Homebrewing isn’t the easiest of hobbies. There are a million and one decisions to make throughout the entire process, from whether or not to degas to figuring out if your batch is infected to even whether or not you should keep an infected batch and make yourself some sours.
One decision that you’d expect to be straightforward is to when to rack your mead – i.e. when to transfer it to a fresh container. The answer is, ostensibly, quite simple: when primary fermentation is complete. As with many things related to homebrewing, however, figuring out when this is might not be so easy. Read on for the full guide to racking your mead.
What is racking?
As briefly explained above, racking is the transfer of your brew from one container to another, typically at the end of primary fermentation. It’s done to separate your brew (in our case, mead) from the unwanted waste products generated in primary, such as the lees (dead yeast and other detritus) and krausen residue (the frothy stuff that occurs during primary fermentation).
It’s important to get racking right, as doing it carelessly can ruin your mead. Use clean, sterilised equipment to avoid infections and consider using an auto-siphon (which gets the mead moving without you having to suck on the end of a pipe, which we don’t need to tell you isn’t the most sanitary method in the world!).
Is racking mead necessary?
In a nutshell: yes. Clarity is important in mead, and you’re not going to get the sort of clarity you want without racking to secondary fermentation, as your carboy (or other container) is going to be full of detritus such as lees and krausen froth.
Furthermore, the aforementioned stuff (particularly the lees) is stuff that you don’t want in your mead; they’re waste products, and by definition undesirable. Racking leaves you with just straight mead.
Finally, racking your mead to a new container degasses it to an extent, which most (but not all!) would argue is a good thing. There’s a lot of CO2 being generated in primary fermentation, and CO2 is a waste product of yeast. The more there is, the harder it is for the yeast to work.
How long should I wait to rack my mead?
As with so many things in the homebrewing game: it really depends. There is the quick but imprecise method, or the meticulous and painstaking one.
If you want it quick and dirty, you can just wait until primary fermentation is complete. How do you judge this? First, wait about 3-6 weeks and then check your airlock. If the bubbles have slowed to less than one per five minutes, then you’re good to go. Note that this is far from an exact science.
If you’d like to be more precise in your calculations, you might want to use a hydrometer. This handy piece of kit is used to measure the gravity of your mead, and therefore ensure you’re at the level you want to be at.
But what is meant by ‘gravity’? Simply put, it’s the amount of dissolved solids present in your brew – the higher the hydrometer floats in your mead, the higher the gravity. Your ideal gravity for racking into secondary is about 1/3 of your starting gravity, so be sure to measure your brew when you begin fermenting.
Can I rack mead too early?
Short answer: yes you can. If you’re a little careless with your racking and jump the gun, a couple of things can happen – and they’re mutually exclusive. It’s unfortunately not possible to predict which way it will go, but your mead will either:
Lose too much yeast and result in stalled fermentation. This isn’t great because you’re left with must that hasn’t finished fermenting properly and so isn’t really mead. You’ll essentially be drinking mostly honey water.
Have too much unactivated yeast and lead to popped corks/bottle bombs. This is perhaps a little worse than simply having under-brewed mead, as it can lead to some pretty terrible consequences down the road. Basically, premature racking will leave unactivated yeast in the brew, which can later wake up and start fermenting your mead again. This leads to CO2 build-up, which is very bad if you’ve already bottled your mead – that CO2 will cause a pressure build-up in the bottle, which will lead, at best, to popped corks and, at worst, exploding bottles.
I’ve racked my mead and it’s sitting in secondary fermentation. How long should I wait?
Congratulations! Secondary fermentation is actually very important for mead, which benefits immensely from bulk aging (i.e. letting your whole mead batch sit in a single container for a while). The longer mead is left in secondary, the more complex and intense the flavours and the clearer the mead will be (clarity being, as we’ve said, sorta a big deal for mead).
That said, a minimum of 8 weeks is recommended for the secondary fermentation of your mead – although if you were to leave it for a year, nobody could fault you!
We hope that this article has answered any questions you may have about the racking process vis-à-vis mead, but it’s entirely possible (likely, even) that you still have a tonne of questions about mead-making in general. Check out our companion articles on whether you should degas mead and how to tell if your mead is infected for further information on this delicious (but complicated) beverage!