Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Making Mead - Part Three

Picking up where we left off in part two, we’ve now got two meads that are starting to ferment. Up to this point, all we’ve done is mix ingredients together. Of course, every meadmaker’s process is going to differ in some way. Some meadmakers heat their mead must on the stove, some even to the point of boiling (not to be confused with burnt mead, which is mead that is slowly boiled for several hours to develop complex caramelization). These posts are just one way to approach making mead; certainly, if you make your own, you’ll find your own approach. One thing is certain, however – a healthy fermentation is key, and there are some things you can do to promote one.

Managing your Fermentation
The first few days of fermentation are crucial to making quality mead. During this time, the yeast need a nutrient-rich and yeast-friendly environment to properly and fully ferment the sugars without creating problematic off-flavors and fusel alcohols. A lot of people will say that you have to age mead a few years before it’s even drinkable, but that’s likely because the fermentation didn’t go as well as it could have. Of course, mead does typically age extremely well, and tends to improve over time, but a fresh young mead is certainly drinkable if you make it right.

Specifically, you need to manage the following:
- Fermentation temperature (keep it in the 68-72 range)
- The pH of your must (keep it above 3.2, ideally around 3.4 - 3.6)
- Adequate FAN, vitamins, and minerals

You can check your pH levels with pH strips or a pH meter. If you have pH strips for beer, you’ll need to buy ones that are specifically intended for wine, as the pH range will go lower than the beer strips register. They should go under 3.0. We have a pH meter that we use for both mead and beer, and I love the thing. It’s kind of a pain in the ass to calibrate every time (mostly because I'm impatient), but it’s a lot more accurate and reassuring than pH strips.

If you need to increase your pH, which is often the case because honey is moderately acidic, you can add Calcium Carbonate (CaCo3) or Potassium Hydroxide (KOH). We use KOH because it does not leave behind carbonate, which can leave behind a chalky, salty taste. We create a 2M KOH solution at home (I bought our KOH at Essential Depot) and add the solution in 10ml increments to our 5 gallon batches. Pick up an infant syringe at a pharmacy to easily measure out 10ml (it’s also a great tool for measuring out Star San or Iodophor – 6ml per gallon of water for a properly-diluted sanitizing solution). Wear gloves when you mix & measure this, as it will actually break down the lipids in your skin. Ew.

Degassing Mead
You’ll also need more DAP and Fermaid-K during fermentation, and will add these to the fermenting mead along with your pH adjustments. I learned the hard way, though, that adding these dry powders provides thousands of nucleation sites when added to the mead, causing the well-known mead volcano. You could do a 5-gallon batch in a 20-gallon bucket so that the foam doesn’t spill over the top. Or, you could degas your mead.

You, too, can have your own homemade volcano
Degassing basically removes CO2 from solution through rapid agitation of the must. Guess what we use – yep, the handy dandy lees stirrer. Some people use a whisk, others use brewing spoons, but I’m not that interested in getting a workout when I do my nutrient additions, so I use the lazy method. Sanitize the lees stirrer and the neck of your carboy and whirr away. I usually whisk for about 5-8 minutes and sometimes have to stop to avoid a mead volcano. A lot of CO2 is removed in this process and will allow you to safely add your nutrients without making a mess. Amateur video ahead... 

There’s another upside to degassing, though, and that is to lessen strain on the yeast. I’ve read that you need to degas your must because CO2 levels can become toxic to your yeast, but I’ve also read that it’s nearly impossible to get enough CO2 to a level of actual yeast toxicity. What it will do is help keep your fermentation chugging along, and remove CO2 early on so that you get a still mead more quickly than just letting it sit/age for months. 

We use the Curt Stock fermentation schedule, which requires 8 days of fermentation care as follows:
Day 0: make the mead, adding 4.5g Fermaid-K and 2g DAP.
Days 1, 3, 5, 7, and 8: Degas only
Days 2, 4, and 6: Degas, then add 4.5g Fermaid K, 2g DAP, and 10ml KOH

That's it. More involved than most beer, but still extremely easy.

Next up, post-fermentation!

Reference - 
part one
part two

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