Two glass carboys, one full of a golden mead, the other empty except for the left over blackberries and oranges. A siphon rests in the empty carboy neck.

The Mead Diaries, Volume 2

Jake Robins - Personal

Six weeks ago I started the primary fermentation process for my first batch of homemade mead. This is a continuation of that series, so you may want to read that first if you haven't already.

The time has come to "rack" my first batch, which is the end of the primary fermentation period and the beginning of the secondary. Let me first tell you that being able to confidently say a sentence like that does not come for free. I had a lot of questions about these next steps, like "when is primary fermentation done?" or "do I even need secondary fermentation at all?" As per usual in my mead-making research, opinions on all of this is all over the map. I decided to do it based on this video from City Steading Brews if only because these folks seem confident, and took the time to make this whole series end to end over many months, and I figured that even if I didn't need it, the practice operation would be useful for me, and I had a second carboy so I may as well put it to work.

A closeup of a class carboy full of mead. Inside, orange slices and blackberries are visible, faded and withered after fermenting for weeks.
Closeup of the Mead at 5 weeks. The fruit is no longer under warranty.

The first step was to determine if the primary fermentation is done, and this is accomplished by measuring the specific gravity of the brew. What is that you ask? Well, let's do some science. It's actually not too difficult.

Specific Gravity

Specific Gravity is also called relative density. It's basically asking "how dense is your thing compared to some other thing?". In brewing (and probably a lot of other applications too), we use water as our reference point. So this means you end up with a unitless value. A specific gravity of 1 is the exact same density as water. A specific gravity of 0.9 would be less dense than water, and a specific gravity of 1.1 would be more dense than water.

In the case of mead, our batch starts with a high specific gravity because honey is denser than water. But as fermentation proceeds, these sugars are transformed into carbon dioxide and alcohol, which are lower density than water. So as you ferment, the specific gravity of your batch will descend. When the specific gravity stops dropping, you know it's done because no more sugars are being converted.

My plan was to take the first measurement at 5 weeks, and a second at 6 weeks. Here's the setup at the 5 week mark.

A carboy filled with mead and fruit. Next to it on the counter are various mead-making tools, including a turkey baster, a hydrometer, a glass and a new airlock.
Our mead batch and the tools to measure specific gravity

As mentioned last time, it's important to sterilize everything that will touch your brew, so everything in this picture has already gone through this process. I described it a bit in the first post if you want to learn about it again.

The tool you use to measure specific gravity is called a Hydrometer, and I picked up this one from Brewer's Elite. It works off the principle of buoyancy; the deeper it sinks, the less dense the liquid is. You basically just use a turkey baster to suck up some mead into a graduated cylinder, plop in the hydrometer, and read it off.

A graduated cylinder with a turkey baster dropping mead in to it.
Basting mead into the graduated cylinder
A closeup of the hydrometer, floating inside the graduated cylinder full of mead. The hydrometer reads 0.990.
Specific Gravity: 0.990

I don't know anything about anything but this reading of 0.990 is about as low as the hydrometer will read, so my guess at this point is that we are through the primary fermentation period. But I am a man of science, and I must confirm my hypothesis. So I replaced the mead from the cylinder, and sealed it once again with a sterilized airlock. But not before dropping a few sips into a glass, because according to the experts at City Steading, it's worth tasting it at this point.

A small glass with a small amount of mead in it.
Cheers!

Taste Test

This is where things take a very uncertain turn for me. I gave it a taste and it was....not good. I'm not ready to say it's bad yet, though. I don't really have enough (any) experience to determine what it should be tasting like right now. The video I watched said that at 7 weeks it was a drinkable if young mead. Mine was not drinkable, but it was also younger, and I had loaded it up with fruit. The citrus taste was really strong due to putting an entire orange in there so there's that.

A reddit user told me that citrus-y batches need more time to chill out and often start off tasting funky. Funky is definitely a word I would use to describe the taste. I searched for "how know if mead yuck" and one article described contaminated taste using words that I didn't particularly find all that useful, including "barnyards", "goats" and "horse blankets", three flavours that I have yet to fully characterize in my four decades on this Earth.

I could not detect any mould or foreign growths in the mead, so I don't think that happened.

The mead was also very strong. I can definitely confirm fermentation worked, and I think the low specific gravity was an indicator that I've produced a pretty dry mead for my first batch. A friend of mine who has done this before and is also smart told me that drier mead needs a lot more time to age before it is smooth. So there's that working for me here, too.

One thing I was concerned about was temperature. It's hot where I live, and Mexico is experiencing a news-making heat wave right now. I keep a little smart thermometer in the closet with the mead and recorded the temperature over the entire six weeks, and you can see it generally stayed in the 27ºC - 29ºC range, even in a room that I usually have air conditioning on during the day.

Two charts showing temperature and humidity over a six week period from April 13 to May 25. The temperature trends upwards from around 26 degrees celeius to 30 degrees celsius. The humidity trends downward from 60% to 40%.
It's been a spicy May

I can't really tell if that will do anything different to my batch but I know it was higher than the temperatures I read as "recommended" or "optimal".

And so here I am. I have absolutely no idea if this is ruined or not. I decided that either way, I was going to continue on with it. Best case, it's fine and it just needs more aging. Worst case, I gain the experience racking, bottling and detecting a bad batch.

Racking

A week later I carted everything out again and took a second reading on the hydrometer. Surprising no one, 0.990 again. That's good enough for me to be an indicator to rack! Racking is when you transfer the mead to a new container for its secondary fermentation period, and leave behind all the goopy stuff, like the fruit, and the lees. Lees are leftover dead yeast, which have fulfilled their destiny by pooping out some alcohol before settling on the bottom of the carboy, aka their grave.

A carboy with a honey coloured mead in it. At the bottom is about 1 cm of debris settled.
Thank you for your sacrifice, yeasty bois

I bought a simple little auto siphon to transfer the mead. It's basically a little pump with a long hose. I placed the original carboy on the counter and the receiving carboy below it on a stool. Then I gave it a few pumps and off it went!

The mead batch in its carboy, siphoning out to a new carboy.
Mead roller coaster

I had to be kind of careful with the siphon tip - I wanted to get as much as the mead out as I could but I didn't want to suck up a bunch of lees or fruity bits. In the end, I left a little bit behind and I think that's just how it goes,

A glass carboy with a siphon in it, mead filling it up.
Secondary fermenter recieving the mead.

After a short moment, the mead was all transferred over. I sealed the secondary carboy with another airlock in case there is a little bit of extra fermentation happening.

Two carboys on a counter. The left carboy has the leftover fruit and lees, while the second has the mead.
The mead's new home

And that's racking! I'll be going away for summer holidays soon so my plan is to rack this for about two and a half months, giving it lots of time to get out the rest of the yeast and see if it solves my funky tasting problem. So in August I'll be back to check on it and bottle it if it seems better. I'll also be starting up a second batch again in a couple weeks to use some of the lessons I've learned and to get the production line spinning up!

And for that, I'll need to clean out this carboy again...

A pile of dead fruit and less, a pulpy mess inside a sink.
Thank you for your sacrifice, fruity bois