One of the questions I get a lot is using spices in mead. For most spices and additives I simply say “Do a bench trial.” which means I have to then explain what that is. So here’s a post explaining what a bench trial is, and when to use it. These are best to do with a couple of friends to get more than just your opinion, and it’s more fun anyway.
When to do a bench trial?
When you have two (or more) different things you want to blend.
Pretty simple, but I’ll give some examples.
- You have two batches of mead, one too sweet, one too dry.
- You have a mead that you want to add a spice to.
- You want to blend a beer and a mead.
- You have a extremely tannic melomel and you want to tone it down with a traditional.
- You’re curious if that blueberry mead and the cherry mead would be better blended.
- You want to add a touch of tannin to a mead without structure.
- You want to add a touch of acidity to a
- You want to add a touch of honey to a mead that’s a tad dry.
- You want to add a touch of coffee to a mead.
Basically, whenever you have two things you want to see what ratio they should be blended at for the best product.
How do I do a bench trial?
The basic idea is that you are blending different percentages of substance A and substance B.
If I’m blending two meads that I have no clue what the blend should be I’ll start with 100% A and 100% B then do a equal spacing between. If you do 3 samples between you have it in 25% increments. If you do more samples between you’ll be able to do this in less rounds. You can do volume or weight, as long as you’re consistent. I tend to prefer weight when the percentages are large like this, but volume is pretty easy too.
Example 1: Finished blueberry mead and finished cherry mead, both dry.
I don’t know if it’ll be better with a touch of blueberry, touch of cherry, or equal.
Start with 250ml of blueberry mead, and 250ml of cherry mead. Make 5 glasses containing the following:
- 100ml of blueberry mead
- 75ml blueberry, 25ml cherry
- 50ml blueberry, 50ml cherry
- 25ml blueberry, 75ml cherry
- 100ml of cherry mead
Stir the meads lightly to ensure a good mix. If you’re tasting with friends, pour each sample into a few glasses. I like to label the bottoms of the glasses so the percentages aren’t immediately obvious to everyone. I’m often surprised that sometimes the best flavor of X isn’t when X is the most dominant percentage.
Then taste, and rank your top 2. If your top two are 1 and 5, then you probably don’t want to blend. If your top two are adjacent, say 3 and 4, then you can repeat this whole process. but your A is now 250ml of 75% blueberry and 25% cherry, and your B is now 250ml of 25% blueberry and 75% cherry.
Sometimes there’s only one you like, it is so far above and beyond the others. At that point it is usually good to try a few centered around the one you like, if it was 2 you might try 80/20, 70/30, etc. to see if it is even better.
If your top two are say 2 and 4, then you’ve got some choices. If you really like them both, 2 different meads, huzzah. Or you can try going towards the edges, and seeing what 95ml/5ml, 90ml/10ml, etc taste like. Or you can try a few centered around each of the ones you like.
The beauty of this technique is that it works with practically anything. But what about when you already know you want less of an ingredient? Well lets look at coffee in mead.
Example 2: Coffee in mead.
If you’re doing the coffee addition, and want to use hot or cold brewed coffee you already know a few things. First you probably don’t want a mead that’s 50% coffee and mead. You probably don’t even want to go above 15%! I’ve noticed dual peaks pretty often with coffee. Just a touch 2-5%, and a fair bit 10-15%. It tends to get muddied in the middle, but the edges are mead with hints of coffee and mead with lots of coffee.
Let’s start with a wide range. The smaller the amounts, the dicier the pouring gets, so a good steady pouring hand, or a baster is useful.
Here’s the stages for the coffee/mead blend, going wide.
- 100ml mead
- 95ml mead, 5ml coffee
- 90ml mead, 10ml coffee
- 85ml mead, 15ml coffee
- 80ml mead, 20ml coffee
I don’t really expect sample 5 to taste that great, from prior experience. However, I like to go past what I expect because sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised.
Stir like before, and do the same tasting. You’ll likely get two next to each other you like. Lets say it is 2 and 3. Since pouring 6ml of coffee and 7ml of coffee is a bit annoying I usually just make a batch of 2 and a batch of 3, then blend those as in example 1. And then pick my winner.
If your two favorites are far apart, do the same as in example 1 and explore around the point you like to see if there’s a better blend.
There, not so bad. But what about the non-liquid examples like tannins, or acid, or honey additions you say? Well, let’s do another example
Example 3: Random weighable X into mead
You have a mead, and you want to add some of X, whether X is acid blend, tannin, honey, or something else. The concept is the same. For this you’re going to need a nice scale, perhaps one that can go down to the mg level (AWS GEMINI-20 scale). You’re likely scaling down a 20L (5.3Gal) batch to 100ml. You need to figure out what the ‘max dose’ of the additive is, then normalize it to g/L so you can easily use your scale. Let’s say that the max dose you want to test is Y g/L then you’ll do the following.
- 100ml of mead
- 100ml of mead with 0.025Y g of X
- 100ml of mead with 0.05Y g of X
- 100ml of mead with 0.075Y g of X
- 100ml of mead with 0.1Y g of X
Stir until completely mixed. If you end up with some not mixed in then you’re likely past the saturation point for that substance, and need to discard those samples as too much.
Then this reduces to the same as Example 2 or Example 1 in application and scope.
OK. Now we’re ready to talk about spices. I prefer to do a tincture (water or ethanol) and do one of the above, usually Example 3, but with a pipette counting drops. Tinctures are pretty easy to make, either make a tea (extra strong) if you think or know that the spice is more water soluble. Or cover the spice with ethanol in a small jar for a few days or weeks (depending on the spice).
You can extend this technique to 3 variables by doing a N x N matrix instead of the simple 1 x N matrix we did. Instead of picking 2, you’ll pick top 4 and see what kind of box that makes, then repeat.