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Mead Making - The Profiling of Honey

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Mead Making: The Profiling of Honey
Not too long ago, I was at a homebrew club meeting where I was the only mead maker in attendance. This was not for a lack of interest by the other members, they just hadn't made mead yet. When I presented my meads for tasting, I got a lot of questions and I continually stressed the importance of nutrients when making mead. The next meeting, a member came to me questioning why I would need to add nutrients to mead musts when honey already has so many nutrients in it. I stated that the nutrients present in honey are not the nutrients that yeast use, and certainly aren't at the level needed for a healthy fermentation.
From Flowers to Honey
You may know that bees go to flowers, bring the nectar back, puke it up, and honey is made. While this is partially right, there are a few more steps to it. The bee visits the flower and stores nectar inside of a separate stomach; they can hold their own weight in nectar before returning to the hive.
Once they have the nectar, it is regurgitated into a comb. At this point, it has a higher water percentage than the final product we are accustomed to. Worker bees then generate heat which evaporates the water and concentrates the sugar. This is similar to maple syrup production from maple sap. If you were to cook maple syrup down further it would turn to maple cream (which is sinfully delicious).
The Sugars of Honey
Now that you have your honey, what types of sugars are you providing your yeast when making mead (or adding honey to beer)? Honey's sugars are made up of fructose and glucose, both of which are monosaccharide sugars (simple "1 chain" sugar). Wine and beer yeast are both great at fermenting these sugars.

Types Of Honey
However, wine yeast can struggle with fermenting maltose (malt sugar). This is because wine yeast has been trained and selected to ferment grape wine musts. Grape wine musts are also made up of...guess what...glucose and fructose.
Beer yeast can ferment mead musts because it is capable of fermenting more complicated sugars, so glucose and fructose are easy pickings. However, in mixed sugar fermentations, like a beer wort with large amounts of sugar or honey added, the yeast can eat the simple sugars and become lazy. This doesn't always happen, but in high enough percentages of monosaccharides, you may see some stalled ferments.
The Nutrition of Mead Musts
It's a horse that has been beaten to a pulp, and then been beaten back into a horse. Staggered nutrient additions are a well known and widely used practice in both commercial and home mead making. Lallemand, which makes Fermaid K* and Fermaid O*, was kind enough to conduct fermentation experiments and graph the results comparing their products vs. no nutrients and competitors' nutrients. I've redrawn the chart to show the relevant data from the Fermaid K handout (the only place I've found a PDF for it is on the Morebeer site, on the Fermaid K page, under the documents tab).
*The K and O represent different types of nitrogen provided to your must. K is inorganic nitrogen and and O is organic nitrogen. This is not the same "organic" as organic food etc.
The Management of High Honey Musts
The gravity of honey is staggering, and when using high amounts of it in meads, (3 to 4 pounds per gallon) it should be carefully planned out to prevent stalled batches.

Fermentation Characteristics
Making an 18% mead is not as easy as 5 pounds of honey per gallon and some champagne yeast. Care must be taken that you are spreading your nutrient additions out as well as your sugar additions. This process is called step feeding and is crucial to squeezing extra alcohol into your batch without the risk of making syrup.
Restarting a high gravity ferment that stalled at 1.035, but already has 13% alcohol will be nearly impossible. It's too much for a new pitch of yeast to handle very reliably.
Instead, try starting with around 3 pounds per gallon, adding nutrients spread over two-three additions, and letting that ferment dry. Once fermented out, you can add a little more honey, let it ferment, and repeat until the yeast quits. You may even find your yeast exceeds its listed tolerance.
In Closing
Next time you're making a mead, remember that all those bees did a lot of work to get you your honey, and wasting it by not treating it properly would be a shame.
Sources: Fermaid K chart - http://www.morebeer.com/products/fermaid.html?site_id=5
 

Comments

Nice write up...would be nice to see a graph of an actual staggered nutrient addition rather than just a single addition. I also wonder how they measured "level of active fermentation," there's no scale on the y-axis! Seems fairly subjective, unless perhaps they're actually quantifying the drop in gravity points.
Edit: wait, I answered my own question...looked again at the original graph and it looks like they're measuring velocity of CO2 produced
 
Nicely written and very concise, I would have liked to have seen a little more about staggered nutrients. I have not *yet* made a mead and have been planning on doing a few 1 gallon batches using different yeasts or different flavor additions. I, personally, like to have as much information about the details as possible, before I jump in and with the cost of honey, wouldn't want to ruin an already perfect product.
 
@MarshmallowBlue
I'd do:
1 with no nutrients and no daily aeration/degassing
1 with single nutrient and no aeration
1 with single nutrient and no aeration
1 with SNA and no aeration
1 with SNA and aeration
 
I will do an experiment with all those factors. It may be a while as I need to make sure I have time to check gravity on all of them at least once a day. Right now I have a newborn and my daily free time ranges from 0 to none.
 
Maybe you could post a couple of your favorite Mead recipes?
:)
I have 18 pounds of Clover Honey and 15 pounds of Orange Blossom honey.
I first want to make 1 gallon batches before doing anything big.
 
@ArcLight I'd make traditional with the Orange Blossom, as it's a great honey on its own, but you can add fruit to it as well.
With the clover you could try my Grape and Pear mead:
2.5 lbs of honey per gallon
4 medium green pears per gallon
1 bag of green grapes per gallon
Red Star Montrachet yeast
Put the grapes and pears through a food processor and after washing your hands, or wearing clean gloves, squeeze the pulp to get all the juice out. Add the juice to the ferment and you can eat the pulp or compost it.
I'd keep the yeast at or below 70 if you can. The mead will have a lot of body when all said and done. Google "perry pyment" for more details.
 
@MarshmallowBlue
I'll try to do the same, and am under the same schedule mess for awhile...
Shoot me a PM, and let's try to collaborate on methods, OGs, temps, etc....
2 data points are always better than 1...
 
Great article.
Quick question. I am planning to do some session meads around 5-6% that will be kegged and carbonated. Would you still suggest staggered nutrients in this case? I've heard that with low-grav meads the fermentation is usually over so fast that staggering is unnecessary. My main concern here is reducing initial off flavors in order to shorten the hive to glass timeframe.
Also, I've also heard on this site (Bray's one month mead) that WLP570 is a great mead yeast. I'm planning to do a split batch and test it vs. a wine yeast. What nutrients do you suggest for a wine yeast and would you vary those at all when using ale yeast?
Thanks, Aaron
 
@amcclai7 No, just load your nutrients up front with pitch. To keep off flavors in check, using nutrients and keeping the temp below 70 are key.
I read a lot of good things about BOMM, but I haven't made one so I can't comment about it, other than many others seem to have success with it.
Nutrients can be used cross yeast, there aren't any wine specific / beer specific nutrients that I'm aware of. One of the main goals of yeast nutrient is to provide Yeast Accessible Nitrogen.
 
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