This article originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Zymurgy® and is reprinted here with permission of the Brewers Association. Please join the American Homebrewers Association to receive 6 issues of Zymurgy® per year and discounts at more than 1,500 retailers around the country.
One aspect of making mead that makes it both exciting and frustrating is the relative lack of data available on ingredient selection and other factors. Compared to beer brewers or grape-wine makers, mead makers are often left to their own experimentation to discover the results of going outside traditional best practices.
A best practice that has become entrenched in mead making is the exclusive use of wine yeasts. Yet recent experimentation by commercial and home mead makers has revealed positive results using ale yeasts, including unique aroma and flavor profiles and shorter aging time to get to an enjoyable product. Yet most of the data has been limited to tasting notes from one individual at a time. So I set out to find out what the impact various ale yeasts might have on a traditional mead using a panel of certified mead judges.
The purpose of this experiment was to evaluate the favorable and unfavorable elements of a selection of different ale yeasts for mead, and provide additional data points to assist mead makers when considering ale yeasts. Although there was one wine yeasts used to provide a point of comparison, this experiment was not designed to compare meads made with wine yeasts to meads made with ale yeasts.
Since one of the possible benefits of using ale yeast is short aging time, I wanted to evaluate meads while they were relatively young. I also wanted to evaluate the impact of each yeast across more than one type of honey varietal. So I fermented an initial batch with Orange Blossom honey from San Diego, and a second batch made with Desert Wildflower honey from San Diego.
Note- the two separate batches were not meant to be evaluated against each other, since that would add additional variables to the equation; rather, the intent was simply to evaluate the different yeasts within in each batch.
I have previously experimented with myriad different ale yeasts for mead, resulting in a wide-range of aroma and flavor profiles. The yeasts that had produced the most consistent results were included in this experiment. Additionally, there is a good amount of data on the use of Wyeast 1388 for mead (many of you know the BOMM process spearheaded by Bray Denard, PhD), so that yeast was also included. The full list is below; all of these are liquid ale yeasts:
- WLP001: California Ale Yeast (White Labs)
- WLP002: English Ale Yeast (White Labs)
- WLP004: Irish Ale Yeast (White Labs)
- WLP007: Dry English Ale Yeast (White Labs)
- WLP028: Scottish Ale Yeast (White Labs)
- WLP041: Pacific Ale Yeast (White Labs)
- WLP300: Hefeweizen Ale Yeast (White Labs)
- WLP500: Monastery Ale Yeast (White Labs)
- WLP545: Belgian Strong Ale Yeast (White Labs)
- Wyeast 1388: Belgian Strong Ale Yeast
- Wyeast 3711: French Saison Ale Yeast
Ale yeasts that I have previously tested (that were not part of this experiment) include WLP008, WLP013, WLP023, WLP 051, WLP080, WLP090, WLP510, WLP530, WLP590, WLP644 and WLP810.
Additionally, Lalvin 71B-1122 was chosen as the wine yeast to use as a comparison. Lalvin 71B is a very popular dry yeast used by many commercial and home mead makers.
The meads were fermented in 1-gallon carboys. Starters are usually recommended for liquid yeasts to ensure healthy yeast population and correct pitching rate, however that was not possible for this experiment, so the vials of yeast were pitched directly into the mead must.
The first batch of mead was started on 7/11/15 and made with Orange Blossom honey and nine different ale yeasts. For the second batch, the decision was made to include six of the original ale yeasts from the first experiment and add three new yeast choices, including one wine yeast. The second batch was started on 8/29/15 and made with Desert Wildflower honey.
Both batches involved the same preparation and fermentation process. The honey was mixed with bottled spring water in a two 5-gallon glass carboys. Once the same gravity was established for both 5-gallon carboys, they were distributed to the nine 1-gallon carboys and the different yeasts were pitched.
The Staggered Nutrient Addition (SNA) regimen that was used involved a mix of Fermaid O, Fermaid K and DAP totaling 350 ppm of Yeast Assimilable Nitrogen (YAN). That YAN amount is higher than I usually use, but I wanted to err on the side of too much nutrient in case some of these yeasts were nutrient hogs. The nutrients were added in four stages: in the must prior to pitching yeast, at 24 hours, at 48 hours, and at 72 hours.
