Although many brewers end up attempting to make mead, most end up doing so unsuccessfully, one of the main reasons for this is they try to piecemeal their recipe together; so instead of giving much if any consideration to what might be the best yeast for mead they end up using yeast they have leftover from other types of alcoholic beverages they have brewed before. As you will see in this post the type of yeast you use when making this nectar of the gods place a large role in the quality of the mead you make.
The First Known Alcoholic Beverage?
Mead may not be the oldest alcoholic drink known to man, but it’s close. Certainly, the oldest alcoholic drinks contained alcohol as a byproduct of the fermentation process But you can bet it didn’t take the earliest drinkers very long to figure out how to refine the process and get reliably non-deadly levels of fermented drink down their necks.
In that way, mead is definitely a strong contender for the first known alcoholic beverage, with some forms of wine giving it a run for its proverbial money. That being said, mead is usually most closely associated with beer, but this is a misconception, strictly speaking. It is actually more closely related to wine for a number of technical reasons.
But mead might be more closely related to beer for cultural reasons due to the fact that it was enthusiastically drunk by heroic figures in fictional accounts like such as in Beowulf. In fact, the lodging structures the warriors of that ancient story used were actually called “mead halls.” That’s a bit like calling an army barracks a beer shanty, which is probably more accurate than not. Considering it in contexts like this makes it seem more similar to beer than wine.
Any way you define it, there is a natural attraction to mead for many due to its historical significance and the fact that it is fairly unusual. So it is only natural that someone would wonder how to make it. After all, it’s pretty hard to find the stuff in your local liquor aisle. If you want to learn how to make mead, you might first have to decide what kind of mead you want, in which case we need to find the right yeast.
Choosing the Best Yeast for Mead
Unless you’re just trying to win a bet and prove that you can make mead, you probably want to cook up a batch worth drinking. This means you will need to select the right yeast. Real mead is made of just three ingredients. However, if you use wild honey to make it, the wild honey will contain its own yeast, so the choice will already be done for you.
Your choice of ingredients will make the difference between winning your bet on a technicality and actually producing decent mead.
There are two kinds of mead and a whole spectrum of types in between those two. They are Low ABV Hydromel and High ABV Sack Mead. High ABV Sack Mead will take the largest amount of honey to produce, and is, therefore, the most expensive to make.
Factors Determining the Ideal Yeast
There are a few things to take into consideration when choosing your yeast. You will need to choose an alcohol-tolerant yeast. Some forms of yeast have enough tolerance to produce mead with a 14% alcohol content, which is considerable. If you try using a mead yeast with low or no tolerance to alcohol, it will simply die. Some yeast also take longer to ferment mead then others.
You will need to make sure the attenuation level is right for the finish you are going for. Attenuation means the percent which measures the conversion rate of sugars to alcohol and CO2 during the fermentation process.
Before we get into things to consider when choosing yeast, let’s cover the basic (recommended) ingredients. (Amounts are generalized)
1 gallon of chlorine-free water
3 pounds of honey
1 gram of white wine yeast
1 pound of fresh fruit
1 cup of fresh herbs
2 tbsp of dried herbs
2 tbsp of spices
Here’s a rundown of the things you need to consider…
One of the nice things about making mead is you can decide how much alcohol you want it to have. The way to produce the ABV you want is by choosing your yeast according to its alcohol tolerance level. The following are yeast types with their corresponding alcohol tolerance.
Red Wine 16%
White Wine 14%
Prise de Mousse 18%
Motpellier White Wine 18%
White Wine 16%
Red Wine 14%
Cote Des Blanc 14%
Pasteur Blanc 18%
Pasteur Red 15%
Premier Cuvee 16%
Saccharomyces Cerevisiae 14.5%
The list is about as long as your arm, and you can bet that the type of yeast you use will also have an effect on the flavor you are going for. Naturally, the way these products are produced will also have an effect on how well they can be used to make mead. But this will give you a good idea of how to choose your resulting ABV.
Fermentation Temperature Range
No matter which type of yeast you select, it will have a preferred temperature that is specific to that specific yeast. For example, Narbonne has a preferred temperature range of 59 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit and the white wine has a preferred temperature of between 50 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
You’ll notice that these two examples have the same upper range temp. tolerance but a different lower range. The upper and lower ranges of temperature tolerance will vary from one yeast to the next. That means it is not intuitive. You cannot guess the temperature tolerance of one by its placement on a chart compared to another. You need to look at the specific range posted on the label by the manufacturer.
A good starter yeast for someone making mead for the first time might be Lalvin EC 1118 (Prise de Mousse). This is because it has one of the widest temperature tolerance ranges of all yeasts at a massive 45 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. That is a temperature range of a whopping 50 degrees and you should be able to maintain it with little effort.
If you don’t know what temperatures your equipment is capable of producing and sustaining, you may need to test and document its temperature output over a given time at a given setting. Even if you’re going by a temp dial, such as on a conventional oven, you should know that they may not be accurate. It’s best to choose a temp setting, let it warm up to that setting, and then measure the heat with a quality thermometer, and make a note of the correction.
Because yeast is a living thing, it needs food. Each type of yeast likes certain types of food. If you buy a packaged yeast product, it should tell you what the nutrient needs of the yeast are for a healthy fermentation. The foods preferred by most yeasts are a mix of sugar and nitrogen, in that order.
We could go on for pages about what type of yeast and yeast-nutrient will produce what type of mead. But let it be sufficient to say that your selection will make a difference. To refine your mead brewing skills, you will need to experiment.
The strain of yeast you select will lend its flavor characteristics to the meads you make.
For example, some types of yeast lend a neutral effect and have minimal influence on the flavor of your mead. Others will impart a dominant influence on your products. The yeasts that impart more flavor (by adding more esters) are the ones with higher preferred temperature tolerance ranges.
If you consider Lalvin again, you’ll remember it had a huge temperature tolerance range. That gives you a wide range of control in terms of customizing the favor of your mead. Use higher temps for a more yeast-flavored mead, and lower temps for a mellower mead.
This is what we call the process in which yeast cells break down after the fermentation process. Different yeast types break down in different ways and at different rates. The complexity and speed of autolysis will have an effect on the aftertaste or complexity of your mead.
If you want consistency, you’ll need to use the same type of yeast again and again. Otherwise, follow your whims.
This is the process in which yeast falls out of suspension once fermentation is complete. Some flocculate more quickly than others. You can accelerate the flocculation process by using a fining agent, but fining agents can strip the flavor from your mead.
Fining agents are best used when you know how a given yeast will respond to specific circumstances to adjust your product. For beginners, we recommend not using fining agents.
In conclusion, it should be obvious that if you want to brew quality mead, you will probably need to spend time experimenting with ingredients, temperatures, equipment, and techniques. If you’re just wanting to prove that it can be done, well, it’s already a well-known process. So, why not try to produce something worth the quaff?