I want my mead now! How long is it gonna take! It can be frustrating, especially with mead. The time horizon to make a good mead can be pretty long, so the question often is:
How long should I keep my mead in primary?
Mead should be left in primary fermentation for approximately 4 weeks. The slow fermentation of honey makes it take longer than beer. After 4 weeks you can rack into a new vessel to help clear the mead, or add adjuncts like fruit. Re-racking to secondary is not necessary but often preferred.
A lot of people want exact numbers and firm times when handling their homebrew, but to be honest there are many variables that can affect the 4 week timeframe.
Length of Primary Fermentation
Primary fermentation really depends on a number of variables. Especially when it comes to a slow fermenting homebrew like mead. Typically primary fermentation is done when the yeast has eaten up all available sugars.
This either means your gravity reading has zeroed out or the yeast has reached its attenuation threshold. It ultimately depends on these numerous factors.
- The quantity of honey to water.
- The yeast alcohol tolerance.
- Yeast attenuation levels
- The yeasts speed of fermentation.
- The health of the yeast.
As you can see a lot of the variables really depend ultimately on the yeast, so keeping your yeast healthy is probably the single quickest way to speed of your primary fermentation.
But, to be honest once primary fermentation is complete, you don’t even have to rack it or do anything at all. You can let it sit for around three months and even drink it at that point.
However, as everyone knows mead is best when its aged and this can be for a number of reasons. One of them being mead clarity. Which is one reason you would want to rack your mead out of its primary vessel and into secondary.
How to Tell When Primary is Done
There are a few ways to tell when primary fermentation is complete. Either your mead has stopped bubbling through the airlock, which is a fairly good indication, or your gravity does not change from one day to the next.
In order to check whether or not the airlock has stopped bubbling its a good idea to shake up the mead a little bit first to shake loose any CO2.
This is called degassing and its important for the health of the yeast. It is very possible that you can jumpstart your fermentation for at least another day once doing this.
The only way for certain that you will know if your primary fermentation has completed is to check whether or not your meads gravity has changes from one day to the next. If it has stopped then your primary fermentation is complete and its time to rack to secondary for aging.
Calculating When Primary Fermentation is Complete
A lot can go into figuring out what the final gravity of a mead will be, but often times its preferred to zero out a mead. This means bringing the final gravity to 1. This will result in a very dry mead.
Most mead makers then back sweeten their mead until it tastes the way they want it. But, if you added too much honey from the beginning its possible that you could create a mead that does not zero out and could potentially have a higher finishing gravity.
The simple calculator from meadmakr.com makes it easy to determine your abv but you will need to look at at your yeast to determine whether or not your fermentation is complete.
Yeast ABV Thresholds
Not every yeast has the same abv threshold. Some yeasts will ferment to 14% while others can go all the way up to 18%. If you are using an 18% yeast and your abv has not reached that level and your final gravity has not zeroed out, it is very possible your mead is still fermenting.
It is likely to take longer than a month for fermentation to complete in this instance because there is more honey for the yeast to ferment. While shorter meads below or around 8% could complete before a months time.
How to Stop Primary Fermentation in Mead
There may be some times where you want to stop fermentation or complete your fermentation early. You may want a sweeter mead or a mead with less alcohol.
In these cases you will need to stop fermentation using a few methods.
- Rack onto campden tablets and potassium sorbate.
- Heat your mead up to 150F to kill the yeast, make sure you hold the temperature for 5 minutes.
- While it doesn’t kill the mead you can stop fermentation by keeping your mead in the fridge, at this point it should be ready for consumption.
stopping primary fermentation will likely clear out your mead so don’t be scared if your mead suddenly becomes clear. This is because the yeast has dropped out of suspension and fallen to the bottom.
Keep Your Mead Yeast Healthy
Primary fermentation is the most important time to keep your yeast healthy. It is important because without healthy yeast you can’t reach the highest abv levels. There are a few ways to make sure your yeast remains healthy
- Add yeast nutrient-honey has low levels of nutrition for yeast so it needs some help from yeast nutrient to remain vigorous during fermentation.
- Degassing- Yeast can get caught in the thick layers of honey, degassing is important to release CO2 which is harmful to yeast, this is because it is a yeast waste product.
- Oxygen- While oxygen is bad for your finished mead product it is very important for the yeast. The yeast will consume the oxygen during fermentation. Making sure to mix in oxygen to your honey water mixture will make for healthy yeast.
Keeping your yeast healthy will lead to the best possible end product of mead. It will also keep your mead from being especially smelly. This is good since you don’t want to upset the family with your little hobby. Rotten egg smell is no fun for anyone.
Long Term Mead Primary Fermentation Aging
While you really don’t have to rack your mead into secondary, there are many reason why you should. Some people get really paranoid and re-rack their mead constantly. This is detrimental, because like I said before oxygen is detrimental for your end product.
Pro Tip: Autolysis is when dead yeast imparts undesirable flavors into your mead. The pressure of the liquid above the yeast that has dropped to the bottom can speed up this issue. It is generally not a problem for small batch home brewing. But could become a problem if left on the lees or dead yeast for over 6 months.
As a general rule of thumb 3-4 times re-racking your mead should be sufficient. The last time is likely to be into the bottle. However, you will either need to do it more or less depending on how long your plan on aging your mead.
If you are simply aging your mead for a year then three times should be great. But, if you are aging for a very long time then more times would be better. If you are aging for a very long time and plan to re-rack though its important to get oxygen exposure under control.
This can be done by creating a closed loop system where oxygen is at no point introduced in the transfer. You will need a fermenter with a spigot at this point and it will need to enter into another vessel that is flushed of oxygen. One example of this would be transferring into a keg.