Beyond the basics of creating the various mead styles, there are additional process controls that mead makers might employ. This section explores these advanced (and generally optional) topics, including oaking, adjustment, stabilization, clarifying, aging, and blending. To develop a good understanding of the various techniques, processes, products and methods, we discuss how they are used, the pros and cons of using alternatives, and how they affect the final product.
Oak aging can be applied to any mead style. Oak additions do not have to be specified (but may be at the entrant’s discretion); oaking is acceptable in every mead style. Excessive oaking is a fault, just as in wine; any use of oak should be balanced and complimentary. The declared use of oak should not be interpreted as requiring the oak to be a primary flavor. Pyments (particularly red pyments) can have a more prominent oak character if the grape variety is commonly handled in a similar way when making wine.
What makes oak desirable in mead?
Exposing mead to oak imparts structure, complexity, additional sensory elements and of course new and exciting flavors. While oak adds many different elements to mead and wine (more than 70 volatile aroma and flavor compounds), many of the recognizable characteristics are identified with vanilla, spice, sweet, spicy and woody. Breaking it down a bit, we can group oak into its basic aroma and flavor composition.
Cis-oak lactones and trans-oak lactones are characters imparted by the untoasted oak (yes, even though the wood is toasted on the surface, there is still the soft white-oak underbelly lurking below). Trans-oak lactones impart a woody, earthy, almost chocolaty aroma and some flavor character, while the more intense cis-oak lactones impart more of a coconut floral aroma and some small taste. If you’ve ever chopped down an oak tree, you’ll recognize these aromas very distinctly.
Furfural and 5-methylfurfural contribute wood sugars and in turn body. As the oak is seasoned (exposed to air), those natural polymers begin to break down into simple sugars. When oak is exposed to higher temperatures (about 300 °F) during the process of toasting, more simple sugars are formed. As these sugars caramelize, butterscotch and mocha-like aromas emerge. Smoky, toasty characters develop as the oak passes 420 °F.
As lignin (a complex organic molecule that binds wood fibers together) is degraded by heat, it releases vanillins which are a group of mead and wine complementary chemical compounds. Vanillin (yup, that’s the nice vanilla-like flavor) is predominantly released during the oak lignin breakdown. During the seasoning process, lignin is broken down by the sun, rain and various microflora. The process of breaking down the lignins is also sped up by the heat applied during the barrel toasting process. In the wine industry, there has been extensive research devoted to the scientific analysis of this process in order to impart more and richer flavors.
Eugenol and isoeugenol are related to both raw oak (eugenol) and the degradation of lignin by heat (isoeugenol). Reduction of lignins by heat leads to spicy flavors apparent in the aroma and flavor. Once toasted, the isoeugenol imparts a clove flavor and aroma.
Guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol impart a smoky, charred character as part of the process of the pyrolysis of the lignins in the oak. As the oak is more toasted, the smokier and more charred the flavor becomes.
Cellulose and hemicellulose are natural polymers that comprise about half the total solids in white oak. Cellulose provides the structural integrity in wood, and participates only minimally in the actual influence on the character of wine or mead during barrel aging. That’s a good thing because you don’t want your chips, cubes, staves, etc. to fall apart and dissolve into your mead. Hemicellulose contributes significant vanillin during the breakdown of lignin. As wood is heated, the action on the hemicellulose forms wood sugars that contribute sweetness and caramelized flavors. As the heat rises and persists, toasted flavors are released.
Tannins comprise about 1% of American oak and 8% of French oak. Tannins are also a key player in the aging process. Tannins are found in the radial rays of oak trees and are governed by seasoning, stave shaping, toasting times and temperatures (tannins are heat sensitive and undergo cellular lysis when exposed to water).
What kinds of oak can I use in my mead?
There are several species and sub-species of oak that are used in cooperage, but there are four species that are widely used for oak aging: American white oak (Quercus alba), and three European species (Q. robur, Q. peetraea and Q. sessilis – the latter being arguably the most sought-after for oak aging and cooperage).
For the home mead and winemakers, there are generally three types of oak available: American, French and Hungarian. Because barrels are expensive and the footprint for storage is considerable, most home mead makers use oak chips, cubes, dominoes, and staves.
