Adjusting acidity is critical
Acidity can make or break a mead. Too much and you will have a harsh undrinkable mead, but too little will leave your mead flabby and unpleasant. Winemakers deal with this by measuring the acidity of there wine or must and adjusting it according to the type of wine they are making. These two steps, measurement and adjustment, are fairly straightforward in making wine, but can be problematic when making mead.
But you can’t adjust what you can’t measure
A winemaker measures the acidity of his wine (or must) by titration. That is, neutralizing a wine’s acid with a strong base. By carefully measuring the amount of wine and the amount of base needed to neutralize the acid, he can determine how much acid there was to start with. Inexpensive kits are widely available just for this purpose. The peculiar chemistry of honey (and therefore mead) skews the results of such testing. The dominant acid in mead, gluconic acid, can be titrated just like any other acid. The problem comes from a substance that is related to gluconic acid called gluconolactone. As the pH rises, the gluconolactone actually changes into gluconic acid, so when you titrate a sample of mead, you will be adding base until all the gluconic acid and gluconolactone is neutralized. Since you had to use “too much” base to titrate the sample, your calculations will overstate the amount of acid. So meadmakers aren’t able to make this simple measurement that winemakers take for granted.
And you can’t adjust if you don’t know the right end point
Even if it were possible to accurately measure, there’s no clear cut specification for the right amount of acid in mead. Here again, winemakers have it easy. They can consult well established guidelines for the amount of acid in different styles of wine. The long history of winemaking and extensive research have produced a consensus that just doesn’t exist for mead. Some meadmakers insist that mead is better au naturale, with no additional acid. Others try to imitate the acid profile of (usually white) wine. I’ve made mead without adding acid, and I don’t care for it. I’ve enjoyed meads made like a white wine, and I think that makes them a good starting point. I’m not convinced that the different chemistries of wine and mead would lead to exactly the same acid requirements though.
Ok, now what?
This uncertainty about the right amount of acid and the difficulty in measuring it represents a unique problem for meadmakers. One way to deal with it is to pass the buck and use an established recipe. Popular recipes that have stood the test of time, and are well liked by a lot of people, must have dealt with acidity, even if only by accident. Rules of thumb are another solution. I have found that 1 tsp of acid blend, or tartaric acid, per gallon of mead (about 1.3 g/L) often gives good results. You may have heard that you should “adjust to taste,” and I have given this advice myself. It doesn’t really tell you very much, though, does it? Should you keep adding until a mead stops tasting flabby? That would certainly improve it. Should you add acid until it’s profile reminds you of a white wine? You can get good results that way.
None of these approaches are very satisfying to me. I’ve been puzzling over this problem for a while, trying to come up with a more precise method. Well, at least a less imprecise one. I’ll have more to say about this when I’ve organized my thoughts a little better.
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