The Wee Yeasty Beastie
I think it is hard to talk about yeast without talking about fermentation. At its most basic, fermentation is a metabolic process wherein the yeast consume sugars for energy. We have to remember that yeast are living organisms that have to be tended carefully to grow to their full potential (before they die from alcohol poisoning or we kill them). Yeast then produce heat (energy) and biproducts of ethanol and carbon dioxide (“biproducts” being a better way of saying yeast pee ethanol and fart carbon dioxide). We, as awesome meadmakers, are trying to release the carbon dioxide (through the airlock) and capture the ethanol (to drink). In order for the yeast to do this conversion as efficiently as possible, they all need proper nutrition, correct temperature, and an absence of oxygen (after a brief primary fermentation process). Different yeasts need different amounts and types of nutrients, perform best at different temperatures, ferment at different speeds, produce varying amounts of lees and alcohol, maintain the color of the mead differently, produce different flavors, and have varying alcohol tolerance levels. Therefore, it is important to choose a yeast that will work well with your specific ingredients, will produce an alcohol percentage you desire, and is hardy enough to survive the particular temperatures at which they will be fermenting.
Under Appendices you will find a table of the different yeasts and what they need for optimum nutrition, special instructions for using them, etc. The discussion below, however, is based on my experience with the different yeasts and what conclusions I have come to being a home meadmaker and not a large scale winery/meadery. That said, after using all the different types of Red Star and Lalvin yeasts I could get my hands on, I have narrowed it down to a few that I would recommend for consistent results.
Red Star Premier Cuvee or Lalvin K1V-1116: Montpellier: These are great if you are looking for a higher ABV%, if your must has a high starting gravity, if you are worried about whether or not some of the ingredients will be easily fermentable, or if you need to restart a stuck fermentation. Whenever I put in an ingredient that might be “questionable” during fermentation, such as nuts or a lot of lemons, or if I am concerned that the particular honey I am using will not have enough nutrients, these are the yeasts I reach for. Their profiles are very similar, as are their nutrition requirements (quite low), and I can only describe their fermentation as “clean.” I don’t notice any off, or yeasty, flavors even in young meads. They produce compact, easily siphoned lees, and ferment quickly. When in doubt, I go for Lalvin K1V-1116 even over Premier Cuvee because it is known to be a “killer” yeast. So, if you are using any ingredients that might have wild yeast or other organisms on them, K1V-1116 will probably kill it and take over. It also works well for sparkling meads. If I had to pick only one yeast to ever use, it would be this one. Its only downside is that if you don’t want a table wine with 18% alcohol or that is bone dry, the fermentation does have to be stopped or killed with sulfites.
Red Star Cote des Blancs or Lalvin ICV-D-47: Cotes du Rhone (aka D-47): These are awesome yeasts for show mead, with an ABV% in the range of traditional table wine. They also floc well and have a clean taste profile. Both of them will need nitrogen supplements at the beginning of fermentation, which are very easy to find at wine supply places, and sometimes additional nitrogen at the first racking. Again, I lean to the D-47 over the Red Star product because it manages to ferment at lower temperatures. I have lived places that get pretty darn cold so having a yeast that will keep going is important. They are slower fermenters than the other two above, and take longer to age than some. However, I really like these for show meads where there is going to be nothing but the honey and the yeast producing the flavor profile, because nothing competes with the honey flavor and aromas. I also don’t worry about longer fermentation and aging times, as I let everything age at least two years before determining it is “done” and ready to try. There also seems to be something about these two yeasts that just “go” with honey. There may be some scientific reason for it, but they seem quite popular with meadmakers for this reason.
Red Star Montrachet or Lalvin 71B-1122: Narbonne: I have used both of these for “red” wines, whether that means red grapes, raspberries, or beets. I’m not sure if the meads would have turned out very different with different yeasts, given the ingredients, but especially with the berries, these were very good. They have more of a flavor profile, so go well with darker, complex red wines. The 71B-1122 is supposed to be particularly good at maintaining the color of red wines, but there are also so many other factors that go into protecting a wine’s color it is hard to know if the yeast made the color change or if it was exposed to too much light, oxygen, heat, etc. I’ve also had a couple of stuck fermentations with these, and learned they can reach a high ABV%, but they cannot manage a high gravity. Therefore, you have to pitch the must with a lower gravity, then add more sugar over time, giving the yeast time to consume it.
So there you have it: my top six, and after re-reading it, it is obviously my top four with a couple of extras thrown in. Also, I tend to favor the Lalvin brand as I have had better luck with them over all. Others, I’m sure, have their own experiences and preferences.
I tend to stay away from the liquid yeasts, because I find the dry yeast easy to save, transport, and very easy to rehydrate. I also don’t use the yeasts that are traditionally used for beer and ale, just because they have been created to work best with beer and ale. The above yeasts have been developed overtime to be specifically used in wine.