American oak infuses more quickly and imparts more vanilla, woody, sugary and toasty character than its European cousins. It is used mainly in red wines but is growing in popularity with mead makers because it tends to be less expensive, is widely available, and can be found in a wider range of toast levels. American oak is harvested from several locations including Missouri, Minnesota, Oregon, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Hungarian oak (from oak trees in Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Lithuania, Russia, Romania, and Ukraine) is more expensive than American oak but less expensive than French oak. It imparts its flavor slower than American or French oak, and is less intense because the trees grow slower and are smaller, creating a fine grain which in turn lends itself to very subtle extraction. The hemicellulose in Hungarian oak breaks down more easily and imparts a unique array of toasted, vanilla, spicy, woody, sugary and caramel-like flavors.
French oak is most expensive and sports the highest tannin level of the common oak varieties. It is more porous, so it presents more types of extracted characters for mead and wine including those from caryophyllene (sweet, woody, spice, clove, and dry flavors) and copaene (dry and spicy flavors). French oak is highly prized for barrels and aging because of the complexity and variety of character that it adds to wine. It extracts more quickly than most other oak types, and can quickly overpower mead if not monitored closely. French oak is found in several forests including Nevers, Troncais, Limosin, Allier, Centre, Vosges, Bertrange, and Jupilles located mostly in central and eastern France.
Oak products come in a range of toast levels and generally can be found in American, French and Hungarian varieties. The toast levels generally include light toast, medium toast, medium plus toast, and heavy toast. There are other variations offered by different manufacturers, but those four are the most commonly available ones. The toast levels can be described as:
Light toast adds a light coconut (American) or vanilla (French) character. Might be appropriate in dry meads where a light oak character is needed, along with a little sweetness.
Medium toast adds more bouquet than tannin, so will impart more aroma than flavor. It has a warm, sweet character with strong vanilla overtones. It might be used for traditional meads and light melomels.
Medium plus toast adds honey, roasted nuts, and light coffee flavors. It is a popular toast level for red wine, so might be used in red pyments, bold melomels, and braggots.
Heavy toast adds highly caramelized, carbonized and toast flavors quickly; be careful about the contact time. It’s most often used in big, bold red wines and doesn’t have much use in mead.
Layering oak additions in phase is a common practice in both wine and mead production. You can use different toast levels for additional complexity. Be careful about adding so many different flavors that the resulting product has clashing flavors or tastes muddy.
So how do I get the wood into the mead?
Oak comes in a variety of shapes and sizes for many different fermentation, aging and storage vessels, but chips and cubes are the easiest to find. Some other oak forms include strips, spirals, stave segments, powder and oak essence. Powder is often included in wine kits, and is essentially sawdust. Essence is a liquid extract and can be very harsh. Neither are recommended.
The different oak products might not be available in all varieties and toast levels. Chips and cubes tend to have the most variants available for sale, and are commonly used. Spirals and strips are easier to work with, and are newer products. Of course, traditional barrels (new or used) can always be used.
The key factors in imparting oak character to mead (other than selecting different varieties and toast levels) are the surface area of the oak in contact with the mead and the total contact time. Smaller oak products (chips, powder) saturate rapidly and the wood effect is imparted quickly; however, it can be somewhat one-dimensional. Cubes, staves, spirals and strips will not saturate and can add character more slowly, and can add a more complex character.
Oak can be added during fermentation or afterwards. Most add it afterwards so that the alcohol has an antimicrobial effect on the wood. Some steam or boil wood before using, but that can leech out oak character, flavor and tannin. Winemakers might rinse oak in a sulfite solution. Oak can add particulates to your mead, so you may need to repeat any clarification processes after the oak has been added.
Once added, oak cannot be removed. It may mellow over time, but that is not guaranteed. It’s always better to add a little oak and then repeat the process, then to make a strong addition and hope it balances.
What else does oak do to mead?
Depending on the variety and toast level, oak can add noticeable flavor and aroma character, most typically oaky, woody, toasty and vanilla flavors. More strongly toasted oak will add more toasty, caramelized and charred character.
Oak can add color to mead. The higher the toast level and the longer the contact time, the more color will be added – usually with amber tones. The color addition might be less noticeable in more deeply colored base meads.
Oak can add tannins, which contribute a fuller mouthfeel and drier finish. Tannins can make a mead seem drier than it is, and can balance sweetness just as acidity can. In higher levels, tannins can cause astringency. Tannins add structure to the mead, and can help a mead store longer. Red wines with higher tannin levels age gracefully, yet may take several years before they peak. A similar impact may be seen with mead. Tannins soften over time.
