Category Archives: Mead

It can be as simple as mixing honey and water then adding yeast. It’s sometimes called honey wine, and you can use a lot of your winemaking knowledge. But once you start, you’ll notice a whole world of possibilities.

Honey Prices

As I wrote earlier, the USDA’s 2007 honey report had some encouraging news about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). It also indicated that honey prices were virtually unchanged in 2007. They use something called the “all honey price,” which is a weighted index of different kinds of honey, in different regions, sold through retail and wholesale outlets in the United States. It fell from $1.036/lb, at the end of 2006, to $1.032/lb by the end of 2007. Here’s a table of honey prices that I keep an eye on, and how they changed from the last time I reported on them (August 2007):

Source and Type Price August 2007 ($/lb) Recent Price % Change
Costco Clover 1.47 1.47 0
Sam’s Club Clover 1.53 1.53 0
Miller’s Honey Clover 1.45 1.55 +6.9
Miller’s Honey Wildflower 1.08 1.15 +6.5
Dutch Gold Clover N/A 1.30
Dutch Gold Wildflower N/A 1.26

Though it’s up a bit from last time, that Miller’s Honey wildflower still looks like a bargain. Costco is a warehouse store in the US that sells honey at near-wholesale prices in near-retail sizes (6 lb or 2.7 kg at my local store). Right now, they sell clover honey at a lower unit price, and in much smaller sizes, than Miller’s Honey. If you live close to one of their stores, you can take advantage of this deal and avoid shipping charges. Dutch Gold is a packer on the east coast that commenter Dick Adams recommended, and I’ll be including their prices going forward.

Better reporting of honey prices

I’d like to make some improvements to my Honey Prices feature. Up to now, I’ve been publishing a report when I buy honey or after some news comes out about honey prices. I’ll make a point of including year-end prices, to make my data more comparable with the USDA’s. I’m also interested in tracking honey prices in other countries. Maybe you can help. Do you know any reliable suppliers of inexpensive bulk honey that post prices on the web in English? How about government reports, again in English, on honey production and prices? I’d love to hear about them so I can track honey prices globally. Please let me know by leaving a comment.

Update 10/6/08 – What a difference seven months make!

My latest price reportindicates surging honey prices of between 6.5% and 38.9%.

Cherry Mead: The case of the disappearing acid

I checked the titratable acidity (TA) of my cherry mead the other day, and something didn’t add up. Over six months, three measurements, and two acid additions (totaling 2.6 g/L) the TA fell from 6 to 5.5 g/L.

The most obvious explanation is that I goofed up the titrations. As I added more acid, the TA should have risen, so if the first measurement was accurate, then the second was low by 2.1 g/L (should have read 7.3 instead of 5.2), and the third was low by 3.1 g/L (should have read 8.6 instead of 5.5). I did three titrations that day using the same procedure, with the same chemicals and with the same equipment. I got “good” results from the other two titrations, and by that I mean consistent with my predictions and with past measurements. So maybe this measurement was accurate and the previous two were off.

That would mean the first was too high by 3.1 g/L (should have read 2.9 instead of 6) and the second by 1 g/L (should have read 4.2 instead of 5.2). A 1 g/L error on the second measurement is possible, because I’m measuring the sample and the sodium hydroxide with a syringe that I think is accurate to 0.5 ml, and that would mean only one large anomaly. Everyone makes mistakes, and maybe that just wasn’t my day.

Was the TA really that low? Well, I haven’t got a time machine handy so I can’t redo the test. My wildflower mead, from A Simple Mead Recipe fame, had an initial TA of 3.5 g/L, which isn’t much higher than 2.9, so that fits. Also, that was back when I had started doing titrations, so I might not have had the hang of it yet. I’m chalking this up to one bad measurement – the initial 6 g/L was really about 3.

Mystery solved!

Titratable Acidity: Mystery, Consistency, and too much acid

Cherry Mead: The case of the disappearing acid

Suppose you measure 6 g/L titratable acidity (TA), then add about 1.3 g/L of tartaric acid. After you let it sit for a while you’d expect a TA over 7, right? Me too. You certainly wouldn’t expect just a little over 5 (call it 5.2), would you? I didn’t either, but that’s what happened and that wasn’t the end of it. I’m talking about my cherry mead and after that 5.2 measurement, I added another 1.3 g/L of tartaric acid. When I checked again the TA stood at just over 5.5 g/L, not the 6.5 I was expecting. Over the course of six months, my starting TA fell from 6 g/L to 5.5 g/L as I added 2.6 g/L.

