Mead is basically a wine, and therefore does benefit from a certain amount of aging. This is not to say that no Meads can be enjoyed within a few weeks of fermentation (see Joe’s Ancient Orange), but even these Meads will improve if given a little time to mature. Aging allows the desired flavors to blend and come to the front, as well as having the advantage of allowing certain unwanted “off” flavors to dissipate.
The following guidelines will help you age your Mead properly:
- Try to keep your Mead as close to 60°F as possible and avoid high temperatures. Slight changes in temperature around the 60°F will not have a negative effect as long as they are gradual.
- Store the bottles on their side to keep the cork moist and prevent shrinking. This is not a concern if you are using beer bottles or artificial corks.
- Keep the Mead away from the light as this causes oxidation and “off” flavors.
- Avoid vibrations and shaking.
- If possible, bulk age your Mead rather than bottling and letting it age individually. Even though the Mead is all in one Carboy (or bucket), there may be very slight differences between the Mead at the top versus the Mead at the bottom. When you rack into bottles, each bottle may have a very slight difference that will age differently over time, so when you start to drink the Mead, changes in flavor or aroma may be noticed. By bulk aging, the Mead should all come out tasting the same, and once bottled, will result in very few differences.
The amount of time needed for the Mead to mature is subjective. Some people enjoy drinking it young, while others prefer to let it sit for many years. A rule of thumb seems to be that at least 1 to 2 years is fine. Sample the Mead every few months or so until you feel that it is at it’s best, then bottle and drink away.
Yeast autolysis – Once yeast have gone dormant and dropped into the lees, they begin to experience autolysis. This is the process where the cell’s own enzymes break down the cell walls, releasing the enzymes and other cellular structures into the Mead. These “guts” add a yeasty flavor, which is not always pleasant depending on the type of Mead being made. To avoid this, make sure as much of the yeast has been removed as possible by racking before aging.
Oak is an easy to use and interesting “ingredient” that can add a great deal of complexity to a Mead. It adds various flavor compounds, such as vanillin, provides some astringency from Tannin, and colors the Mead a little. There are various choices when deciding on what type to use. These include the source of the oak (United States, France, Hungary, Croatia), the toasting level, and the format (cubes, staves, beans, or chips).
Source – The Hungarian Oak is the mildest, followed by the French and then the American Oak.
Toast Level – The lower the toast, the higher and more quickly the astringency is imparted into the mead. The higher the toast level, the more caramel, vanilla, chocolate and smokey characteristics are imparted.
Format – Cubes or beans are the best option as their uniform shape allows for greater consistency in the flavors they contribute.
2.5 to 3 ounces per 5 gallons is considered to be equivalent to “new barrel” extraction rates.
For cubes, the following weights are approximate:
· 1 ounce is 34 cubes
· 2 ounces is 68 cubes
· 3 ounces is 102 cubes
A mixture of different types of oak can be used to bring the desired characteristics to the Mead.
Oak is usually added in the secondary when fermentation has ceased. Rack off the lees as much as possible to avoid any yeast flavors which can interfere with tasting the oak. The oak must be washed to make sure there are no contaminants that could spoil the Mead. To do this, soak the oak in a solution of K-Metabisulfite, drain, then rinse with distilled water. A simple way to make using oak easier is to tie the oak up in a small piece of sanitized cheesecloth, weighted with a couple of marbles. This way, the racking will be far easier.
Leave the Mead to sit on the oak for 1½ to 2 months, then begin to sample the Mead every week or so. Once the desired level of oaking has been achieved, rack off of the oak into a clean vessel and leave to age. Note that wines that are higher in alcohol will extract the oak flavor quicker since alcohol is a better solvent than water. High ABV wines, above 13% in this case, should be tasted sooner and more often or the Mead may be over oaked.