Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.
Drink it Young or Drink it Old: How Long Should You Age Mead
One of the most common fallacies I hear in the mead makers world is that the longer you age mead the better it gets and it will never go bad. You hear the same thing in reference to red wine, but more people are aware that red wine will spoil eventually as well, very few seem to be aware that mead can go bad. For this reason I thought it best to write an article showing the best practices for how to age mead.
How To Age Mead: The Age Old Honey
Honey Lasts Forever
I believe this is the source of the belief that you can age mead endlessly. Honey never goes bad, the sugar content is too high for any bacteria to grow on and in fact will smother bacteria that are covered in honey, so honey is antibacterial. They have found 3000 year old honey that was perfectly edible. So it stand to reason that if you add honey to something you are protecting it from spoilage right?
Unfortunately this is not entirely true. You see once since the antibacterial nature of honey is derived from the fact that it has an extremely low water content, the moment you dilute the honey the antibacterial nature of the honey vanishes. And if you look at the reason for the antibacterial properties it makes perfect sense. In mead the honey is quite drastically diluted, in fact the sugar content of most meads is on par with standard desert wines (although you can make a dry mead with much lower content, trust me I do it all the time). If the honey was still antibacterial then you could not ferment the sugars, the honey would kill off the yeast, the fact that it doesn't proves that it is not the honey that is antibacterial but simply the high sugar to water ratio.
How To Age Mead: It's About Time
So How Long Should You Age Your Mead?
So now I've told you you can't age mead indefinitely you are probably wondering how long you should age your mead. The 100% accurate and perfectly precise answer is it depends on the mead. Kind of anticlimactic isn't it? Sorry about that.
Ok that answer sucked, I fully admit it. So lets see if I can give you a better, less precise answer. Most meads are fine to drink young, right after bottling even, but they will improve, sometimes drastically, upon aging. I generally recommend a minimum of 6 months and up to two years for most meads. I have tasted some pretty fantastic 10 year old meads, but to be honest they are few and far between, one because who can resist a bottle for that long, and two because in all honesty most can't withstand that long of aging.
A plain straight mead with only honey, water, yeast and nutrient, can be aged 10 years no problem, and assuming there is no cork taint or other issues like that you'll get an amazingly fantastic drink, but to tell you the truth it was probably amazingly fantastic at 2 years.
A melomel, or fruit mead, won't stand up to aging as well because the fruit juice just doesn't handle it. The honey will help preserve the juice as will the alcohol, but eventually off notes will start creeping in, and once they start they don't stop.
Since the ideal aging time for each recipe will vary the absolute best way to determine if a mead is ready is to open a bottle and test it. This method requires the desire to drink mead, and since I don't know a single meadmaker that doesn't love mead I think that's the easiest part, the hard part comes next. Once you bottle your mead put it aside and don't drink it, leave it. At three months take a bottle and test it, if its ready put your batch in circulation for consumption, if not move on to the next step. At six months, and every six months after that, take another bottle out and test it, when you find the ideal time make a note on the recipe and drink up me hearty.
How To Age Mead: Size Matters
Bulk Aging vs. Bottle Aging
Now that we've covered the length of time to age, we can now cover bulk aging vs. bottle aging. Bulk aging is the process of aging the mead before bottling; bottle aging is, obviously, the practice of aging the mead in the bottle. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages, and you should consider carefully which method to use, or what percentage since realistically unless you drink immediately after bottling or bottle immediately after fermentation then you will be doing a mixture of both.
- Quicker: Because the aging is done in a larger bottle the exposure to oxygen is greater and thus the aging is increased.
- Easier to taste: You can taste if your mead is ready or not without using an entire bottle, just take a glass full
- Easy to spoil: If the airlock isn't maintained properly or the seal is not perfect you could end up with vinegar
- Lower risk of spoilage
- Easier to store
- Tighter seal means slower aging, longer before your mead reaches its peak and is thus ready to be consumed.
Paul Newson on September 29, 2017:
Interesting and informative article, but "If the honey was still antibacterial then... [it] would kill off the yeast" is inaccurate; yeast is fungus, not bacteria. While yeast cells won't ferment in undiluted honey, they can and do survive, unlike bacteria which are desiccated due to osmosis.
Jeff Johnston (author) from Alberta Canada on September 05, 2012:
@coffeeclasses: Nice... bulk aging like that is actually the more effective method for aging. Good luck with your meads :D they sound great :D
coffeeclasses on September 05, 2012:
Nice lens. I have 2 batches sitting in the secondary for almost 2 years. I don't know why I let them sit for so long, instead of bottling and then age. Tasted them the other day and decided it's time to bottle. This weekends project. One is a straight traditional mead and the other more of a cyser with honey, blueberry, pomegranate and of course cider. I'm going to check out your other lens's now. Happy mead making!