Yeast selection is a major part of meadmaking. Different strains have different fermentation requirements and produce different flavors (such as esters or thiols), which in turn results in different characteristics in mead.
Check the manufacturer's website for accurate basic information about a yeast strain. Forums and website can be useful as well, but remember that sites driven by user content produce strictly anecdotal information.
These are important factors to check when selecting your yeast.
|Don't try to make a sack wine with Ale Yeast.
|Ideally, fermentation occurs on the low end of the given range.
|Be careful of high nutrient requirement yeasts.
|Does it produce strong esters? What are they like?
|Look for special notes. Many wine yeasts are killer factor yeasts, all ale yeasts are vulnerable to killers. 71B-1122, for instance, partially metabolizes malic acid. Etc.
If you are a beer brewer, you may have noticed that attenuation isn't on the chart. The vast majority (roughly 95-99%) of sugars in honey are easily fermentable. Even low attenuation beer yeasts will fully ferment a mead, provided the potential alcohol is not higher than the yeast's alcohol tolerance.
A note about killer yeasts: many wine yeasts are killer strains. They create proteins that kill any vulnerable strain. All beer strains are vulnerable and about 2/3 of Lalvins portfolio are killer. Any pitch of a killer yeast is a commitment to them and any vulnerable strains will not take after the fact.
Mead made with wine yeast is meant to age. Higher alcohol mead, especially, can take months or years to reach its peak. Often these have many flavor interactions that can influence the final product. They are also common and abundant in most homebrew stores for many popular strains for cheap.
Scott Laboratories, which distributes many commonly used wine strains, recommends the following yeasts for fruit wines and cider. (Some are common and available in homebrew stores but others will likely need to be ordered online.). These lists are a few examples and by no means exhaustive.
Top fruit wine yeast strains: K1V-1116, EC-1118, DV10, 71B-1122, D-47, M2, VIN 13, VL1, QA23 R2, and W15.
Top cider strains: DV-10, EC-1118, K1V-1116, M2, Opale, QA23, R2 and VIN 13.
Some manufacturers produce yeast specifically marketed toward mead. It is still important to see the features as it may or may not be suited for your particular style or need, despite being labeled as for mead.
Beer or ale yeasts are typically characterized by their ability to ferment malt-based worts. Most other yeasts cannot and will have poor attenuation on malts. Otherwise, all the same features are available for mead brewers. ABVs are typically 12-14% and can range on esters from clean (meaning little yeast character is left behind) to highly specific fruity flavors. Beer brewing is the most common form of homebrew and this is reflected at the availability and extent of beer yeasts. Fortunately, they're yeast and still very useful to meadmaking.
Bray Denard has done some experiments with beer yeasts to find strains that produce a high alcohol mead that is drinkable in a much shorter time than wine yeasts. He has found that Wyeast 1388, Lallemand Abbeye, and CBC-1 produce a drinkable mead in just a few months. US-05 (American Ale Yeast) is a very clean yeast that lets the honey shine.
Similarly, Kveik yeasts have come to the homebrewing market. They came from Norwegian farmhouses and is famous for its unusually high temperature tolerance. Most kveiks will remain entirely clean up to 95F/35C. Normal room temperature fermentations are fine and also clean as well. Highly recommended for anyone brewing where it is hot or during hot summers without temperature control. The other aspect is it has the highest nutrient demand even higher than 'high'. Dray Denard said he experiments with protocols and found 450ppm YAN to be sufficient for all kveik strains tested. Many are sold as liquid yeasts but a dry version of Voss exists sold by Lallemand. Omega Yeast Lab has the most variety at time of writing for Kveik as liquid yeast products.
Mead makers dispute the efficacy of using bread yeast to make mead. Joe's Ancient Orange mead, a recipe that uses Fleischmann's bread yeast, is extremely popular among beginners attempting to make mead with items available in their kitchen. It also doesn't require specialized equipment or techniques. Bread yeast has unknown alcohol tolerances, nutrient requirements, temperature ranges, etc. They almost certainly vary from brand to brand as well. Many bread yeasts were obtained from breweries when the companies established decades ago and cultured without selection. They often are "funkier", and many may produce flavors not appropriate for brewing that take longer to age out.
