Making Mead: Testing the controversy over boiling


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.

Category Boil No-Boil # Responses
Stronger Aroma 0 6 6
Best Overall 4 2 6
Smoother 5 0 5
More Body 2 0 2



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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30 thoughts on “Making Mead: Testing the controversy over boiling

  1. John

    Fascinating, Erroll. Thank you for your thorough approach to this complex and sometimes controversial issue. I for one am glad to benefit from your experience, as always. My wife absolutely hated the commercial mead we bought (she doesn’t like honey either), and this has kept me from venturing out and making a batch, but having some solid knowledge up front on how to produce a good batch of mead might persuade me to make an attempt. Who knows? Perhaps even the Lady of the house (to borrow a phrase) will come to appreciate mead if I make it and the result is a success. Or perhaps I will learn to do it just for my own sake, and partake of the results alone.

    Erroll, I wonder if you can point me in the direction of a good book on meads – or perhaps a website – that will take the reader from beginner (me, e.g.) to successful mead-maker (you, e.g.).

    Thanks again. As always, I am a fan of your blog!

    – John

  2. Eric

    Erroll:

    Thanks for such a scientific approach! It mirrors my personal experience. I boiled my first few meads, but not my more recent batches and noticed more flavor. The tastings have been far apart enough that I can’t compare body.

    Thanks again.
    -Eric

  3. Erroll Post author

    Hello John,

    I don’t care for the commercial mead that I’ve tried either. Give it a go! Here are some books and links to get you started:

    The most current and most popular book on mead is Ken Schramm’s The Compleat Meadmaker. From step by step instructions and a great discussion about different sorts of honey to several recipes, this book has a lot to offer. If you buy only one book, this should be the one.

    Roger Morse’s Making Mead is much older (and shorter), but fills in some technical gaps in Ken’s book.

    The Mead Lover’s Digest is an old (the oldest?) mead e-mail list. Instructions on how to join the list and access the archives here:

    http://www.talisman.com/mead/index.html

    Got Mead just might be the most popular mead making site on the web. Lots of resources and an active forum.

    The Usenet group rec.crafts.meadmaking doesn’t have the traffic it once did, but is still active and not overwhelmed by spam.

    Erroll

  4. Joshua

    I find that a low-temp pasteurization works the best, as it balances flavor but preserves most of the aroma. Also, keep the lid on when you do it, as to keep those aromas in the pot.

  5. Erroll Post author

    Hi Joshua,

    I have pasteurized before, but I chose to compare boil against no-heat for this trial because I though it would show the clearest difference. I only wanted to compare two different meads to make the evaluation easier and more clear cut.

    Erroll

  6. Medsen Fey

    Hi Erroll,

    This is excellent research. Thank you for sharing it with us. Will you share the details of the recipe you followed should anyone want to duplicate your experiment or a variation thereof?

  7. Erroll Post author

    Hello Medsen,

    Sorry for the delay. I went back to my notes and started describing the recipe right away. Then I added some detail that I thought might help. Then I began thinking about the how this or that detail might have affected the results. I started writing about that. It was getting to look more like a post than a comment, and that probably will be my next post. I’ll do now what I should have done right away, which is briefly describe the recipe:

    2 kg (4.4 lb) heather honey from Apicoltura Dr. Precia
    1.25 gallon water
    0.5 tsp Yeast Nutrient
    1 tsp Cream of Tartar
    Premier Cuvee yeast
    1.5 tsp tartaric acid in two additions, post fermentation

    They were prepared much the same way, except that one got a 10 minute boil. In the other, I dissolved the honey in hot water.

    OG (boiled): 1.105, OG (no-boil): 1.097
    FG (boiled): 1.000, FG (no-boil): 1.000

    Erroll

  8. John

    Thank you, Erroll. I have already purchased 10 lbs of costco clover honey, so I will tell you how my first batch of mead comes out!

    – John

  9. Chuck Warpehoski

    Hmm, I’m wondering if Maillard reactions and melanoidan production might be part of the increased body for the boiled mead.

  10. Erroll Post author

    Hello Chuck,

    I had to go to Wikipedia to learn what the Maillard reaction is and what melanoidins are – how did we manage before Wikipedia and Google? At first blush it doesn’t seem that a boiling honey-water mixture would promote a Maillard reaction, which does better in high (over 315F – 155C) temperature, low moisture, and an alkaline environment. Still this reaction can occur in the human body, so maybe in the boiling honey-water too.

    Erroll

  11. CJ

    I have brewed beer for a long time, always wanted to brew a batch of mead but it’s scary thinking about mixing all that fermentable stuff without boiling! Thanks for the research.
    FYI: if you want to include the degree mark (as in 315ºF) just hold the “alt” key while you type “167” on the number pad (it doesn’t work on the row of numbers above the letter keys???). When you release the “alt” key the degree mark will appear…CJ.

  12. Erroll Post author

    Hello CJ,

    New mead makers often apply what they know of home brewing or winemaking to mead. This perfectly sensible approach has led to a split that you can see in published recipes. Sometimes you can tell, just by looking at the ingredients, whether the author was a wine maker or a home brewer. I’ve written more about making wine-like meads and beer-like meads here.