What happened? I don’t know, but a look at pH tells me that the additional acid was affecting the mead, even if I wasn’t detecting it in my titrations. While TA went from 6 to 5.2 to 5.5, the pH went from 3.56 to 3.39 to 3.13. I’m going to have to chew on this for a while. Got any theories? I’d love to hear them.

Honey Apple: Promising, but not ready yet

Compared with my cherry mead, the honey apple is a model of consistency. Yesterday’s measurements:

SG: 0.996, pH: 3.56, TA: 7 g/L

were exactly the same as on 11/15/07. This is reassuring and gives me a (false?) sense of precision. It’s not ready to drink yet; tasting it all I could think of was “tart and young.” The Lady of the House would only say that, yes, it was an apple wine or mead but refused to offer anything more. It’s clear with compact sediment, and the numbers look good, so I think I’ll rack without making any adjustments.

Tomato Wine: Young, tart, and bone dry

It tastes just as harsh as you’d expect it to from these numbers:

SG: 0.990, pH: 2.97, TA: 9- g/L

In addition to being tart, there is an unusual flavor that I wouldn’t recognize if I didn’t know I was drinking tomato wine. I’m not sure whether I like this tomato flavor or not – its hard to get past the harshness of this wine. The Lady of the House knew it was the tomato wine, even though I didn’t tell her. She made a face and said it was young and that there was “an acid thing” going on. This one needs some more time, and I need to neutralize some of the acid.

So, I’ve got a mystery to solve, some acid to neutralize, and some mead to rack. Time to hit the “save” button.

Know Your Honey: Acid and lactone

I’ve begun reading Composition Of American Honey by Jonathan White, which was published in 1962 by the US Department of Agriculture as Technical Bulletin 1261. It’s the most comprehensive survey of honey ever conducted, or likely to be conducted anytime soon, in the US. Reading it made me want to post about honey in my “Know Your Ingredients” series, which spotlights a different winemaking ingredient in each article. A single post will only scratch the surface of bulletin 1261, so today I’m starting an offshoot of that series called “Know your honey.” No, it isn’t a reality show where you find out the shocking truth about your Significant Other, instead I’ll be writing about different aspects of honey and how they relate to making mead. Don’t be too disappointed – not only will our mead be better for it, but our wives, girlfriends, husbands, and so forth wont be nearly as mad at us.

A better approach to a familiar problem

I’ve been trying to get a handle on the acidity in honey and mead. The problem, as I explain here, is that the normal tests, like titration, overstate acidity in mead because they include both the total amount of acid and the total amount of lactone. The last time I posted on the subject, I explained that those results can still be useful as an upper limit and outlined a procedure for managing the acidity in mead. What I really wanted to do was pin down the acidity accurately, and I had two ideas about how to do that. I’m going to use information from USDA 1261 to follow up on one of them today, and that is to use typical amounts of lactone in honey to correct measured titratable acidity values.

Dr White’s very useful data

Dr White determined the pH, amount of acid, which he called “free acidity”, the amount of gluconolactone, “lactone”, and titratable acidity, “total acid”, for 490 samples of honey.

Characteristic Average Standard Deviation Range
pH 3.91 not reported 3.42-6.10
Free Acid (meg/Kg) 22.03 8.22 6.75-47.19
Lactone (meg/Kg) 7.11 3.52 0.00-18.76
Total Acid (meq/Kg) 29.12 10.33 8.68-59.49
Lactone/Free Acid 0.335 0.135 0.000-.0950

Using the Lactone/Free Acid ratio to correct TA values

You might be wondering what the heck “meq/Kg” means. Well, rather than assume all the acid in any sample is tartaric, like most winemakers do, chemists express acidity as milliequivalents/Kg. This is a consistent, formal way of doing it that we’re not going to worry about because we’re not chemists and this article is getting technical enough. Besides, the really interesting part of the table is the ratio of lactone/free acid. This is exactly the information I was looking for and we can use it in two ways:

The average value of lactone/free acid is 0.335, and since total acid = lactone + free acid, free acid = total acid / 1.335. Now we can titrate a sample of mead, get a TA value that we know is overstated, and divide by 1.335 to get a corrected value.

Since the lactone/free Acid ratio varies, our correction will not be exact. We can use the average value and the standard deviation to get a range. The standard deviation is 0.135, which means, if these values are normally distributed, that almost 70% of the samples will have a lactone/free acid ratio between 0.200 and 0.470. From that we can corral the free acid in a range of total acid/1.200 and total acid/1.470.