Most mead recipes describe the basic ingredients and process involved in making a mead, but that isn’t always the full story. Experienced mead makers know that mead will often have to be adjusted to achieve a pleasant final balance, whether it is adding sweetness, acidity, tannin, or other components. These adjustments are usually done to personal taste, rather than relying on analytical tools.
Most adjustments to mead are done after fermentation is complete, when the results of the adjustment can be readily determined by taste. Adding acids prior to fermentation can have a negative impact on fermentation. The pH can be adjusted upwards and buffered prior to fermentation by using potassium carbonate or potassium hydroxide, but this is to make the fermentation healthier, not to affect the finished profile of the mead. Likewise, increasing the amount of honey fermented is part of the recipe formulation and not an adjustment.
Refer to the chapter on Balance in Mead for necessary background for this discussion. Within this section, we are discussing balancing properly fermented mead. If the mead has a stuck fermentation or other fermentation fault, refer to the chapter on Troubleshooting for help. As fermentation is finishing, checking the final gravity and calculating the alcohol level will help determine if a fermentation problem exists.
If the fermentation has finished (not stuck) but the alcohol seems low, more honey can be added to extend the fermentation. The yeast may need to be roused, but avoid introducing oxygen at this stage. An alternative (and somewhat unorthodox) approach to increasing the alcohol would be to ice it. Slowly freeze the mead around 25-28 °F until about 10-20% of the volume is frozen, then remove the ice. The frozen ice will be water, which concentrates the remaining alcohol. This approach can also concentrate flavors (and off-flavors), so only use this on a cleanly fermented mead. When removing the ice, take care to avoid oxidizing the mead.
Sweetness is the most common element to adjust, since most meads will ferment dry but most people prefer to drink sweeter meads. Consider stabilizing the mead first (read section on Stabilization), unless yeast have been removed, the mead has an alcohol content at the limit of the yeast’s alcohol tolerance, or the mead will be stored cold (well below the fermentation temperature range of the yeast).
Sweetness is typically increased by back-sweetening the mead. This can be done with any sugar solution, but using the same type of honey as used in the mead is the preferred option since it will reinforce the varietal honey character. The honey can be added to the base mead in its raw form, it can be dissolved in solution and then mixed in, or an intentionally sweet mead can be blended with the base mead.
The hard part about using raw honey directly in the base mead is that it is difficult to get it fully incorporated. Stirring aggressively could oxidize the mead, so it may work better to draw off a portion of the mead and incorporate the honey into that portion then blend the solution back into the base mead. Heating the raw honey before combining it with the mead may help, although the full solution may need to be heated. Just keep in mind that ethanol boils at 173 °F, so keep the temperature low and stir frequently.
Blending the raw honey with water can help incorporate it into solution. Keep the temperature low to preserve the honey aromatics, and stir (not whisk) to combine. Avoid incorporating oxygen as you don’t want to carry it over into the base mead. The only downside to this approach is that the water will be diluting the base mead slightly.
Be careful about over-sweetening, since adding a large amount of unfermented honey can give a raw, unfinished flavor to the resulting mead. Raw honey also tends to add more haze to the mead, which may need to be removed later through clarification techniques.
Some prefer to keep overly sweet meads around for blending. The advantage to this approach is that the honey will have a fermented (not raw) flavor, that the base mead won’t be diluted as much, that no heat is involved, and that combining the two meads is much easier. Of course, this requires that a suitable sweet mead be available and not introduce any undesirable varietal character of its own.
If a mead is too sweet, consider pitching a yeast strain with a higher alcohol tolerance and seeing if it can be dried out. Look at the section on Troubleshooting Stuck Fermentations for guidance on the process. Mead that is too sweet can be balanced by adding acids and tannin, or by force carbonating it. Adding carbonation will create carbonic acid which can balance the mead. Acids and tannins balance sweetness, although if the sweetness level is very high then the resulting mead may seem too intense. Keep in mind the scenario described above; an overly sweet mead may have additional life as a component in blending.
Once the sweetness level is correct, adjust acidity and tannin. These components add structure to the mead, enhancing complexity. Mead that is sweet but lacks balancing acidity is said to be flabby. Flabby mead is not the same as a stuck fermentation; it could be appropriately fermented, but just lacking in balancing acidity.
