment in the bottles is not a problem.



Brewing/Vintning Techniques
In case you are wondering, brewing is the art of making beer and vintning is the art of making wine. You will find mead recipes in both beer and wine making books.

To be accurate, a mead maker is called a Mazer, and making mead is called mazing. However, most authorities on the subject refer to the process of making a mead as brewing. This is the convention used in this work.

Most people consider mead to be a wine, but in the strictest sense it is not. Wine is made from grape juice (some say from any fruit juice), and honey is not any type of fruit juice when last I checked. Nor is it a beer, since beer is made from malted barley (and/or other grains), hops, water and yeast.

Mead is in a class by itself. It's not a beer, it's not a wine. It's mead. But many of the techniques used to make beer and wine are the same as those used in mead making.

Keep it Sterile, Stupid
All equipment used in the production of mead should be clean and sterile. While you can not keep the equipment used in a kitchen truly "sterile" let's use the term anyway.

Why, you ask, is sterility so important. Good question. Wild (naturally occurring) yeast and bacteria are on your skin, your kitchen counters, inside your nice clean looking glass carboy. In short, they are everywhere we don't want them to be. If the wild yeast survives and makes it into the fermenter with your must (the honey/water/herbs/spices solution is called must), it will convert the sugars in the honey to alcohol, rather than the yeast we have chosen doing the job. While some wild yeast can make a great mead (after all, this is where mead yeast came from) most wild yeast will introduce flavors that we don't want.

Wild bacteria are not much of a concern to mead makers (though they can spoil a beer very, very fast). Wild bacteria is usually only a concern to a mead maker when making a beer mead cross (a braggot). The techniques listed here for dealing with wild yeast will also get rid of wild bacteria.

The items that you need to be concerned with are the ones that come into contact with the must after it has cooled from a simmer. When it's simmering, nothing harmful will grow in it. There aren't many microorganisms that can survive at such a temperature, and none of them are present in honey or a municipal water supply. Your carboy, funnel, spoon and any other equipment (which we will cover in the equipment section) should be clean and sterile.

Sterilizing/Sanitizing Agents

Chlorine Bleach
1/8 cup of unscented household chlorine bleach per gallon of water is one of the cheapest and most effective sterilizing agents available.

Don't use non-chlorine bleach (usually a weak solution of hydrogen-peroxide). It may be great to keep your colors colorful and your whites white, but it's lousy for sterilizing.

When you're filling your carboy and whatever you are going to soak your spoon and funnel in (the kitchen sink is the obvious choice) you should aerate the bleach water by using a sprayer. If you get a strong chlorine smell, then the bleach is doing its job. Let the items your are sterilizing soak for at least 20 minutes. When you are ready to use the equipment, shake off most of the chlorine/water. Rinsing is not necessary (really). Needless to say, you will need to pour the bleach water out of the carboy before you fill it with the must.

Do not soak items made from stainless steal in a chlorine/water solution for more than a few hours. Long exposure to chlorine will pit stainless steal.

Sodium or Potassium Metabisulfite (Campdem Tablets)
When crushed and added to a acid solution campdem tablets release sulfur dioxide gas. Campdem tablets must be used in large quantities before they will sterilize. At lower concentrations they only inhibits bacterial growth. Since campdem tablets are less effective and more expensive than bleach, I don't recommending their use.

Iodine
A very effective sterilizing agent. Most useful in sterilizing stainless steal (such as stainless soda and beer kegs), as iodine will not pit stainless steal the way chlorine does.

Sodium Carbonate
Also known as washing soda, sodium carbonate is an alkaline sanitizing agent. It works very well, but is harder to handle than the other sterilizing/sanitizing agents listed here.

One-Step
A commercially available powered no-rinse cleanser for brewing equipment which contains percarbonates. Very easy to use. Also, a solution of One-Step and water is a very effective de-labeling solution.

To Boil or Not to Boil?
This is a controversy in the mead making world (yes, we do have a few controversies). The water from your tap and the honey you use contain many microorganisms. Wild yeasts, bacteria and even some viruses are common in honey. They are not a health concern when eating raw honey, but when you ferment the stuff, you want the brewing yeast you are using to be the one to convert the sugar in the honey to alcohol. Some of the wild yeast present in honey can cause some nasty flavors if they are allowed to do the fermentation. So we have to eliminate them before we add our own yeast.

The simplest way to kill the bad yeast and bacteria is to boil the must. Some mead makers feel that boiling the must drives off some of the most delicate honey aromas.

Here is what I do. Boil the brewing water for about 10 minutes, this drives off any residual chlorine that may be present. Take the water off the heat and add your honey. If you add the honey while the pot is on the burner, the honey may caramelized when it settles to the bottom of the pot. Mix the honey in thoroughly with a spoon. Return the brew pot to the heat and bring the must to a very light simmer. After it simmers for a while a white to tan colored foam will form on the surface. This is coagulated albumin from the honey. Skim it off. Continue until no more foam is formed. If the foam is dark tan or brown, turn the heat down immediately. This albumin will make the mead cloudy if it's not removed. Watch the must at all times, as it has a low boiling point and can boil over in a flash. When this stuff hits a hot burner or stove top, it makes a mess that gives super glue a run for its money.