An example

Let’s say you titrate a sample of mead and get a value of 7.5 g/L. You can use the simple correction of dividing by 1.335 to get 5.6 g/L or you can get a one standard deviation range by dividing by 1.200 and 1.470. That would give you a range of 5.1 – 6.3 g/L. I used 7.5 g/L in my example to tie it in with my earlier procedure of aiming for the high end of your target range. I illustrated this by looking at adjusting a mead’s acidity to match that of white wine. Since white wine can range from 5.0 – 7.5 g/L, I suggested aiming for 7.5, knowing that it would be less. Now we have a better idea of how well that would work because the one standard deviation range (5.1 – 6.3 g/L) puts it within the range of white wine.

Free acid has a huge impact on taste, and now that we know how to measure it, or at least estimate it well, we are well on our way to making better meads more consistently. I intend to continue this series on honey. To make sure you don’t miss these and other postings, subscribe to this blog. It’s easy, it’s free, and you’ll see every post without having to constantly check back.

Acidity In Mead: Being rigorous with incomplete data

I talked about five of my meads yesterday, and how I might decide if they were ready to bottle. I looked at clarity and specific gravity (SG) because I didn’t want the mead throwing off sediment or fermenting in the bottle. I tasted, probably the most important test of any wine or mead, and I checked the acidity.

Mead’s peculiar chemistry makes it difficult to measure the titratable acidity (TA). I explain this in more detail here, but the short version is that the common tests, like titration, overstate the TA. That made me think that such tests had no value, but I’ve since changed my mind. Measured TA’s don’t give you a precise value, but they do give you some information. That’s why I reported TA values for all five meads yesterday.

Using titratable acidity values in making mead

What do those values tell us? I began to get an idea about that when I was thinking about my cherry mead. As I said back then, you can use the TA values as upper limits. If you want to make a mead with the acid profile of a white wine, for example, you look up the range of acid values common in white wine then aim for the high end of the range. A good book on winemaking basics will give you that information. I like Daniel Pambianchi’s Techniques in Home Winemaking, he covers the basics really well and has special sections on ice wine, port, and sparkling wine. He says that the TA in white wines will normally range from 5 – 7.5 g/L. Adjusting a mead to 7.5 g/L puts the actual TA somewhere below that. Tasting the adjusted mead, after about a month or so to allow any acid additions to integrate with the mead, will reveal if the acidity is too low. If it is, then a series of add (no more than 0.5 g/L) – wait – taste cycles will nudge it right into the sweet spot.

Trying to improve a good approach

This is a good approach, but I’d like to get better information on the lower limit of a mead’s TA. Since the measurement error stems from the gluconolactone that exists in equilibrium with gluconic acid and that equilibrium depends on temperature and pH, maybe careful measurement of TA, pH, and temperature would yield some information on how much gluconolactone got caught up in the measurement. We might be able to use that to get a lower limit on, or even pin down, the actual TA. I don’t know how to do that yet, but I’ll see if I can find out. Another way to tackle this problem is to find out how much gluconolactone typically exists in honey. Putting limits on gluconolactone concentration will allow us to put limits on the actual TA. Those are my ideas anyway, if anyone can shed some light on them, or has another idea, please leave a comment and let us all know.

Five Meads: Are we there yet?

I looked in on five meads yesterday to see if they were ready to bottle. I was looking for clarity, I tasted them to see if they were pleasant to drink, and I measured the specific gravity (SG), pH, and titratable acidity (TA).

Name SG pH TA (g/L)
2004 Plain Mead 1.001 3.05 5
2005 Apple Mead 0.995 3.39 5.2
2006 Experiment (boiled) 1.000 3.27 6
2006 Experiment (no heat) 1.000 3.29 5.3
2006 Grape Mead 1.000 3.51 5+

Ready or not, this four year old mead is going in a bottle

I tasted sweetness on the 2004 plain mead, despite the low SG. It had that distinctive, pleasant aroma that I’ve come to associate with mead, and the lady of the house thought it was, “a little young, but it’s going to be good.” I’m not sure I’m as patient as she is, so I’m going to bottle it.

This apple mead is the only one not ready to bottle

The 2005 apple mead tasted and smelled of apple, but only a hint. I thought it was a little tart. It was the only one of the lot that I thought wasn’t clear enough to bottle.

Trying to settle a long running debate

The 2006 experiment is a test of the idea that boiling a mead’s honey-water mixture before pitching the yeast impairs the aroma by driving off volatile compounds. I split a batch, boiled one and made the other without heating. That was two years ago, and I think these meads are ready to bottle. I normally age mead for three years though, so I may let them age in the bottle then have a tasting party next February.

Update 10/28/2008 – The results are in!
It was a long running experiment with a little surprise at the end. Follow this link to see the results of my mead boiling test.