If a melomel was made, adding additional fruit might be desired to give a greater fruit intensity or a more layered flavor. Adding raw fruit should only be done after considering stabilization, since additional fermentables are being incorporated. Fruit often add acidity and tannin of their own, so don’t adjust the acidity and tannin of the mead before adding the fruit. Get the fruit balance right first, then return to the acidity and tannin.
Similarly, if a metheglin was made, the spice balance might need to be increased. Typically, this is done by either adding spices to the mead and letting them sit for several days or weeks, or by making a tea of the spices and blending. The blending approach gives more immediate results, although there can be a slight dilution by adding water. Note that some spices can add tannins, so the spice adjustment should be made before the final acid/tannin balance is set.
The use of acids such as citric, malic, tartaric, or a combination of the three (typically called acid blend) can be used to adjust the final acidity, as can lemon juice or other naturally acidic flavorings (but these can add additional flavors that might not be wanted). To use acid blend (the most typical approach), dissolve ½ tsp of acid blend in ¼ cup water and blend to taste.
Performing a test blending using a smaller sample is recommended, so the general scaling can be estimated. But the final adjustment must be done to taste. Enough acidity should be present to give the mead a bright flavor without seeming acidic. The acidity should support the sweetness.
If you judge the acidity level to be high enough but the sweetness still seems unsupported, then try adding some tannin. The two typical sources of tannin for mead are grape tannin and strong brewed tea. While tannin is frequently used at the start of fermentation, it also can be added at the end. Make a solution of grape tannin and water (similar to what was done with acid blend); don’t use more than ¼ to ½ tsp per gallon. Tea is blended in to taste, but you don’t want to carry over flavor. Grape tannin is easier to work with and has less issues, although it may not be fully soluble. It will tend to settle out (particularly if it binds with proteins), so another racking may be
required. Using oak-aging is another method for introducing tannin, although it usually adds flavor as well (see the section on Oaking for more details).
If there is too much acidity, then sweetness can be added in the same manner of backsweetening. If the sweetness level is high enough, then the acidity can be lowered using additives such as calcium carbonate, potassium carbonate or potassium hydroxide. Malo-lactic fermentation (MLF) could also be attempted to raise the pH. MLF can convert the harder-tasting malic acid to the softer lactic acid, which is more pleasant to the taste. This is difficult to do, and not all fruit have malic acid (apples, currants, blackberries and raspberries do). A MLF will raise the pH of the mead, but will continue until all malic acid is converted. It is possible to overshoot the pH and make the mead seem less bright tasting. MLF should be avoided if the mead has been stabilized since it can react with sorbate to produce a geranium-like off-flavor.
When all adjustments are made, evaluate the finished mead for clarity. You may need to repeat the clarification process if some of the adjustments introduced haze. Allowing additional time could solve that problem, and would also allow the adjustments time to properly meld flavors. The adjustment process can be repeated several times until you are satisfied. However, be careful about making too many adjustments as the mead can easily be ruined just as adding too many spices to a meal can ruin dinner.
Finally, if you are unsure about what adjustments to make, take a measured sample of your mead and experiment with it. Apply measured adjustments and see if you like the improvement. When you have something you like, scale it up for the full batch. This way, you don’t ruin a full batch of mead while tweaking the final balance.
Stabilization means attempting to keep the character and composition of a mead stable over time. Mead can primarily change through continued fermentation (whether through the primary yeast strain or through other micro-organisms). Age-related changes are normal and are covered in a separate discussion under Aging. Obviously keeping oxygen out of contact with the mead will enhance stability. Haze-causing particles may contribute to a lack of stability and shelf-life, but these are typically removed during normal clarification processes (see the section on Clarifying for a more detailed discussion).
It is important to note that microflora may be present and capable of activity beyond the point at which the yeast cease fermentation. In musts that may finish with considerable residual sugar, with low alcohol levels (below 10 percent), with high pH (above 3.9), or with any combination of the three, it is critically important that the amounts of nutrients used do not exceed that which will be consumed by the yeast during growth and fermentation. Excess nutrient at that point will simply serve to nourish organisms that may harm your mead.
Reliable methods of stabilization all start with ensuring fermentation has completed. As was discussed in the Fermentation section of Process Options, the best way to stop fermentation is to let it finish naturally. Removing yeast or inhibiting yeast from restarting fermentation will then stabilize the mead. Once stabilized, the mead can be sweetened to the desired level without restarting fermentation.