This is the basic method used to make all meads.

The Shaker Method of Yeast Propagation
Or, how to get a mead done in less than a year without making a pact with the Devil.

When making mead, pitch a large quantity of yeast. Add yeast energizer and yeast nutrient to your carboy full of must in the amounts listed on the packages (we'll cover yeast energizer and nutrient in detail in the section on additives). The next day, shake the carboy hard for five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening. Repeat this shaking every day till you start to get outgassing from the mead (gas escaping from the airlock). At this point STOP shaking the mead. If you don't, you will end up with a mead flavored ceiling. This shaking method is used in mycology labs to grow production quantities of yeasts.

Why does this shaking shorten fermentation time? Two reasons. One: shaking the mead will put some of the oxygen in the head space (the air trapped in the carboy above the liquid level) into the mead. Two: agitating the yeast by shaking will cause the yeast to bud more yeast cells. The more yeast you have in the fermenter, the quicker the fermentation will be completed.

With the shaker method, you can shorten initial fermentation (also called primary fermentation) time. Without the shaker method the initial fermentation can take two or even three times as long. The shaker method does not affect the flavor of the mead at all. I have done several side by side comparisons, some meads with energizer and/or nutrient, some without, some with shaking, some without, and combinations of all of these. No change in flavor or aroma was found.

Feeding a Mead
If you would like to produce a high alcohol mead (15% or higher), here's what to do. Use a alcohol tolerant yeast (dry mead (not powdered), champagne or Viekra mead yeast), then add the honey in stages. This is called feeding.

After fermentation is well under way (a few weeks), simmer some more honey/water as you normally do (simmering and skimming the scum off), then add this to the fermenter. I feed my meads with 3-5 lbs. of honey simmered in 1/2 gallon of water. You don't need to cool the must you are adding, as you are adding a relatively small volume of hot liquid to a larger volume of cool liquid. Also, the added heat when you add the hot feeding must to the carboy will help get the yeast fermenting again.

You can continue adding more honey this way until the fermenter is full (I use 7.5 gallon carboys for 5 gallon batches), and/or you achieve the desired alcohol/sweetness level you are looking for.

Using this method, you can get a higher alcohol content than you could if you add all of the honey at the beginning. There is one problem with feeding a mead, it makes figuring out the alcohol content more difficult.

Adjusting the Sweetness
If you are feeding a mead to increase the sweetness of the finished product do this: Taste the mead at the second racking - your first racking will usually kick off fermentation again, so feeding it then may not give you the residual sweetness you expect. If it's too dry (not enough residual sweetness) feed the mead as described above.

Racking
When fermentation has not taken place for about two weeks (no gas blipping out of the airlock), and some sedimentation of the yeast has occurred (say 1/2" or more) you should transfer the mead to a clean sterile carboy. This is called racking.

We rack the mead for several reasons:

  1. To get the mead off the yeast sediment. If the mead sits for prolonged periods of time on the sediment (more than a month) some yeasty flavors will be imparted to the mead.

  2. Racking imparts a small amount of oxygen into the mead. While adding too much oxygen to the mead once fermentation is substantially complete can cause the mead to become unstable once bottled, the addition of a small amount of oxygen while racking the mead is desirable. If the yeast has not reached its alcohol tolerance and there is still sugar present to ferment, the addition of this small amount of oxygen will spur additional fermentation. This will help insure that fermentation is truly complete before we bottle the mead.

  3. To get the mead off of the fruit placed in the fermenter when making a melomel. More on this in the section on melomels.

Note: if you are planning to bottle your mead sparkling, ignore reason 2. When bottling a sparkling mead, some fermentation must still be taking place when the mead is bottled to provide the carbonation. See the section on bottling for more information.

I use a racking cane and 5 feet of clear food grade plastic tubing to rack my meads (see the equipment section for more information). You can use a piece of clear plastic tubing by itself for racking. However, you will tend to get more of the yeast sediment into the new carboy if you use tubing without a racking cane.

Technique
Place the "from" carboy (the one with the mead and sediment in it) on a counter. Let it sit for one or two days to insure the sediment has settled from your moving the mead to the counter.

Place a clean sterile carboy of the same size as the "from" carboy on the floor.

Sterilize your clean racking cane with attached tubing. Flush it out with clean water. Fill the tubing/racking cane with clean water. Hold a clean finger over the end of the tubing that is going into the new carboy (this will keep the water from running out of the tubing/racking cane). Remove the airlock from the "from" carboy (if you don't have three arms, it's a good idea to have some help at this stage). Slowly insert the racking cane into the "from" carboy until the end of the racking cane is 1" above the sediment. Insert the other end of the tubing into the new carboy and remove your finger (diagram 1). Since the tubing was filled with water, you don't have to suck on it to get the siphon started.

When the liquid level in the "from" carboy is about 2" above the sediment, slowly tilt the "from" carboy (diagram 2). This allows you to rack more of the mead. Tilt the carboy very slowly so you don't disturb the sediment. Don't worry if a small amount of the sediment gets into the new carboy.

Once you are done racking the mead, remove the tubing from the new carboy and place a clean sterile cork and airlock on the new carboy. You should clean the "from" carboy immediately. If the sediment is allowed to dry it starts to resemble concrete.

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