The trouble with titration

The 2006 grape mead is made from the pomace of my smallest batch of wine ever. I added honey, water, nutrient, and cream of tartar. I had some trouble checking the TA on this one because I ran short of sodium hydroxide, the base I use to titrate acid in a wine sample. I added 5 ml to the sample, and that brought the pH to 7.4. That’s very close to the end point. If I really had reached the end point, it would have indicated a TA of 5 g/L. It’s a bit more, maybe 5.25 g/L, but since I can’t be sure I just noted “5+”

Hmm, that acid measuring contraption I wrote about the other day just looks better and better.

Mead From Cherries: So far, so good

Making mead from cherries

I’ve often thought about making “second wine” using honey instead of sugar. Also called “false wine,” it’s made from the pomace of newly fermented wine by adding water, sugar and acid. I like honey, water, and acid (mead) all by itself, so using honey instead of sugar should be an improvement. That’s the idea behind my cherry mead, which I made in 2006 and 2007 from the pomace of that year’s cherry wine.

A little adjustment and a little more time

I got a chance to look in on the 2007 cherry mead when I racked it the other day, and I think it’s coming along nicely. If I had to sum up the flavor in one word, it would be “mild.” It’s a little fruity, and the aroma is pleasant, but I think it needs more time. Here are the numbers:

Date: 11/21/07, Specific Gravity: 0.996, pH: 3.39, TA: 5 g/L

The TA is a little low, so I added about 1.25 g/L of tartaric acid. With that little adjustment, I’ll leave it alone to age for a while.

Red Wine From Cherries: Revisiting the acid problem

Making red wine from cherries

I made cherry wine, in June 2006 and 2007, like a red wine from grapes. I crushed the fruit, adjusted the sugar and acid, and pitched the yeast. The sugar and acid profile of cherries is very different from that of grapes, so “adjusting the sugar and acid” is a much bigger step in making cherry wine than it is in making red wine from grapes.

Acid: Fixing one problem will make another worse

I just racked the 2006 cherry wine, and that “bigger step” is proving to be a real headache. The pH is too high, which puts the wine at risk of spoiling, and the titratable acidity (TA) is too high, which leaves the wine tasting tart. I first noticed this problem a few months ago in my 2007 cherry wine, and decided to wait a while before acting. Ok it’s been a while, and I think I’ve just proven the old adage that ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away! Here is an analysis of both wines:

Name Date SG pH TA (g/L)
2006 Cherry Wine 11/21/2007 1.010 3.83 9
2007 Cherry Wine 7/30/2007 1.007 3.76 11
2007 Cherry Wine 11/21/2007 1.006 3.90 7

Both wines finished off dry, and both suffer from high pH and high TA. I don’t have earlier data for the 2006, because I didn’t have a pH meter or an acid test kit when I made it, but the measured pH rose and the TA fell in the 2007 cherry wine. I’ll tackle the 2006 vintage first. The way I see it, I’ve got two options in dealing with these problems.

The simple option: Add acid and balance with sugar

Adding more acid will lower the pH. That will solve the first part of the problem and improve the wine’s stability. Neutralizing some of the existing acid will lower the TA, which will solve the second part of the problem and improve the wine’s flavor. Speaking of flavor, it isn’t very good. I don’t think I can describe it in any useful way, Marsha said it was “icky,” but it didn’t taste tart. I think that gives me some leeway to lower the pH by adding tartaric acid, even though the TA is already high.

The complicated option: Replace one kind of acid with another

The acid in my cherry wine is mostly malic. That’s different from grape wine, where the acid will be mostly tartaric. What if I could replace some of that malic acid with tartaric? That would make it more like a conventional grape wine, and might solve my twin acid problems. This would mean neutralizing some malic acid first, then adding tartaric acid. It turns out that neutralizing malic acid is tricky and it makes this option a lot more complicated than just adding tartaric acid and relying on residual sugar to balance it. My 2007 cherry wine has the same acid problem, so whichever option I choose, I’ve got a lot riding on the outcome.

A Simple Mead Recipe: Acid and oak

How much acid?

I looked in on my mead the other day. It was clearing and had thrown some sediment. It was dry, with a specific gravity of 0.996. The pH, at 3.39, was low enough to protect the mead, but the titratable acidity was only 3.5 g/L. Titration will overstate the amount of acid in mead, so that 3.5 g/L figure is really an upper limit. Still, it’s better to have incomplete data than no data. If I were aiming for 7 g/L, that would mean adding 3.5 g/L. I don’t think I want to (more than) double the acid all at once, so I decided to at about 1.3 g/L, which should raise the TA to 4.8 g/L. How did I come up with 1.3 g/L? It just so happens to be 1 tsp/Gallon, which I have found, by tasting, to improve lifeless meads. I’ll test, and taste, again later to see if it needs more.