These are not recommended. Both are aimed at producing the most alcohol in short a time as possible and often neglect flavors since they will be stripped out via distillation. Homebrewing does not have that luxury and we are stuck with what the yeast produce. Red Star produces Dry Active Distiller's Yeast (DADY) that fits this niche. Many others also produce 'turbo yeast'. These are yeast packets that have huge pitch rates and often very large amounts of DAP bundled together. They are unsuited for all styles of homebrew. Speed and clean can be obtained by using Kveik yeasts and doing a hot 95F/30C fermentation to obtain similar results without the off-flavors.
It is not advised use sourdough starter or other mixed cultures unless you know what you are doing. They often already contain spoilage microbes (L. brevis, L. hilgardii most commonly, among others) that may have undesired flavors in your mead. Additionally, some will have Brettanomyces instead of Sacchromyces. Both will perform the same functional fermentation but Brettanomyces also produces acetic acids and higher amounts of phenolic compounds known for musty, barny, dirty flavors as well. This is a risky approach, even bread yeast is a better alternative for those having trouble obtaining commercial brewing yeast.
It is possible to capture wild yeast from both fruits and honeys (provided they have not been treated to kill them). They may contain Sacchromyces or Brettanomyces (or both) so the same risks to final flavor profile as above applies. See this Milk the Funk Wiki page for a comprehensive article concerning this topic.
Yeast are sensitive to temperature and have an ideal range, which varies from strain to strain. Wine yeasts were cultured over many generations at cellar temperatures which is close to 62F/16C and often operate best in this range. Ale yeasts are slightly warmer and some work well at 68F/20C. Lager yeasts can operate in both warm and cool temperatures but have higher ester production at room temperatures (could be fine for mead but is style inappropriate for lagers). Warmer will produce faster ferments as well.
Higher temperatures will increase fermentation rate but also typically increase off-flavor production. While D47 (a common wine yeast sold by Lalvin) is listed from 59-86F/15-30C, it produces more detectable harsh flavors above 68F/20C. Scott Labs Handbook and many homebrewers have recommendations and experience with a yeast/temperature pairing. Searching a strain and temperature will likely lead to people discussing their results as well.
Temperature rises during fermentation. This is usually 1-2F(1C) than ambient for 1 gallon batches and 5-6F(2-3C) for 5 gallon batches. It climbs even higher for larger vessels. Keep this in mind when selecting yeast and/or use temperature control.
There are strains available which happily ferment without issue at common indoor temperatures. These are excellent options for dealing with higher temperatures.
Kveik: The new hotness in yeast and homebrew. Ferments clean up to 95F/30C with some strains in the family expressing fruity esters (Voss does orange, Hornidal does tropical, etc) without noticable phenols or fusels. Very high nutrient requirement and typically only available to homebrews via liquid yeasts, notable exception is Lallemand Voss at time of writing.
Belle Saison: Another farmhouse strand, this time from France. This is less clean than kveik but is known for being fruity and spicy. FOR BEER BREWERS: This is a STA-1+ strain (a.k.a diastatic), beware cross contamination with other yeasts for beer brewing.
Belgian Strains: Several Belgian strains were listed above under Beer Yeast via Bray Denard. Wyeast 1388 is one such example and produces clean ferments at 72F/22C.
Wine Yeasts: Red wine yeasts often have optimal temperatures between 68-86F/20-30C and tolerate temperatures around 75F/24C without issue (D21, D254, RC-212). QA23 is another yeast known for heat tolerance and tropical 'esters' when fermented in the low 80s/~28-30C. 71B and EC-1118 will tolerate up to low 70s (up to around 22C) without too much issue as well. Note, D47 is a poor choice for heat and produces lots of phenolic off-flavors at high temperatures, keep under 68F/20C for best results.
