Thoughts on lees exposure and meadmaking from a question about lees exposure in a methyglin with lots of cinnamon in the GotMead.Com Forums
Lees exposure can yield a wonderful mead if you know how to do it right. Honey matched with the right supporting ingredients, fermentation management, bulk aging and lees exposure can yield something divine. But, if you don’t know the basic recipe and haven’t ever managed a sur lie batch, you could be in for a world of hurt! One of the terrifying things lees exposure evokes is that it can vastly magnify flaws over time: improperly sanitized equipment, poorly managed (reductive) fermentations or dull/abundant oak can quickly overwhelm otherwise good mead or wine.
Be aware that the further you adjust your mead with additional flavors (spice, fruit, oak, etc.) the more factors you introduce into the wheel-of-mead-misfortune possibilities. Additionally, unless you are intimately familiar with your non-exposed recipe you really need to experiment with it before committing to a large batch of sur lie mead.
Based on what I’ve read and the lees exposure batches of mead that I have made, the yeasts I like the most are: CY3079, D47, D254, and K1. NOTA BENE: If you haven’t used different yeast strains for sur lie with standard, traditional dry mead, then you really need to take the time to do several batches in order to learn about how the process evolves and changes your mead. If you are going to experiment, my suggestion is to do it in smaller strictly controlled batches. You can better discern the difference between them by comparative sensory analysis. Then you can experiment with other formulations and techniques once you have some practical experience with and knowledge of sur lie exposure in your mead making repertoire.
My opinion is that meadmaking is similar to learning to play a musical instrument. You generally (unless you’re a prodigy) don’t pick up an instrument and play it perfectly, you need to practice the basics and as your skills advance your ability to improvise advances as well.
I know this is an unpopular thing to say in this era of “weird-o-mels,” “sour-meads,” “bourbon barrel aged mead” and the like, but consistent mead making comes from consistent effective process and methodology. Making the occasional one-off while you’re learning is good for the soul and instructive as well. Keep in mind that when you add other flavors into mead, it’s easier to hide flaws in the basic recipe.
It’s my observation that people don’t want to work on the basics because it’s not “fun.” A lot of beginning mead makers want to take on some very difficult to master styles. That’s just fine if you have the necessary experience under your belt, but if you don’t, the experience may wind up being a lesson in mead gone horribly wrong. I regularly get samples from people wanting to know why their mead tastes so bad. Generally a quick look at the recipe and their process reveals where things went wrong.
My advice is to experiment, but on a small scale so that you don’t waste the hard earned cash you spend on honey, especially if you’re planning on making a large batch. Remember that you may make several smaller batches and adjust each of them in order to compare the contributions to flavour and aroma. Then you can make an informed decision as to which one meets the style you desire. From there you can learn to reproduce it consistently over and over again. Then it’s time to improvise with that recipe and refine it.To me, this is a good process for learning to make really great mead.
I’ve seen some great recipes over the years from really experienced mead makers go very well when used by a beginning meadmaker as first effort. Then the next several batches the beginner made were all pretty average or below average. That’s because they had a good template to follow, but really didn’t have the experience or understanding of why that tried and true recipe worked so well. Additionally they hadn’t established a familiarity with the process of making mead to the point of understanding that each recipe is unique and needs to be treated as such.
That’s why GotMead.com is the best resource out there for meadmakers. You can run your recipes by people here who have made a lot of mead, and can tell you if your recipe or won’t work. This in turn can save you time money and the regret of having 5 gallons of swill to pour down the drain. The bottom line is that you really need to think about your next batch and spend time planning what you will do and how you will do it. If you haven’t made the recipe before, post-up questions in the forums to get ideas. Then do your diligence and research ingredients, methodology and process before you pitch your yeast!
Going back to the original question, sur lie exposure can add tremendous character and complexity to mead when done right. But, when one factors in spice, fruit and other strong flavors sur lie exposure can very quickly lead to a bad end for good ingredients.