Making Mead: The controversy over boiling

It used to be pretty common for meadmakers to boil the honey-water mixture, but more and more are preparing their meads without heat. Ken Schramm makes a good case for the no-heat method in his The Compleat Meadmaker : Home Production of Honey Wine From Your First Batch to Award-winning Fruit and Herb Variations. Adherents of this method are taking aim at the older practice of boiling. They argue that there is no need to kill or suppress spoilage organisms because they can’t survive in honey anyway. Honey will last for years at room temperature without going bad, so I think they’re right about this. When they say that boiling, even briefly, will “ruin” honey or “drive off it’s delicate aroma,” I become more skeptical.

I’ve made mead both ways, and I just haven’t noticed that the no-boil or no-heat meads are any more aromatic. If there really is a difference in aroma between boiled and no-heat meads, then it’s too small a difference to notice in a casual way. So in February 2006 I started two 1-gallon batches of mead. I prepared them the same way except that one was boiled and one was not. When they’re ready to drink, and I don’t expect that before February 2009, I plan to have a blind tasting party. Maybe we’ll notice something. Maybe not.

Suppose that there isn’t a difference in aroma. If you don’t need to boil for sanitation, why boil at all? You might want to boil for clarity. Simple meads (just honey, water, yeast, nutrient, and acid) will not clear on their own to my satisfaction. I’ve written about fining with bentonite, and that’s one way to clear your mead. Another is to boil the honey water mixture. I have found that a short boil, about five to ten minutes, will clear mead just as effectively as bentonite.

So my current thinking, and this may change with the results of the tasting party or other new information, is that a short boil does no harm and can be useful in clearing your mead. It is not necessary if you’d rather fine, if you’re not concerned about clarity, or if you think that your mead gets sufficiently clear on its own.

Update 10/28/2008 I ran a controlled experiment to test the effects of boiling. After a carefully arranged double blind tasting, the results are in! Boiling does indeed weaken the aroma of mead, but may improve the body and smooth out the flavor.

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5 thoughts on “Making Mead: The controversy over boiling

  1. Aaron

    Just a question. How clear was mead traditionally, I mean, before use of modern stoves or the knowledge that bentonite exsisted as a clarifying agent?
    Do you find the clarity of the mead changes the flavor, and if so, is it a change for the better?

  2. Erroll Post author

    Hello Aaron,

    The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened: Whereby is Discovered Several Ways for Making of Metheglin, Sider, Cherry-Wine, etc, & together with Excellent Directions for Cookery: As also for Preserving, Conserving, Candying, etc contains mead recipes that call for boiling, and it was published in 1669. I don’t know if Sir Kenelme’s mead was clear or not, none of us can go back and look, but it certainly could have been.

    I have found no relationship between clarity and flavor. I’ve waited three years for some meads to clear, and when they didn’t, I fined with bentonite. The mead tasted great before and after the fining. So if clarity is important to you, there are simple things you can do to get it without harming your mead. If it isn’t, then you’re not missing anything by drinking mead that isn’t brilliantly clear.

    I should mention that you can add too much of a fining agent (like bentonite), and that can hurt your mead. Then again, that’s true of most things: you can have too much honey, tannin, and acid. In principal, you can probably add too much yeast (but it would really have to be a lot).


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