Ending a mead still fermenting is tricky business. I have tried without success to end fermentations that were going quite well, and have accidentally ended fermentations I did not want to. So, how do we end fermentation before it is complete? There are a couple of ways: cold crashing and chemicals. With cold crashing, you can place your carboy in the refrigerator (make sure it is 400 F or below). This will slowly cause the yeast to go dormant. What’s that you say? You don’t have an extra refrigerator for all your carboys? Then we turn to chemicals. When your fermentation is slowing down, you can add ¾ t potassium sorbate with ¼ t potassium metabisulfite (per U.S. gallon: I avoid the sodium metabisulfite because I don’t need extra sodium in my drink or my system) and stir in well. This is also called stabilizing. This will keep new yeast cells from forming, so the fermentation will stop – eventually. I‘ve tried this with a gallon that was going well, and the fermentation did not stop until the mead was dry anyway. Stabilizing is a good idea before bottling as it also keeps the mead from refermenting in the bottle, thus making a glass bomb. Even if cold-crashing your mead, I would add the chemicals. If you don’t, once the mead comes up in temperature again, the fermentation is likely to restart. Repeated rackings can also slow down and halt a fermentation before all the available sugar is used.
The reason for stopping fermentation is twofold: keeping the ABV low and keeping some residual sweetness in the mead. The best bet for this, I think, is planning ahead. Use a yeast type that will produce about 12-14% ABV and start the mead with more juice/honey than it can use. This will give you some residual sweetness. Either way, figure out what O.G. you need to produce the ABV and sweetness you desire in your finished product before pitching the mead. Another option, which I now do most the time in order to produce mead around 11% ABV, is ferment the mead to dryness, stabilize, then backsweeten to my desired taste.
- The fermentations I have ended before meaning to usually involve racking the mead too frequently before the primary fermentation is finished. Either that or adding potassium metabisulfite (Campden tablets) at racking before the primary fermentation was complete. I had to learn patience the hard way.
What is backsweetening?
Once the fermentation is finished, I stabilize and add some honey to get the sweetness level back where I want it. So far, I have stabilized and backsweetened at the same time with great success – I have not had the mead restart its fermentation. This way, I can produce “table wine” that has an ABV of 10-12% with enough residual sweetness to go with meals (or conversation). To do this, take some of the mead and place in a sanitized measuring cup and mix in the honey until it is dissolved, and then pour that back into the carboy. You can mix in the potassium sorbate and metabisulfite at this time as well. There is usually an additional clarifying time after the addition of the honey. I’ve had some clarify within days, and the honey seemed to act as a clarifying agent, producing clearer mead than before the addition. Some take a while. As with everything else in meadmaking: patience. Some people use honey that has been filtered for the backsweetening in order to avoid clouding the mead again. You can also use corn syrup (I would avoid the high-fructose corn syrup, you don’t want your liver to have to work extra hard), or simple syrup. You can use granulated sugar, but that takes a lot of stirring to dissolve. For melomels, pyments, or cysers, using some of the fruit’s juice can also add sugar back without clouding the mead.
Now for another test of patience – aging your mead before bottling.
All the chemical reactions that take place in the mead once fermentation has ended are numerous and complex. People go to school for years to learn all about it – so it will not be covered here in depth. As with other information about aging wine, most the information out there focuses on grape wine. What about mead? Mead is not grape wine! It will benefit from aging, but like all wines, there will be time when continued aging will no longer help. So, here are the guidelines:
Keep it in the carboy as long as you can. I know many of us home meadmakers have limited space and limited carboys. However, all wines – including honeywine – benefit more from aging in larger batches versus in the bottle. I would keep it there at least 6 months, with rackings every two-three months until crystal clear. Nine to 12 months would be even better (I have yet to accomplish this, but did make it to 11 months for one melomel). Once bottled, leave it there for another 6-12 months. The goal is having the wine age for at least 12 months (the time starts from when you pitch it – or repitch it if you have to). Remember that honey is chemically complex and takes a while to be completely used by the yeast. I recommend aging mead like a complex red wine – it is going to take a while. Yes, you can drink it as soon as it is clear, or you can drink it at nine months and have a fine wine. Or, you can wait 12-18 months and have an excellent mead. Wait 18-24 months and have a phenomenal mead!!
Lighter meads (less honey added) probably won’t need as long as heavier, more complex meads to age well. However, heavier (sack) meads, melomels, dessert pyments, etc. will benefit from longer aging. If you were strict about sanitation, bottled it correctly, have a low pH and acid/tannin balance, the mead will keep for many years just fine! Store it in a cool area, away from direct light. I am currently in the process of making a wine storage facility in my basement (it is not technically a wine cellar, but it is better than my wine closet).
EDIT: I can now attest to this! I have several meads that have made it to two years, and a couple that are now three plus years old. The difference between 12 months and 24 months is HUGE! I can’t begin to describe how different, more complex, smooth, and…well, professional tasting the wine is at 24 versus 12 months. With my lighter meads, I don’t notice much difference after 12 months, but the heavier (sweeter and higher ABV) and spiced meads continue to improve with age up to this point.
What about oak?
Big wine makers barrel age their wine in oak barrels. The home winemaker can purchase these and use them for aging as well. I, however, prefer the oak chips. These are easy – I don’t have to store the oak barrel or worry about its sanitation. Just boil 1T per gallon of mead in enough water to cover for 10 minutes, then leave to soak overnight. Add them to the carboy the next morning. I can add as much as I want and leave it for as long as I want, tasting as I go. Then I just rack the mead off the oak chips once it has enough oak flavor. There are a variety of oak chips available: American, French, and Hungarian (yes, Hungarian – I don’t know why). They are available in chips, blocks, and spirals and in three toast levels (light, medium, heavy). The heavier the toast, the more smoky, vanilla flavors (this is where vanillin comes from) it will impart. The lighter toasts will give off more of an almond, woody flavor – or so I’m told. I have only used the medium toast so far.