Some choose to let time and multiple rackings, possibly assisted by clarifying agents (particularly those positively-charged ones that will precipitate yeast). This can work, although it takes quite some time, causes volume loss with each racking, and isn’t guaranteed to work every time (some yeast can always remain and restart fermentation if sugar is added).
Filtration will remove yeast, but can also remove color and flavor components. Most yeast can be removed with a 3 μm (micron) filter, with total yeast removal at 0.8 to 1.2 microns. Spoilage bacteria can be removed with a .45 micron filter. All bacteria can be removed with a .2 micron filter, and is considered true sterile filtration. However, the tighter the filtration, the more color and flavor can be removed from the mead.
Flash pasteurization is a “high temperature, short time” method of heat pasteurization for perishable beverages. The liquid is moved in a controlled, continuous flow where it is subjected to 160-165 °F temperatures for 15-30 seconds, then rapidly cooled. Most home mead makers do not possess the carefully controlled heat exchangers necessary to perform this process. Attempting to pasteurize finished mead can result in loss of color, flavor, aroma, and possibly alcohol. Cooked flavors can also result. With current technology, this process is best left to commercial operations.
The most common method of stabilization for meadmakers (other than the “do nothing” option) is to use a combination of potassium metabisulfite and potassium sorbate. These preservatives stun any remaining yeast and prevent them from reproducing. They will still be present, but will be unable to restart fermentation. Drawbacks from this approach is that some people are allergic to sulfites, and that a geranium odor can be created if a malo-lactic fermentation subsequently occurs.
The do nothing alternative relies on taking steps to cause yeast to precipitate (time, finings, rackings), followed by cold storage and (possibly) rapid consumption. Higher-gravity meads that are closer to the alcohol tolerance of the primary yeast strain are less likely to restart fermentation, as are meads with a lower pH level. Obviously, meads that are fermented dry are unlikely to continue to ferment, but many prefer the taste of sweeter meads.
Clarifying agents work to remove haze from mead. Haze can be the result of suspended yeast, particles of protein, pectin haze, starch haze, polyphenols (tannins) in the mead, or perhaps a metallic contamination. Proteins are positively charged, while yeast are negatively charged. Clarifiers bind electrostatically to the proteins and other compounds and precipitate them out. Because they each work differently, no one fining agent can remove every possible cause of haze. In most cases, one agent on its own will provide satisfactory results. For difficult musts, the
most effective approach is to use positively charged and a negatively charged clarifying agent successively. Super-Kleer has both positively and negatively charged components, or a combination of bentonite (negatively charged) and sparkolloid (positively charged) can be used.
Most meads that have finished fermenting will naturally clarify on their own given enough time and appropriate rackings. However, many meadmakers do not want to lose the volume of mead that multiple rackings would entail. Before attempting clarification, make sure that the fermentation is complete; a stuck fermentation will not clear. Assuming the mead has finished fermenting, cooling the mead may be attempted first; a 10-20 °F drop is generally sufficient. If fruit was added, some pectic enzyme can help clear up any pectin haze. If these steps don’t produce results, fining agents can be used (they are generally more effective at cooler temperatures). As a last result, mechanical filtration can be used. However, filtration can also remove color and flavor compounds, and may unintentionally oxidize the mead if not done properly.
Following are some common clarifying agents, how they work, and when they are added:
Super-Kleer K.C. is a two-stage liquid clarifier from Europe, containing kieselsol (silica gel) and chitosan (derived from shellfish). The two components create a negative and a positive charge, which enhances the clarifying action. Stir in one packet of liquid, wait an hour, dissolve the second packet of liquid in 1 oz of warm water, stir in the second mix, then wait 12-48 hours. One package treats 5-6 gallons of mead, wine or beer. This method is fast-acting, reliable, and highly regarded in the wine industry.
Sparkolloid is a proprietary material manufactured by Scott Laboratories. It contains a polysaccharide substance dispersed in diatomaceous earth, and comes in hot-mix and cold-mix forms. The hot mix form is preferred for mead clarification. It is relatively benign, seldom strips flavors and aromas, and works fairly quickly. It is positively charged, and is sometimes used as a secondary treatment after the negatively-charged bentonite. A disadvantage of sparkolloid is that it produces very fine lees that tend to settle out slowly and not compact well. Allow sufficient time for the lees to settle, or volume could be lost in racking or additional sedimentation could be observed in the packaging. Normal dosage is about 1g (or 1 tsp) per gallon of mead, boiled in 2 cups of water. The dry sparkolloid powder is boiled in water for 5-15 minutes, stirring or whisking constantly until creamy in consistency (the powder will not completely dissolve). The hot solution is immediately added to the mead and stirred in carefully; do not allow it to cool before using.