    Nobody should be afraid to make mead. Make it in a way that’s familiar. Once you’re comfortable, though, think about spreading your wings. You might be pleasantly surprised by a new style.

    Thanks so much for the alt-167 tip. I’ve been wondering how to do that!

    Erroll

  13. ScottP

    Nice post! Questions:

    1) Some prefered the “milder” taste of the boiled honey mead…
    … how much of this might be due to using heather honey?
    I understand heather honey is quite strong…

    2) I assume this is still mead, not sparkling?
    If it was sparkling, that would be interesting in that another experiment would be priming the boiled mead with unboiled honey… to see if that restores aroma onto the “mild” mead (best of both worlds?).

    -Scott

  14. Erroll Post author

    Hello Scott,

    The result might be more applicable to strong honeys. If I ever repeat the experiment I’ll probably use a milder honey to find out.

    I think a boil/no boil blend would be promising, so you’re definitely on to something. The trouble with doing it by priming a boiled sparkling mead with unboiled honey is that most of the honey in the final mead would be boiled. What if the ideal blend is closer 50/50? I think a good starting point would be 25/75, 50/50, and 75/25 blends.

    Erroll

  15. Tom Friedland

    Hi Erroll
    I live in Ellensburg and have a small vineyard and made my first batch of wine this Fall. (just 60 gallons.) My daughter (in Issaquah) has bought a couple hives and is taking a course in beekeeping. She is wondering what to do with the honey and so of course mead came to mind!
    I will order the Schramm book and get started… I hope I don’t pester you with too many questions…
    A visit sometime would be great.
    Tom

  16. Erroll Post author

    Hi Tom,

    Congratulations on your first batch of wine. I’ll bet you’ll be a great mead maker, but if you do need advice, pester away!

    She’s wondering what to do with the honey? Do you know how that sounds to a guy who buys honey by the 5-gallon bucket? Issaquah is very close, maybe one time you visit your daughter we can arrange to meet.

    Erroll

  17. Braxton

    Excellent experiment, thank you. I echo the sentiments about Maillard reactions, these are an important component of the beer brewing process that are created by vigorous boiling. In beer, to increase these reactions one would increase the length of time of the boil, so that some beers, such as Scottish Ales, are boiled for 90 minutes or more. I wonder about making a mead that split the difference between these two, with half of the fermentables given an hour boil and half the fermentables added when the must has cooled, or even directly to the fermenter.

  18. Erroll Post author

    Hi Braxton,

    I have two suggestions for why we saw increased body in the boiled mead: Medson Fey pointed out that higher alcohol could account for it (the OG of the boiled mead was slightly higher at 1.105 vs 1.097 for the no-boil) and you & Chuck mentioned the Maillard reaction.

    This question of increased body has me thinking about running the experiment again. I’d need to stay on top of the OG, specifically ask the tasters to compare the body, and maybe add a third batch with a longer (60 minutes or so) boil to promote a Maillard reaction.

    I really appreciate all the feedback!

    Erroll

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  20. Fernando

    Hi, I’ve only just started to research into making mead as I am also in the beginnings of researching the requirements for a honey bees etc, I absolutely loved your approach, you have no idea how greatful I am of your wisdom and support.

    This is a hobby/artform that I’d like to pursue in the long term so I hope to be able to contribute in the future, but for now, fun times ahead!

    Thanks so much!

    Best regards,

    Fernando

  21. Craig

    Hi there, down here in New Zealand a mate and i have made our first batch of mead with boiling similar to beer brewing. used 14kg of ‘self caught’ clover honey, added water to 40 litres total.
    Used champagne yeast & nutrient + 1 kg of sugar (wise brewers advice) to help yeast?? did 1st ferment, racked & did a 2nd ferment. We added charred bourbon oak at various stages with great results. #1 A strong vanilla aroma with syrupy honey tones with smooth texture & light sweet after taste almost like blended port. #2 Light oaky aroma, sweet taste & slightly tinny with a lemony after taste. #3 Almost a mix of the two and really nice mixed 4:1 with coke.
    we calculated about 15% alc. Probably not for the purists but good for us young(er) beer & bourbon drinkers!!! Cheers Craig

  22. Paul

    Is it true that boiling or simmering the must will separate the waxes and stuff that otherwise would result in a cloudy mead? I once made a mead that turned out cloudy and I had no idea how to clear it. Another one that I made by simmering the must for less than 10 minutes and skimming the wax off the surface, cleared on its own after fermentation.

  23. Erroll Post author

    Is it true that boiling or simmering the must will separate the waxes and stuff that otherwise would result in a cloudy mead?

    Hi Paul,

    Yes, boiling (or simmering) will help clear a mead. Fining (Bentonite works great) will too.

    Erroll

  24. Erroll Post author

    Hi there, down here in New Zealand a mate and i have made our first batch of mead with boiling similar to beer brewing.

    Sounds like it turned out great, Craig!

    Erroll

  25. Erroll Post author

    Would you consider blending boiled and non-boiled mead to get the best of both?

    Colin, I think that’s a great idea!

    Erroll

  26. Erroll Post author

    Great work, Bob! Evaluating it by entering into a competition is a great idea, and I’m really interested in what you find. Please come back and let me know.

    Erroll

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