Six of us gathered for a great evening that began with a tasting. Not just any tasting, it concluded a three year experiment that tested the effect of boiling on making mead. Two meads went head to head that night. I made one with a ten minute boil, and the other was as identical as I could make it without boiling.
I was careful to arrange it so that none of us, not even me or the Lady of the House, knew which one we were tasting at the time. I decanted the meads into identical containers, labeling the boiled mead “Whidbey” and the no boil mead “Mercer.” I was alone when I did this, then I left the room and the Lady of the House removed the labels and color coded them (orange for Whidbey and blue for Mercer). Neither of us knew what the other had done, but we could compare notes afterward to find out which mead was blue and which was orange. Everyone got color coded index cards to write down our impressions of each mead.
The most detailed of the lot summed it up this way:
#1 [the no-boil mead] has a very light body, a nice rich bouquet, a strong dry beginning, and a very light finish. #2 [the boiled mead] has good body, a light feathery aroma, a slightly fruity beginning with a strong flowery finish.
In addition to reading the comments, we also talked about the meads after the tasting was over. So what did we find?
Boiling does weaken the aroma
We confirmed the common wisdom that boiling weakens the aroma. All of us agreed that the no-boil mead had a stronger aroma. There wasn’t anything unpleasant in the aroma of the boiled mead, it was just less pronounced. One of us even preferred it. We described the boiled mead’s aroma as “feathery” and “subtle” compared to “rich” and “brandy-like” for the no-boil mead.
But might improve the body and flavor
Four of us (all the women) preferred the the boiled mead, overall, because of its better flavor. The word “smooth” came up five times and each time it was to describe the boiled mead. Two of us explicitly talked about the body, and both described the boiled mead as more full bodied than the no-boil mead.
I specifically asked about the aroma and overall preference, so all six of us commented on that. But some talked about the body and how “smooth” the mead tasted. I’ve compiled the comments on those four categories into a table.
Surprised? I was!
I went into this with preconceptions, that’s why it’s so important that the tasting be double-blind. I didn’t expect much difference between the two, but boiling clearly makes a noticeable difference. The other surprise is that there might be some benefit to boiling. Most people, who have an opinion on the subject, seem to think that boiling can only harm the mead – specifically by weakening the aroma. And so it does, but as with many things in real life there’s a trade off. Giving up some intensity in the aroma can get you a mead that is fuller bodied and smoother – four out of six of us thought it was worth the trade off for this particular mead.
Making better mead with what we’ve learned
It might make sense to be dogmatic about some things, but boiling isn’t one of them. I think I understand better how it affects mead, and I can use that knowledge when I make one. How might this affect my future batches? I’ll probably want to boil meads made with strong-tasting honey (the one we tested was made from heather honey, it has a strong flavor and makes a great mead) because I think they’ll benefit most from the smoother more rounded flavor that results. It also makes me wonder how this experiment would have turned out if I had used a milder honey. Anyone want to give it a try?
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