How much oak?

I decided to oak this batch of mead, and for me that means adding oak chips. I’ve been curious about barrels, but I don’t think they’re worth the trouble and expense. I’ve found that 1 g/L of oak chips adds enough character to white wines without overpowering them. For this batch of mead, I’ll actually use about 1.3 g/L. There’s that magic number again.

Oak on the scale

It turns out that the smallest increment that my kitchen scale will measure is 25 grams, and 25 grams in 5 gallons (19 liters) is about 1.3 g/L.

Toasting the oak

Whether it’s in the form of barrels or chips, oak is usually toasted before it’s used in winemaking. Barrels may be toasted by an open flame, but I’ll put my oak chips in the oven and broil at 400F (204C) for 45 minutes.

Toasted oak chips

Here’s how they look when they’re done. The oak chips in the casserole, on the right, were toasted. The ones on the left were not.

Now we wait some more

I added the 25g of toasted oak chips to a new sanitized carboy. Then I dissolved 25g of tartaric acid, and added that to the carboy. After I siphoned the mead off it’s sediment and into the new carboy, it looked like this.

Oak in the mead

You can see the oak chips floating on top in the neck of the carboy. In time, they’ll sink to the bottom. Oak chips are normally left in wine or mead for a few weeks, but I prefer to use a smaller amount and leave them in for a long time – six months to a year. This way, I’m more fully extracting the flavor and tannin from the oak. After that, I’ll test and taste to see if it needs more acid, then rack off the oak.

Colony Collapse Disorder: A clue

I last wrote about Colony Collapse Disorder back in May. That’s when I made the case that CCD would not squeeze honey supplies too much and cause a large price run up. With honey prices up about 10% since then, I think my analysis was about right. I’m still anxious to learn about the impact on colonies this year, but I haven’t seen any good data on that. In fact, I hadn’t seen much in the way of new information at all until a few days ago.

Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus linked Colony Collapse Disorder

The Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health announced a study linking CCD to Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. I haven’t found a link to the study itself, which is published in the journal Science, but ScienceDaily has published a summary. The authors of the study claim that the presence of IAPV predicts CCD in a colony with 96% accuracy. In other words, if someone selected a honey bee colony in the US and all they told you about it was whether or not it had IAPV, not how big it was, where it was, what kinds of bees they were, you could tell them if it had collapsed or not. If you did this 1000 times and had average luck, you’d be right 960 times.

But we don’t know if it actually causes CCD

That kind of accuracy is pretty amazing and makes IAPV a “significant marker” for CCD, but it doesn’t mean that it causes CCD. It might even be the other way around; CCD weakens a colony that was otherwise able to fend off IAPV, allowing the virus to infect the colony. Or something else causes both CCD and facilitates an IAPV infection.

Did IAPV come from Australia?

The study also fingered Australia as a possible source of IAPV because they found IAPV in Australian honeybees and live bee imports from Australia began close to the time that beekeepers started reporting CCD. It’s possible, but this strikes me as the weakest part of the study, and not just because we don’t really know if IAPV causes CCD. Finding IAPV in Australian bees isn’t the same thing as establishing that Australia was the source. Do we know for sure that the US was free of IAPV? Was Australia the only source of live bee imports that might have carried IAPV? To my knowledge, no and no.

Where do we go from here?

The next step for these researchers is to try and cause CCD. They’ll do this by introducing IAPV, by itself and in combination with other things that stress honeybees, into healthy colonies. The thinking is that if IAPV is the culprit, it’s not acting alone. One possible accomplice is the varroa mite, which already plagues honeybees. It’s known to suppress bees’ immune systems, so it could pave the way for IAPV to do it’s dirty work. If they can reliably cause CCD in this way, then IAPV could graduate from “significant marker” to “cause”. If not, well science has a lot more red herrings and blind alleys than it has breakthroughs. So we take what we learn from this, add it to what we already know, and keep moving forward.

Update 3/9/08: Beekeepers have staying power

The USDA’s 2007 honey report indicates that the number of producing honeybee colonies rose in 2007 by 2%. This is encouraging news and shows that beekeepers have been able to make up their losses from CCD for the second year in a row. Read more here.

Update 3/9/2009: Honeybees hang in there for another year

The 2008 Honey Report indicated that managed colonies in the US fell by only 6%. Honey production and per colony yield rose. It’s looking more and more like Colony Collapse Disorder is not a catastrophe.