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My MEAD is too DRY or SWEET

I’m hearing this a lot lately so I thought, “Why not do a little article on dry and sweet meads?”. Then, I started thinking about it more, and it’s become somewhat of a rabbit hole, no, a dark hole. It’s sucking up everything and shooting it into the Gamma Quadrant. This topic is larger than it would seem yet, on the surface so simple. I think I’ll opt for the simpler explanation.

We all know our brews, be it wine, mead, cider, or beer all have one thing in common. Sugars. Sugars are what is fermented to make our adult beverages, you know all this, right?

So, we just get some sugar, add yeast and BLAMO! Alcohol. Sort of? The thing is, not all yeast are created equal and… they do have limits.

The first limit is rather arbitrary and somewhat difficult to measure. That’s the limit that they will even begin fermenting. What do I mean? Well, if you take honey for example. If you simply added yeast to honey, it won’t ferment. There’s just TOO much for the yeast and they could even die. That’s part of why honey doesn’t spoil, the concentration of sugar is too high. Similar can be said for table sugar. If you don’t dilute it, it won’t ferment, and will keep for years in the cupboard.

The second limit for yeast is alcohol tolerance. This is the upper ABV limit of where yeast theoretically just can’t take it anymore and stop producing alcohol and CO2. Note, I did not say die. They aren’t dead, they are dormant. Essentially, ethanol and CO2 (along with a ton of other compounds) are waste products of yeast consuming sugar. As with any living creature, they don’t want to swim in their own waste and thus, have a limit to how much they can take. It’s nature’s way of creating equilibrium, but that’s another show.

Many times, people will say, “I followed your recipe for My First Mead, but I used EC-1118 yeast instead of bread yeast because someone told me to.”. I get it, you didn’t know, and it’s okay. However… let me explain something!

First… if we thought EC-1118 was better for this recipe, wouldn’t we have used it?

Then we have to consider the alcohol tolerance of the yeasts in question. Fleischmann’s Instant Dry (or whatever they call it) bread yeast is pretty darn good stuff. I don’t use any other bread yeast and I know they vary. This particular yeast seems to have an 11-12% tolerance, pretty consistently. That means, if there are enough sugars present, it will convert them to ethanol and CO2 until the ABV of the brew is 11-12%. At that point, they will likely stop.

I say they will stop at the tolerance, but… yeast cannot read, and various circumstances and situations will make them stop short of this tolerance or go past it.

So, if the recipe is made to ferment to about 12% and leave a touch of sweetness, then using something that CAN ferment to 18% will do… what?

It will likely consume all the sugars and the yeast will go dormant, having nothing left to do. It will be dry. Dry in wines and meads simply means “not sweet”. This is where people complain. Because it’s dry, and young, it can taste acidic, or even have some “off” flavors. Age will help a lot, but it will not make it sweeter.

So at this point, common sense says, “Add more sugar to make it sweeter.”. Remember I said DORMANT, not dead? Yeah, those yeasts are just waiting for you to add more sugar so they can get to converting again. And guess what? It will probably go dry again, unless you’re at or above the tolerance of those yeasts. This is where frustration sets in for many brewers.

Yes, you can pasteurize to stop fermentation, but, it’s a little risky and if you’re a new brewer, you might want to keep it simple. We have a video on pasteurization:

Instead of pasteurizing, you could keep adding sugars until you overcame the tolerance of the yeast. There is one caveat here…

When you step feed (that’s what this technique is called) you will greatly raise the ethanol level and therefore change the balance and flavor of the brew. I can’t tell you how many people have done this and then complained it tasted too “boozy”. Well… take something intended for 12%, make it 18% and… yeah, you will taste the alcohol!

So, this is why, when we write a recipe, we intend it for a certain yeast. Changing that yeast changes the recipe. Sure, swap it for something with the same alcohol tolerance and you will be closer. But… why not just try it as intended? Even just once, do it as we show, and that way you can experience the brew as we did. THEN you can experiment.

Thanks for reading and have a great day!

-Brian

For more information on ABV and Brewing Basics, check out this video:

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9 Comments

  1. Adam F December 1, 2020 at 3:39 pm #

    Great article. I think this will help a lot of people

    • brerica December 1, 2020 at 3:43 pm #

      Yeah, a lot of people seem to be confused on some of the idea behind yeast and tolerances!

  2. Richard December 1, 2020 at 5:19 pm #

    Brian

    Thank you for the information. It well be helpful and give direction to what i need to do.. Right now i am in an experiment with a small batch of cider that i want to pasteurize after all is said and done, to see what happens.The yeast i am using is 1118. Different from my first trial which was bread yeast. I hope to make a larger batch in the future. Again thank you.

  3. Stacey McGovern December 1, 2020 at 5:21 pm #

    I heard Brian in my head the whole time I was reading this. Great article, very clear explanation. 👍🙂

    • brerica December 1, 2020 at 5:24 pm #

      LOL, good, then it’s working!

  4. Jean Martin. December 1, 2020 at 10:53 pm #

    Thank you for this reminder. I appreciate that you took the time to write it down. Sometimes seeing it written down makes it easier to remember. I just finished some really, really sweet elderberry wine, using fresh (ish) elderberries. Used bread yeast. Did everything wrong. Hopefully it will calm down in a couple of months.

    • Brian December 1, 2020 at 11:37 pm #

      Sounds like a bit too much sugars? Anyway, thanks for the comment. Hoping to utilize our blog more and more!

  5. Arun December 2, 2020 at 2:56 am #

    Nice informative article. When I started watching your channel, I remembered my experimentation with wine brewing many years back without any knowledge of the same. I made Mango wine ( using Mango pulp and sugar and bakers yeast). It went dry completely. I thought it had gone bad. This info will help in future brewing. Thank you

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