As we’ve previously stated, Mead is an alcoholic beverage with such a long pedigree that it’s believed to have been the first alcoholic drink actively brewed by humankind. That long pedigree doesn’t always mean that it’s easier or more straightforward to brew, however, and indeed, mead can be a bit on the tricky side – perhaps even more than your beers or your wines.
The whole process of fermentation is difficult to get a handle on (sometimes even for experts), and you can sometimes stare at a batch for a long time trying to figure out if something is off. Does that smell funny, or am I just imagining things? Is that bubbling crust on top a normal part of the fermentation process, or do I need to dump the whole batch?
This article aims to explore how your mead might get an infection, what an infection might look like, and whether or not your batch can be salvaged. Read on to find out more.
How does Mead get infected?
Most commonly: because your equipment hasn’t been correctly cleaned. Cleanliness is always next to godliness, but this is particularly true in brewing: keep all of your equipment properly cleaned, stored and sterilised, and you stand an excellent chance of your brews not getting infected!
How can I tell if my Mead is infected?
Fermentation and home-brewing is a complex, weird sort of alchemy, and even a perfectly healthy batch can look infected or ‘off’ to the untrained eye – fermentation is, after all, the process of deliberately letting a bunch of bacteria much through a pile of organic matter. It’s going to get pretty weird at points.
In order to establish what a Mead infection looks like, it’s important to first establish what it doesn’t look like:
A brownish residue that froths up from your must during primary fermentation, krausen is a by-product of your yeast working its way through the viscous honey and is a normal part of the fermentation process. As the krausen eases off and the frothing recedes, there may be a crust or rime left behind on the sides of your carboy. This is normal and absolutely not a sign of infection.
Found towards the end of primary fermentation, the lees are the yeast that didn’t make it, along with other residue undesirable to the fermentation process. These will collect at the bottom of your brew as a powdery white residue. When you rack your mead into a fresh container, the lees will be left behind; as a natural part of the fermentation process, they are nothing to worry about.
So now we’ve established what an infection doesn’t look like: what happens if your mead is infected?
How can you tell if your Mead is bad?
There are a few ways of figuring out if your mead is infected or gone bad; generally speaking, these are pellicles, or they are some form of invisible infection.
The most common form of mead infection, pellicles are fibrous white bubbles commonly found on the surface (less commonly at the bottom) of your fermenting mead. They can be discrete, bulbous growths or interconnected strands that look a bit like noodles, but either way, they are signs of infection. Pellicles are a sign that oxygen has got into your mead and non-yeast bacteria (or an unanticipated yeast variant) has proliferated.
Some infections are far more difficult to spot, which is because they’re invisible (it’s traditionally pretty hard to spot invisible things). The only way of detecting these is if you find that the taste is off or if your attenuation process is not quite right. The former is dependent entirely on your taste buds, and the latter comes with practice.
So your Mead is infected
If you’ve found active pellicles in your mead, it’s really tempting to just dump the lot, burn all your equipment with fire and start from scratch. But don’t panic and throw everything out – you may still be able to save your mead.
Can I get sick off homemade Mead?
The odds of your getting sick off your homemade mead are extremely low – even if it has developed pellicles as we’ve described them above. In fact, the term ‘infected’ here is a bit misleading – the mead is ‘infected’ in the sense that it has some bacteria undesirable to your ultimate goal, sure, but it’s not dangerous. You can still ingest pellicle-infected mead with absolutely no chance of getting sick, in fact!
Pellicles are actually how sour beers are made, and whilst it’s not something desirable to all brewers, a good many will go after this specific effect and even keep equipment in which pellicle infections have occurred in order to recreate it later.
That said, if you taste the mead and the flavour is off – vile, even – then it’s beyond saving and needs to be dumped. Cut your losses and try again.
Can I Skim the Pellicles off my Mead?
You can, but it won’t ultimately make any difference. Pellicles are merely an indicator that an extra bacterium has made its home in your mead – they are not the bacterium itself. Once pellicles have presented, you’re stuck with your new bacterium.
Can my infected Mead be saved, or should I dump it?
As noted earlier, ‘infected’ is a broad phrase and doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bad’. Sour meads are actually quite a popular variant, and can make for an amazingly complex and full-bodied flavour! It may, therefore, be well worth letting your mead ferment to completion. You might create something quite unique out of a happy accident.
But I don’t want sour Mead. How do I stop mead infections from happening again?
Sour mead isn’t for everybody, and you might just want to stick to your original game plan. In that case, you need to first identify all brewing equipment that came into contact with your brew and thoroughly clean and sanitise it. But even the most thorough cleaning may not be sufficient, and you may well have to start over with entirely new equipment (it can be hard to reach every single nook and cranny!). Be sure to always sanitise your equipment immediately before brewing, too; this further decreases the chances of infections taking hold.
As we’ve seen, mead infections are hardly the end of the world and may take you down interesting new paths in your brewing adventures. That said, they’re often not desirable, and the best way to avoid any unwelcome surprises is to be meticulous with both cleaning and sanitising your equipment. Good luck and happy brewing!