Racking, Clarifying & Fining, & Filtering
After primary fermentation has finished, the must will need to be racked off the gross lees (gross in this case meaning large, although it can be the other meaning of gross as well). This may need to occur within a few days or a few months after the fermentation starts. Some musts ferment very quickly (the cysers I have done finished their fermentations in a matter of days), and some take many months. As long as bubbles are happening, I don’t worry about a stuck fermentation. However, I don’t want my mead sitting on wine waste products (proteins, pectins, dead yeast cells, etc.) that can give it an off flavor. Therefore, I try to rack as soon as the primary fermentation is finished (or wait no longer than a month for the first racking).
Racking is siphoning the good, clear mead off the nasty lees, chunks of fruit, herbs, large spices, etc. A siphon is simply a tube that drains the liquid from one container to another. The full container is placed at a higher level than a second container. You can start the siphoning by sucking on the tube until the liquid is flowing, then placing the end of the tube quickly into the empty container. Since I don’t enjoy the taste of funky, mostly fermented must; and I don’t want to add my spit & germs to the mead, I use an auto-siphon. I highly recommend this. It is a simple pump that starts the liquid flowing into the attached tube, then gravity does the rest. There are two sizes: the regular size that works with 3-6 gallon carboys, and the mini which works with ½ and full gallon carboys. These auto-siphons also have a cap on the bottom which lets the siphon sit above the lees, thus reducing the chance you will suck unwanted lees into your fresh carboy.
Racking is one of those things that sound easy, and it is, but be patient with yourself the first time. I got mead everywhere, shook my mead up almost too much rack, sucked up too many lees, and generally made a helluva mess. And mead is sticky! Make sure you have enough space, and a long enough tube, for one carboy to sit well above the other one. I put towels under both carboys because there is always some spillage. I also recommend having a board you can put under one side of the carboy to have it sit firmly at an angle. This aids in the racking because the mead will pool to one side as the level drops. It also makes sense that you would want to save as much of your mead as possible when racking, but resist the urge so you do not suck up any of the yucky lees. You’ll just wind up having to rack it off again soon. And always, ALWAYS, sanitize your siphon and tube before and after racking. Too much stuff can build up in the tube and it is almost impossible to wash without special equipment.
After racking off the primary fermentation, I usually try to rack the mead every three months or so. Some of this is determined by how quickly it clarifies. Most meads will clarify on their own just by waiting and racking in this manner. After about six months, I can usually tell if it will clarify, or “fall bright” on its own. Often, I can see the line between the clarified mead on top of the carboy and the hazy mead below. If you check every couple of weeks, you should be able to see the line slowly creep down the carboy until the mead is clear and the lees are collected on the bottom – this is “falling bright.”
Clarifying & Fining
As mentioned above, the best method of clarifying is time and regular racking. I have seen some winemaking books state that all wine clarify eventually, unless there is something very wrong. However, sometimes home meadmakers just don’t have time to wait for that. We usually have a limited amount of space, carboys, etc. If your mead isn’t obviously clarifying after 6-9 months, it could be due to too many proteins or pectin in the honey or other ingredients used in the recipe. This is where fining agents come in handy, the most popular being bentonite. Bentonite is an absorptive clay that bonds with the particles floating about in your mead. However, if it is not prepared and used properly, you just wind up with a blob of clay sitting in the bottom of your carboy. Bentonite comes in a powder form that has to mixed with boiling water and soaked overnight, so plan ahead. I can’t give specific directions, just prepare it according to the package directions, but do not skimp on the time. It will have to sit overnight to become a proper slurry. Once you have your liquid mud pack, it needs to be mixed thoroughly in the mead. I have had the best results with bentonite by racking into a bucket, add the bentonite and mix thoroughly, then rack it back into a clean carboy. The downside of bentonite is it produces a lot of fluffy lees, so your mead will probably need to be racked at least twice more before it is clarified. I was hesitant to use this at first, I mean, really? I’m going to add clay mud to my mead? But it clarified my mead in an afternoon, after it had been sitting cloudy for nine months. I could be imagining things, but bentonite has a slightly floral smell to me, which can be imparted into your mead. It is not unpleasant, however, and is very faint.
Sometimes, however, the suspended particles in your mead will not be effected by bentonite, and you will have to try another fining agent. Fortunately, there are several – I just haven’t tried them yet, but intend to:
Sparkalloid, is a seaweed extract mixed with diatomaceous earth (again, more dirt in your mead? No, it is actually the fossil remains of diatoms. Doesn’t that make you feel better?). It has a strong positive electrical charge that neutralizes the charge on haze particles and makes them repel one another so the settle into your lees deposit. It also forms thick lees but won’t harm color or aroma. For wine, apparently we want “Hot Mix Sparkalloid.” Again, prepare per package directions.
Isinglass is a form of gelatin, made from the swim bladders of sturgeons (is this better than mud?). It is particularly suited to white wines, which makes it a good option for show meads or metheglins that do not have a deep color. You might want to add tannins after fining.
Pectinase is a form of pectic enzyme designed to be used after fermentation, and after bentonite, Sparkalloid, and isinglass have failed to produce the desired results.
That reminds me: I add a tablespoon of powdered pectic enzyme to all my meads while I am pitching the must. It helps break down the suspended pectin in honey and fruit. This might help the mead clarify faster during fermentation and reduce the need of follow up fining.
At first, I did not filter my wine. I had seen too many warnings that it removes color and aroma, and I don’t mind a little sediment in my wine bottles. However, after having to move a couple of times with wine that was not completely clear, I was forced to filter it to get it clear enough to bottle. The results were a stunningly clear mead that stayed clear in the bottle. I did not notice any appreciable effects on color or aroma as it was a very light pyment anyway. There are many types of filters on the market, and what you want depends on how much wine you are filtering at a time. Since I make mostly gallon (and no more than 3 gallons) at a time, I chose a gravity filter. It works pretty much the same as racking, only you siphon it through a filter pad. I will let you research filters if you are interested. However, one word of warning, even the best filter is not going to remove some of the suspended particles that make a cloudy wine. In fact, it will just clog up the filter and leave you with a mess. Make sure the wine has been clarified as much as possible – the filter will just give it a bit of boost in terms of clarifying. Filtering also reduces the likelihood of any refermentation happening after bottling. I still don’t filter all my mead, but I find it helpful with ones that just don’t get as clear as I’d like. Also, vanilla beans are incredibly tiny, strawberries tend to have floaties, and other additives just will not get out of your mead with racking alone. Filtering fixes that. Again, sanitize all the equipment before and after filtering!