Bentonite is a gray clay with high montmorillonite content, mined in Wyoming and South Dakota. There are many kinds and preparations of bentonite, but only a few of them are suitable for wine and mead. Do not use bentonite sold for any other purpose than as a wine additive. Bentonite is a hydrated aluminum silicate with a negative charge, and reacts with positively-charged particles such as proteins. In solution, it behaves like a series of small, absorbent plates. It is often used for protein removal and clarification in wines, although red wines with a high tannin content are more stable. In general, low pH meads need less dosage than high pH meads. It is normally added after fermentation and natural settling, and at least one racking. It is normally prepared in a hot slurry. Mix 3 Tbsp bentonite with 1 cup boiling water, blend in a blender for 1-2 minutes or until creamy, let the slurry rest for an hour to become fully hydrated, and then use 1-2 Tbsp of the slurry for each gallon of mead to clarify. Stir carefully, and allow to settle. It works best if the mead is cool in temperature.
Gelatin is an animal protein-derived substance that is positively charged. It is colloidal, so it bonds to yeast and tannins, and then causes other compounds to then bond to them. However, it can remove some flavor. Use ½ tsp per 5 gallon batch, mixed with water and stirred in well.
Pectic enzyme. Pectin is the compound in fruits that will gel when heated. Different varieties of fruit have more pectin than others. Pectinase breaks down the long polysaccharide chains that form the pectin. It is generally added at the start of fermentation, but may be added after fermentation if a pectin haze is noted. Formulations and usage rates vary, so be sure to check manufacturer’s recommendations.
At one time, most mead makers thought that meads had to be aged for a significant length of time in order to be drinkable. However, with modern fermentation practices this is no longer the case. While it is true that some meads will be ready to drink sooner than others (due to fermentation health, alcohol strength, ingredients and honey variety), mead can still be matured to reach its peak flavor.
Aging normally reduces esters, bitterness, alcohol sharpness, color, and intensity of flavors. Proteins, tannins, yeast and other particulates tend to precipitate from solution, enhancing clarity. The most noticeable positive change from aging is typically a smoothing and melding of flavors. Those who prefer big, bold flavors will often enjoy younger meads, but well-aged mead can develop a layered quality and complex character that is rarely seen in young mead. The presence of tannins does help stabilize mead and increases the ability of mead to age for a longer period of time, just as with wine.
Note that aging does not imply oxidation, although some oxidation is inevitable unless all but the best handling and packaging procedures are followed. Some dip their bottles of mead in wax for long-term storage as an oxygen barrier. This is a good solution, provided that oxygen wasn’t introduced into the mead during handling prior to bottling. Natural corks will allow some oxidation, but synthetic corks can be an effective barrier. Traditional crown-type bottle caps are probably the least effective for long-term storage. Having clean mead that is free of faults is important for long-term storage, but keeping oxygen away from it is the most important factor
for successful storage.
Aside from oxidation, other factors that can degrade a mead during storage are heat, light, and mechanical agitation. If oxygen is present, all of these factors will increase the rate of oxidation. However, they can also degrade an oxygen-free mead. They speed up the rate of chemical reactions, and can cause flavor and color to become more muted.
Oxidation generally causes colors to become duller and darker, causes the clarity to lose its brilliance, and causes fruit flavors to move from tasting like fresh fruit to tasting like dried fruit; in essence, it tastes stale. Oxidation may create aldehydes, which can increase the bitterness level. Oxygen can allow aerobic bacteria, such as acetobacter, to flourish. Finally, oxidation is responsible for aromas like paper and wet cardboard, almond/nutty.
Not all oxidation is bad, since oxidation can produce interesting complexity in mead. The organic chemistry is fairly complicated and involves multiple reactions, but oxygen, alcohols and acids can react slowly to produce esters. Oxidation can also produce nutty, sherry-like aromatics. Intentional oxidation is a part of some historical mead styles, such as Polish meads.
The main choice in aging is whether to bulk age or to bottle age. Bulk aging is simply aging in anything other than the final bottle, typically a carboy or keg. Anything inert and gas impermeable will work. Bottle aging is transferring the finished mead to a bottle after fermentation is complete, the mead is stabilized, and any final adjustments are made.
