The Old Ways
A lot of quality nodes on mead are present on E2, but most appear to reflect techniques inherited from the beer brewing community. Not to say I am not a fan of beer brewing - it led me into mead making and the product is certainly as delicious as mead. Suffice it to say, though, beer brewing and mead making are about as similar as the making of ketchup and mustard. Both have vastly different requirements at each step and there is no reason for the techniques from brewing to take precedence over new knowledge that is specific to mead.
How did I learn the new ways and their merits? By trying the old ways and failing miserably! I made a batch according to a recipe the local homebrew shop gave me. They instructed me to use acid blend up front, put in Irish Moss, possibly to put in Gypsum (memory fails me), to boil it, then to pitch low-quality yeast without any rehydration or fermentation nutrients.
None of this would be a problem with beer. Acid blend isn't normally used. Irish moss and gypsum are standard protocol. Boiling is outright required. Yeast nutrients are unnecessary. Gypsum solves hard water; Irish moss helps bring things out of solution. Boiling allows you to extract hop oils and sanitizes the wort. Yeast generally don't come up against high fermentable content or high alcohol content and, therefore, generally don't require much attention, other than good rehydration. Overall, brewing is a very end-heavy process: Brew day is intense, bottling is intense; the middle is just watching the airlock blip and racking it once in a while.
The New Ways
Mead is a different beast altogether. Completely. It's only similar in that there is controlled fermentation taking place and it is measurable with a hydrometer. Time-wise, mead is a more consistent effort, requiring greater attention for the first several days, then less as time goes on, until bottling.
First off, my biggest mistake: Adding acid up front! Do not add acid up front! If someone says to add acid blend or juice a lemon in, disregard that bit of advice. Why? The acid will drop the pH of the must. Even without the acid, the must will experience pH changes (eg it will become acidic in the process of fermentation). Generally, without acid blend, it will not drop to a level that is detrimental to the yeasts' performance. However, adding in acid blend, as I did, will allow it to drop to a level that harms the yeast. It can result in off flavors from stressed yeast. A low pH can also inhibit the yeast to the point of being stuck, stopping fermentation.
Boiling is unnecessary for a multitude of reasons. Anything that is suited to living in honey must contain little water. Honey absorbs water, which dehydrates and kills most bacteria with ease. The things which can live in honey are unsuited to living in water. Mix sanitary water with honey and you've finished off the bacteria in the honey. Boiling also drives off the flavors that honey imparts. If you're using low-quality honey, this doesn't matter so much. If you're using high-quality honey, though, boiling removes most of the value. There is also talk of bee parts and 'scum' in the honey: These bits are generally unfermentable. If you rack your mead, it will leave these parts behind and they should not affect flavor to a perceptible degree.
Irish Moss and Gypsum are not necessary when making mead. I didn't find any evidence that gypsum will hurt the mead, but I haven't seen it specified in any recent recipes. Irish Moss, however, is seaweed and may impart such a flavor to the mead.
Also, yeasts for mead are somewhat more complicated to pick out than yeasts for beer. Ketchup and mustard, again. Beer yeast selection style-dominated: If you want a weizen beer, use a weizen yeast. Mead making tends to utilize wine yeasts, though, so selection is more difficult.
It's not as simple as saying a style - you have to determine several characteristics before beginning. Say yeast A has a 18% alcohol tolerance and yeast B has a 12% alcohol tolerance. (Simply put: Yeast A will die out once the must is at 18% alcohol; yeast B will die out at 12%.) More fermentables mean more potential alcohol. So, to get a sweet mead - which has a higher potential alcohol than the yeast can handle - yeast A will require significantly more fermentables than yeast B.
Another factor with wine yeasts is their need for nutrients. Beer yeasts typically can get enough nutrients from the wort; honey is vitamin-deficient and the yeasts will have to have nutrients. Nutrient schedules are fairly standardized and are referred to as Staggered Nutrient Additions, should you wish to google it.
Finally, the brew shop's directions essentially treated the mead must as one would beer wort: Make it, inoculate it with yeast, oxygenate it, then forget it. Wrong. Dead wrong. The yeast should be rehydrated with rehydration nutrients (in the correct proportions, of course). Mead should be oxygenated every 12 hours up to the first sugar break.The first sugar break occurs when 1/3 of the fermentables have been fermented. Then it should be aerated one last time and fed nutrients. Again, correct proportions. At the 2nd (2/3) sugar break, it should be fed fermentation nutrients again. Gravity readings must be taken regularly to determine when these breaks occur.
A comparison in recipes
A more in-depth writeup will be available over at How to make mead, so this is a shortlist of the steps involved in making mead. Both old and new recipes call for heavy sanitation regimens, so I will skip over those steps, as they are generally identical. First, a simplified hydromel recipe:
- Honey, to bring it to a specific gravity
- Water, to bring it to a specific volume
- Yeast rehydration nutrient
- Yeast fermentation nutrient
Here are the differences at each step of mead making:
- Recipe design
- Old: Include Irish Moss, gypsum and acid blend.
- New: Only honey, water, yeast and nutrients.
- Must preparation
- Old: Heat water, add gypsum and dissolve honey in it. Skim off scum. Rehydrate yeast separately. Prepare an Irish Moss slurry. Move to fermenter, top off with sanitized water to target volume. Add yeast slurry.
- New: Put honey in fermenter, add water to target volume. Use a lees stirrer and drill to mix honey and water together. Rehydrate yeast separately with rehydration nutrient. Pitch yeast slurry.
- Fermentation management
- Old: Let it go. Eventually, rack it and let it clear, then age.
- New: Aerate every 12 hours until it hits the 1/3 sugar break. Add nutrients at that point, aerate one last time. Let ferment unattended until 2/3 sugar break. Add nutrients again. Take gravity readings regularly from the initial mixing to the 2/3 sugar break. Eventually, rack and age.
Finally: Form your own informed opinion.
Don't trust me. Don't take my word for it. Research. A lot. Find award-winning homemade meads and see if they boil. Some do, some don't. Some honeys are so incredibly aromatic that their flavors can survive boiling. Some meads break all the rules. Look up Joe Mattioli's Ancient Orange Mead. It's foolproof iff you follow the directions and will make a decent mead. Yet, he specifies bread yeast. There're 30+ pages of discussion on the GotMead forum about people doing this recipe. The few responses that say it is bad tend to include, "Well, I did this differently..."
One great resource, by the way, is GotMead.com. They're a very active mead making community and have information by the boatload, as well as very dedicated administrators.
Go make a batch. Screw it up like I did. Make every wrong move you can, then come up with a new one. You should, seriously. Do it with a one gallon batch, so it doesn't hurt your pride and pocketbook as much. Mine was on a ten gallon batch. I'm out a goodly amount of cash and mead because of it. Then do it their way - the new way - and you will begin to understand why it is the new way.
If you follow no other advice here, heed this: Do not add acid up front. It is nothing but trouble.