These strains often negate the need for more expensive/complicated temperature control needs. They are a huge resource for brewers, especially the very hot tolerant Kveik strains.
There are techniques and products to keep fermentation temperature irrelevant or under control. Consider the above section of a heat-tolerant yeast when the substitution is appropriate.
Easiest is to either pair a yeast that works at your temperature or finding a place in your house that has a desired temperature. Classic example is a cellar, if available.
Fermentation chambers are another option and usually a small freezer or refrigerator with a temperature controller (such as an Inkbird ITC-308) to keep the chamber warmer than a normal fridge/freezer. They are often cheap since old, used items can be repurposed. The main drawback is finding the space, or lifting fill fermenters in and out of chest freezers.
Other products exist as well. Glycol chillers and cooling coils, however, they become very expensive fast ($1k+ USD excluding the fermenter itself). Chiller coils can be paired with a cooler filled with ice water and a pump instead of a dedicated glycol chiller for a cheaper solution. A large insulated jacket with frozen large bottles like 2L bottles will drop and keep it regulated rather stably.
Simple DIY solutions include ice buckets, insulation jackets, even heating, etc. A swamp cooler consists of a fermenter in a tub of cool water with a towel covering the fermenter draped slightly in the water. The water will evaporate and drop the temperature. A fan speeds this up. However, this is the least reliable method and requires upkeep of refilling water or won't work well on days with high humidity. Heat wraps are sold for things like kombucha but are also useful for Kveik. Some strains express a particular fruity ester but at temperatures over 95F/30C.
Consider this section a short summary and not conclusive. There are many ways to brew a mead and also many ways to control temperature.
The flavor profile a yeast strain contributes is affected by several factors like temperature and nutritional availability.
One of these factors is the time yeast spend in the various growth phases. Some of the most characteristic flavors are generated during the phase of exponential growth.
Pitched at a normal rate of 1-5 grams (dry yeast) per gallon, a yeast colony only doubles a handful of times before de-escalating and reaching stationary phase. Enough to stress the yeast just the right amount to develop desirable esters, unless you're using a relatively clean fermenting yeast.
Under pitch, however, and you stress your yeast population longer, exaggerating the esters and producing unwanted off flavors. In beers, attenuation will often be lower as well. Over pitch, and you you risk running an overly hot fermentation, or (on the extreme end) you cause stress from overcrowding and the dying off of weaker cells.
All of that said, there's elasticity with dry yeast because of how a yeast colony grows exponentially. Pitching at double or half the normal rate only changes the number of multiplications by +/-1, which doesn't matter too much for most styles unless you're trying to dial in a competition winner.
>Math (by /u/balathustrius)
>Dry yeast contains ~20 billion viable cells per gram.
>A sachet contains 5 grams. Sometimes 9.5, sometimes 11. All the Lalvin strains are 5 grams, so let's stick with that.
>Two packets: 10 grams * 20 billion cells = 200 billion cells.
>At 3785.41 ml per gallon, 5 gallons = 18927.1 ml.
>200 billion cells / 18927.1 ml = 10.5 million cells per ml.
>10 -> 20 -> 40 -> 80 -> 160 -> Cap reached.
>If you pitched 5 million cells per ml, that's one extra round of reproduction stress. If you pitched 20 million cells per ml, that's one less.
While it makes a difference, it isn't that big of a difference. Doubling or halving pitch rate doesn't change the amount of time it spends in the exponential growth phase by a correspondingly similar amount.
These links represent some potentially helpful sources available
Yeast by Dr. Chris White of White Labs: This is a entry-level friendly book on yeast mechanics, geared toward beer but still useful for mead.
2021 Scott Laboratories Winemaking Handbook: This is the holy grail of info on many types of yeast and also supplements and additives. It is geared toward the power user/brewer but can be a learning experience by anyone.