Does anyone know where I can find something to read about what goes on chemically when aging mead? Even just a general overview that doesn't go into specifics would be helpful, considering how my level of knowledge is almost nil.
From what I understand, a lot of the chemical processes involved are things produced during fermentation like fusel alcohols (the ones that cause hang-over symptoms...and make mead smell like rocket fuel/bandaids) and H2S (sulfur compounds produced by stressed yeast). It also allows the aromas and flavors covered up by those compounds to integrate and "return". Basically, aging helps nasty stuff mellow out (though some things need special treatment) and helps the honey character to return.
I think more than anything, this is why it is so important to manage your yeast to make them as happy as possible throughout fermentation. The quality, and subsequent length of aging required, for a mead managed properly is far superior to one that takes 3-4 months to ferment or one fermented at 80F or one with under-nourished yeast.
Something I've learned that helps reduce aging and helps to clear a mead faster, both physically and aroma problem-wise, is to use a lees stirrer attached to a low speed drill and occasionally (once every few weeks without aerating) stir up the yeast cake. The re-suspension of yeast allows active ones to continue fermenting, breaks up any spoilage organisms living protected by yeast layers, and the spent yeast will grab things and re-flocculate.
Sorry I don't know the actual chemistry involved, but this seems to work pretty well to reduce age and increase quality of end product. Hope it helps!
A good college level organic chemistry textbook would likely be a good place to start to learn about the specific reactions.... Quite a few of the reactions are covered in detail.... like the whole series of reactions that happen to make esters and the like....
Unfortunately, my interest in reading organic chemistry texts waned a few years ago....
There are all sorts of chemical reactions going on, and even in wine, where it has been studied, the answers are not fully understood. However, there are a few things that seem clear. Alcohols, especially some of the fusels (higher alcohols) which can cause harsh burning and some off odors will combine with acids to form esters which don't have the burning alcohol character, and which provide more nice aromas.
Phenolic compounds that can cause bitterness tend to aggregate forming larger molecules that cause less bitterness, or they bind with proteins or yeast cells and drop out taking the bitterness with them. The yeast cells (which are bitter) drop out. Undoubtedly there are many other reactions at work, but the result is that smoother, better smelling and tasting mead usually develops.
Medsen and AZ_IPA are right. To know what is really going on would take controlled conditions and lots of expensive HPLC. That level of research gets funded by big money operations, like Mondavi and Gallo, and what has been done is far from exhaustive or conclusive. No one in the mead world has had the wherewithal to drop that kind of change.
This is a very interesting topic. I also wonder about the same question in regards to beer. I realize beer has been studied much more than beer. Sadly my understanding of chemistry is weak at best due to "other" more important things during school!!
I guess it's just very intriguing. I mean in the simplest terms you think, ok I put this liquid into a sealed container.........whatever is in there can't escape.......but it can change!