Perhaps there comes a time when all brewers decide to test the limits of alcohol content. Or maybe it is just me and a few other wackos. Either way, I've got the bug recently and have made an 18% dry mead and a 19% alcohol beer. Yeah, buddy.
First the mead; more on the beer in a later post. 18% is generally regarded as the upper limit for mead fermentations, as even the strongest wine yeasts struggle after this much alcohol is present. Dry meads, and in particular high alcohol dry meads, are notorious for taking a long time to mature and tasting like rocket fuel when they are young. I once passed around a young dry mead for tasting to a bunch of brewers, and one of them said it tasted, "like an electrical fire." Singed, firey alcohol, burnt rubber aromas; these are characteristic of a young dry mead. Despite these inauspicious beginnings they often do age into something wonderful, but it can take a year or more. For an 18% dry mead, many mead-makers expect more like 2-3 years before it is drinkable.
Extreme brewing and patience often do not go hand-in-hand. In this circumstance, I decided to use my secret weapon to speed up the process, a stir plate. It's not really secret so much, in fact I often go out of my way to tell people about it because I think it is so cool. Basically, using a stir plate during primary fermentation of a mead can remove the hot, rubbing alcohol flavors from the mead, which greatly speeds up the aging process. I've tried it on lower alcohol dry meads before with good results, but this was the first time testing the alcohol limits.
I used about 5 lbs of Ames Farm honey to make just over 1 gallon of mead. The starting gravity was 1.135. I put it into a 5000 ml flask with a stir bar, added 1 pack of Lalvin EC-1118 yeast along with some nutrient and got it going on the stir plate. For the first 24 hours, I kept it covered loosely to allow for some aeration. After that, I put a stopper and airlock on it to seal it up. I did staggered nutrient additions for it; check out Ken Schramm's excellent mead book for details on that. It took about three weeks to ferment dry.
After cold crashing, what I got is a very clear, pale yellow mead with significant alcohol notes, but no harsh or burning alcohol flavors.
Some of my tasting notes at bottling: Riesling-like acidity (slightly biting), good round body, dusty flavors, caramel, cooked honey, alcohol, with a nutty aftertaste and a bit of lingering acidity.
I'm hoping this mead improves with age (most do). Though it is drinkable, it's not anything amazing yet. It's still young, though, and I'm guessing that it will turn around after a few more months. With a stash of last year's cyser still around, I'm willing to wait.