All meads were fermented in a chest freezer set at a constant 66-68 degrees (this is also higher than I usually go, but I needed to find a temp that was a happy medium for all yeasts). Each mead was aerated by vigorously shaking the carboys twice a day for the first five days. Starting and final gravities are listed below:
The meads were evaluated by a tasting panel of mead makers and judges in San Diego and the greater Southern California region. The panel consisted of six individuals including:
- Petar Bakulic, President of the Mazer Cup International, Mead Judge with sensory training and well-known as “Oskaar” from the GotMead forum and podcast.
- Frank Golbeck, CEO and Head Mead Maker at Golden Coast Mead and BJCP Certified Mead Judge.
- Mary Anne Bixby, Mead Judge and longtime host of National Mead Day in San Diego, CA.
- Greg Lorton, BJCP Certified Mead Judge/National Beer Judge and mead maker of 25 years.
- Michael Hawkins, BJCP Certified Mead Judge and home mead/cider maker.
- Eric Holden, BJCP Certified Mead Judge and National Beer Judge and multiple-time medal winner at the National AHA Competition.
The tasting panel gathered at Golden Coast Meadery in Oceanside, CA on Thursday, November 5th. The judges were provided with three flights of six meads, judging each flight before moving on to the next. The first flight consisted of orange blossom meads with yeasts WLP001, WLP002, WLP004, WLP007, WLP545, and Wyeast 1388. The second flight consisted of wildflower mead with the same yeast strains as the first flight. The third flight consisted of the final six meads, three orange blossom with yeasts WLP028, WLP500 and Wyeast 3711 and three wildflower meads with yeasts WLP041, WLP300 and Lalvin 71B.
During the blind tasting the judges were served meads in random order and asked to evaluate both the aroma and flavor profiles of each mead using a scale of 1-4, with 1 being “poor”, 2 being “fair”, 3 being “good”, and 4 being “excellent”. The judges were also asked to comment on tasting notes for each mead. Additionally, each judge was asked to select their favorite and least favorite mead from the first two flights.
The first thing that was evident from the tasting panel evaluations was how much impact an individual yeast strain can have on a finished mead. Each yeast produced its own aroma and flavor profiles that were clearly distinguishable from the others. Certain ale yeasts displayed much higher levels of fruity esters that seemed to enhance the perceived sweetness of the mead, while others seemed to emphasize an acidic tartness that produced a drier mouthfeel. Some yeasts strains had a significant impact on aroma and taste while others were more neutral and showcased the honey varietal.
Figure 2.1 displays the aroma and taste results for batch of mead made with orange blossom honey, and Figure 2.2 displays the results for the wildflower batch. The individual scores from each judge were added together resulting in total scores for both aroma and flavor for each yeast strain.
Figure 2.1: Orange Blossom Test
Figure 2.2: Desert Wildflower Test
To view a table of comprehensive tasting notes from each judge for each yeast sample across both batches, see the original article published in Zymurgy. Below is a simple table showing which yeast strains were chosen as the favorite or least favorite by each judge.
Hopefully this experiment provides some useful data points to assist mead makers when considering various ale yeasts. There were, however, several limitations to the experiment. As with any yeast comparison, using the same fermentation process for every yeast is actually not allowing each yeast to thrive in their most optimal environment. For example, some yeasts prefer more nutrients than others, and some produce more off-flavors at higher temperatures than others. These yeasts were all evaluated young; they will continue to mature, and the aroma and flavor effects will continue to evolve differently with time. Since this tasting was done with young meads, the comparison between the wine yeast (71B) and the other ale yeasts could be deceiving. Further experimentation (and publication of results) needs to be done to truly compare ale yeasts with wine yeasts for mead.
Billy Beltz is a BJCP Certified Mead Judge mead maker that has won myriad regional and national mead competitions for meads using ale yeasts, including two medals at the 2016 Mazer Cup International.