Category Archives: Experiments

Boiling Mead Experiment: The recipe

This is for Medsen Fey, and anyone else, who wanted to know the recipe I used in my boiling mead experiment. I want to describe what I did and why. If you think I’ve left anything out, please ask! Good feedback here can improve future experiments – and not just mine. I’d really like to see others run similar trials.


2 kg (4.4 lb) heather honey from Apicoltura Dr. Precia
1.25 gallon (4.7 liters) water
0.5 tsp Yeast Nutrient
1.5 tsp tartaric acid in two additions post fermentation
1 tsp Cream of Tartar
Premier Cuvee yeast

Boiled Mead Procedure

Bring water to a boil, take it off heat, dissolve honey, boil 10 minutes, then cool in a water bath. Pour it into the fermenter.

Dissolve nutrient and cream of tartar in a small amount of water, then add to the fermenter.

Hydrate yeast in 1/4 cup (60 ml) warm water for five minutes, then add 1/4 cup must. When the starter is active, add 1/2 cup more must. When this 1 cup starter is active, pitch it into the fermenter.

No-boil Mead Procedure

Heat water to 180F (82C), take it off heat and dissolve honey, then cool in a water bath. Pour it into the fermenter.

Dissolve nutrient and cream of tartar in a small amount of water, then add to the fermenter.

Add 1/2 cup fermenting must from boiled mead to the fermenter.


I made the boiled mead one day earlier than, and pitched 1/2 cup of it into, the no-boil mead. I think I must have done this just so I wouldn’t be doing all the work on a single day. It would have been better to make up one double-sized batch, split it into two, boil and cool one, add the nutrient & cream of tarter to each one at the same time, then pitch the yeast into each one from the same starter.

I started this experiment on 2/26/2006, and I didn’t have a pH meter or acid test kit then. I checked the pH with pH paper and recorded a value of 4.2 for each one. It’s very difficult to get good results with pH paper, so take these values with a grain of salt (and a large margin of error). If you can afford (both the monetary cost and the trouble of maintaining) it, then buy a pH meter. You won’t regret it. If you must use pH papers, then use them properly.

Honey and mead are weakly buffered. That is, a small addition of acid will result in a large change in pH. If pH falls too far, it can inhibit the yeast and result in a stuck fermentation. I add cream of tartar to most of my plain meads because Roger Morse recommended it as a way of improving a mead’s buffering capacity. I honestly don’t know how well this works, but none of my meads have had a “pH crash” the way my Oregano Wine did.

I made these meads dry for several reasons. First of all, I like dry meads and I wanted to see how boiling would affect the meads I drink. It wasn’t entirely selfish, though. Sweetness can cover up faults, and if boiling did introduce off flavors (that was one of the claims I was testing) I didn’t want them to slip by unnoticed. Finally, sweetening is an extra step, and that makes it one more opportunity to make a mistake. Fewer steps, fewer mistakes, more reliable experiments – I’ll drink to that!

I didn’t add sulfite initially, but I did at the first racking and every other racking after that. This is a lot like my normal routine of sulfiting to about 50 ppm prior to pitching the yeast, then again at the second racking and every other racking after that. The purpose of an initial sulfite treatment is to suppress any micro critters that might be in the must. This gives the yeast that you add a leg up on them and allows it to take over quickly. Honey is antiseptic enough that this kind of initial treatment is unnecessary, so I usually skip it in my meads.

Adjusting the acidity of mead is tricky, and in this experiment I did it mainly by taste. Someone else might have added more or less acid than I did, and that would have affected the taste. Would that have changed the outcome? I don’t know for sure. I kept that possibility in mind, tasted both, and added equal amounts of acid to both batches.

Here is a summery log of the entire experiment:

Date Description
2/26/2006 Boiled: Pitched yeast, SG = 1.105 (1.098 @ 105F)
2/27/2006 No-boil: Pitched yeast, SG = 1.097 (1.094 @ 86F)
3/30/2006 Boiled: SG = 1.000, no-boil: SG = 1.000
4/1/2006 Racked both w/sulfite
5/23/2006 Racked both w/out sulfite
11/14/2006 Racked both w/sulfite, added 1 tsp tartaric acid
2/6/2008 Boiled: SG = 1.000, no-boil: SG = 1.000
2/9/2008 Bottled both w/sulfite, added 0.5 tsp tartaric acid
10/17/2008 Double blind tasting

As you can see, I got a little impatient. This was supposed to be a three year experiment, and that would have put the tasting somewhere in February 2009. I couldn’t wait quite that long, so I moved it up four months to October 2008. At times it seemed like the longest three years of my life – I couldn’t wait to pop corks and start tasting. Now that its over, it seems like those thirty months just flew by. I was surprised, I learned something, and it was definitely worth it!

Judging An Experiment With A Tasting Party

I love to experiment in my winemaking, and that means being just as careful about judging the experimental wines and meads as it does about making them. In a controlled experiment, I’ll make at least two almost-identical batches. The only difference between them will be the object of the experiment. Details are important here because any other difference might affect the outcome.

Once you’ve made your experimental batches, and carefully controlled the differences to meaningfully test something, then you’ve got to determine how the batches differ. This sounds like the easy part, but there are all sorts of ways that human judgment can be biased. As the experimenter, your own preconceived ideas can creep in even if you have someone else bring you unmarked samples to taste. It could be that one just looks different than the other, and you’ll know which is which because you made them.

The problem

I’m getting ready to conclude an experiment that tests the effect of boiling on a mead, so I’ve been thinking about how to observe the differences in my experimental batches. Well, if my own preconceptions can skew the results, then I’ll want other people in on the testing. They’ll have to know enough about the experiment to give me useful feedback; I’m not interested in whether they prefer their mead at room temperature rather than chilled, for example. One of the claims made about boiling is that it drives off volatile compounds that are responsible for the aroma, so I’ll ask for feedback on the aroma. On the other hand, I can’t tell them so much that I influence their judgment.

The solution

So I decided to host a tasting party. There will be six of us, including me and the Lady of the House. All of us will taste, but none of us will know which one we’re tasting. I’ll tell them that they, “will be tasting two similar meads, and I’d like to know how they differ. I’m particularly interested in how the aroma differs from one to the other. I’d also like to know which one they’d rather drink, given the choice, and why.”

The details

I’ll decant the two meads into identical containers, I recently bought two decanters just for this tasting party, and give them arbitrary labels. I’ll write down which label is the boiled mead and which is the no-boil mead, then leave the room. The Lady of the House will then come in and replace the labels with colored post-it notes. She’ll write down which color corresponds to which label. After all that, anyone can serve the mead and hand out colored index cards for everyone to write down their observations. None of us will know which one we’re tasting, but the Lady of the House and I will be able to sort it out afterwards.

I just need to pay attention to the details for a little while longer, then we’ll have a fun evening with friends and finally learn something about this boiling controversy!

Update 4/19/2010 – A simpler and easier way

Tasting blind lets you see a wine as it really is – some irony in that! – but this careful setup is a lot of work. Here’s an easier way to run a blind tasting that gives you most of the benefit with a lot less work. Its what I use to to compare a new wine to an old favorite.