Mead wears many faces. Almost all of them can be slotted into two categories: sweet mead or dry. Though mead is often thought of as a sweet drink, everyone has their own preference. Sweet mead has the wonderful honey sweetness many drinkers are looking for, while dry mead showcases the other ingredients in their purest form.
Hitting your desired sweetness takes both skill and practice, but there are several things you should understand to help you get there. Check them out below.
Though mead is similar to wine in many ways, it differs greatly when it comes to the starting and finishing gravities. Wine is usually limited by the sugar that the grapes can provide, which keeps most wine in the 1.080-1.110 range, or about 12-15% alcohol by volume.
Most wine yeast can handle this alcohol content range without trouble, and usually will ferment the wine dry, meaning no or very little sugar remaining. On a hydrometer this is somewhere in the range of 0.994-1.000 or so.
Your yeast has a big job ahead of it.
Honey is so concentrated that you can make your starting gravity whatever you'd like. You could easily start at 1.140, for example. If a mead of this sugar content were to ferment dry, it would be over 19% alcohol. Most wine yeasts, however, cannot withstand this level of alcohol and will stop fermenting before all the sugars are gone. That means that some sugars will be left over, which will make the mead sweet or semi-sweet.
By paying attention to your yeast strain's alcohol tolerance level, you can select a strain and starting gravity that give you the desired level of sweetness remaining. The Lalvin 71B-1122 Narbonne strain is an excellent one for making sweet meads in this fashion, as it has a relatively low alcohol tolerance and makes a mead that is usually ready to drink relatively quickly.
As previously outlined, yeast health is essential. Mead is made from honey, which is pure sugar. In other words, the yeast face a brick wall. To help your yeast along, it helps to introduce nutrients throughout the fermentation - also known as staggered nutrient additions. Use Go-Ferm & Fermaid K to rehydrate your yeast and give it the boost it needs.
Mead has a finicky way of kicking fermentation back into gear just when you think it's over. If you want to add extra sugar to the finished product in order to increase sweetness, chances are your yeast will come back to life. They'll eat up the sugars, and you won't get the top-off of sweetness that you want.
One way to avoid this outcome is to use potassium sorbate, a chemical that prohibits further fermentation. While potassium sorbate cannot stop a fermentation that is in progress, if you have a completed fermentation, it allows you to add additional sugars to mead without the yeast starting up again.
If planning to use potassium sorbate, it is a good idea to use potassium metabisulfite from the beginning of the brewing process, too. Sulfite will prevent malolactic bacteria from getting in your mead, and the combination of potassium sorbate and malolactic bacteria can produce some unwanted, "geranium" like off-flavors.
You should still age the mead after sweetening to make sure that all fermentation has stopped (and check to see if the gravity remains constant). It will also give your mead more depth and maturity of flavor.
Sweet meads can be anywhere up to about 1.040 in finishing gravity. Very sweet and strong meads are sometimes called "sack" mead. The sweetness is usually balanced by the alcohol content as well as the acidity. If you wind up with a mead that is too sweet adding some acid can help balance it out. Our acid blend is a good option.
If you are back-sweetening (adding sugar/honey to a completed fermentation, as in the potassium sorbate example), you can add honey to taste by adding it in small increments and taking samples.
If you are trying to make carbonated sweet mead, forced carbonation with CO2 is the only way to go. Priming sugar won't work, as the yeast cannot consume the remaining sugars. But a kegging system and a co2 tank works quite well, however, and is the easiest way to reliably carbonate any mead.