Bottle aging is the traditional method for most home meadmakers. It provides the best protection against oxidation since it is not kept in an intermediate container, and is likely to involve less rackings. The disadvantages are that the mead may change while aging, and adjustment becomes much more difficult. Differences may exist from bottle to bottle.
Bulk aging is a more relaxed approach, since it allows the mead to mature and change as a full batch. It may sit on lees, or it may not. If it does, this can add additional nutty, toasty, bready yeast flavors, as well as providing minor stabilizing effects. The advantages of bulk aging are that the mead can be adjusted and blended over time, that fermentation is more likely to be completely finished, that clarification is enhanced, and that the final product will likely have more consistency from bottle to bottle. The disadvantage is that multiple rackings might be required, and that introduces a higher chance of oxidation and spoilage. If bulk-aged in a carboy, care must be taken to prevent the airlock from going dry. Any transfers should be done after purging containers with CO2 to minimize oxidation.
Blending can be thought of as another form of mead adjustment, although it can be used to create a totally new beverage. Blending is the mixing of mead with another beverage (usually another mead, but it could be something else). It can be used to create consistency between batches, to correct flaws in a batch, or to create a new concept. Sometimes it is easier to blend than to attempt to correct a problem by using direct adjustment with additives.
Some common scenarios for blending include:
- Blending a sweet mead with a mead that is dry or acidic to create a more balanced mead. Sweetness balances acidity, or takes the edge off dryness. Note that it is possible to add sweetness to a very dry mead and have it still seem dry. Yet the palate can seem softer, which makes the mead much easier to drink.
- Blending a traditional mead without strong flavors (except perhaps a compatible varietal honey character) with a mead that has an overdone character (such as too much fruit, spice, alcohol, oak, etc.). If blending mead has strong flavors as well, they shouldn’t exacerbate problems in the base mead. A blending mead with a strong varietal character can sometimes add a pleasant complexity to the base mead, allowing the honey to match strength-with-strength with the other strong flavors.
- Blending an overly sweet mead with other meads needing to be back-sweetened. While the overly sweet mead might be unpalatable on its own, it is a very useful mead to have on hand. If the sweet mead is clean, it will always be useful as an alternative to adding raw honey as a sweetener.
- Blending different batches of the same mead to get a more complex character. Similar to making a gueuze, blending old and young mead can give an interesting character. Older mead will have a smoother character while younger mead will have fresher flavors.
- Balancing the two characters can often give quite interesting results. Blending different types of mead (say, a melomel with a metheglin) can be done to create another type of mead. This doesn’t have to be done with the entire batch; it can be done to yield three different meads from two fermentations. This can be a fun way to test concepts without making a full batch.
- Blending mead with other beverages (such as beer, wine, cider, fruit wine, or something else) to create braggots, pyments, cysers, melomels, and other interesting meads. Meads are often better if all the fermentables are fermented together, but this can be a technique used to quickly create another style of mead if needed. Sometimes you might want to test different combinations of ingredients, such as testing ideas for different pyments by varying the honey and grape varieties. Making separate batches of mead and wine and then blending them creates more combinations without having to manage as many fermentations. If one combination is particularly pleasing, you then know to repeat that in future full-scale batches.
- Finally, blending can be done to get rid of a defective batch of mead. This is not really recommended, but some people cannot bear to part with an expensive batch of mead even if it has issues. Blending small amounts of it can extend other batches and hopefully keep defective flavors below the sensory threshold. Dumping it or finding someone to distill it (assuming they have a distiller’s license, of course) are probably better options.
To successfully blend mead, you first need to understand the profile of the meads (or other beverages) that you will be blending. Taste them and record their characteristics. Think about the relative intensities of the different flavor components. Then develop a concept of what blending experiment you’d like to try. Start on a small scale, using samples from each source in a separate container. If you find something you like, you can scale it up. But if you make an abomination, then at least you can dump it without having ruined your full batches.
Tasting is critical at every stage in the blending process. You won’t necessarily know what ratios to use, so blending is best done in small increments. Make changes, then taste again. Keep iterating until you’re satisfied. Keep track of the amounts you are blending so you can scale up. But remember that if you are tasting as you go, the quantities being blended are changing. When scaling up, you should still use less than you’d expect and keep tasting. Your palate is your best guide. Endless tweaking is rarely successful, so be prepared to stop when you are satisfied with