Boiling up a Bochet
I love wood-aged, high-gravity beers. Russian Imperial Stouts, Old Ales, Barleywines, even the occasional Imperial Czech Premium Pale Lager (more commonly known as a Bohemian Pilsner). As a consequence, I don't always have the space to facilitate aging these wonderful brews, and my itch to have a brew day gets stronger. After a few months of only having the occasional brew day, I caved, and started researching other ways to get my fix. I landed on mead. My first batch of mead was the Joe's Ancient Orange Mead from the Homebrew Talk forums. I'd been brewing for about half a year at this point, and made a few adjustments like using a different yeast (I'm partial to Lalvin D-47), controlling the temperature, and using distilled water. It turned out really well, and the combination of great product and simple brew day had me hooked. I'm a fan of dark beers though, and I wanted to expand that love to mead, which brought me to bochet.
What is Bochet?
Bochet is burnt-honey mead, a mead made by caramelizing the honey before fermentation. One of the earliest "sources" I've seen around for Bochet is the "1393 Mead Recipe", supposedly a translation from The Goodman of Paris, a book written in 1392-1394 by a Parisian merchant for his new, young wife. The short text details the Parisian merchant's ideals on marriage and care-taking, and Bochet is listed as a "Beverage for the sick". The author explains that Bochet is made by boiling and (constantly) stirring soft honey until the bubbles from the boil give off a black-ish steam. Then, move the honey off the heat and add water, still stirring. Strain, add it to a cask, and pitch beer into it, then cover it up. Wait a while, hit it with spices like ginger, grains of paradise, clove, and long pepper, and once the spice is sufficient you are ready to drink. There isn't really an explanation of why this helps a sick person (I'm going with alcohol and a comfortable buzz), just the details of the process. In all honesty, it hasn't changed all that much. Boiling the honey, add water, pitch some yeast, spice if necessary, and drink. Fairly straight-forward. Obviously, bochet must have existed before this but I've been unable to find any of these resources. Not surprisingly, there aren't too many modern resources on bochet either. One such resource by Blackford, published in Bee Culture, does little more than the Parisian merchant's text, detailing the process of making the bochet (this time adding vanilla and coco nibs). In the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Zymurgy, a short recipe is dedicated to bochet, and deviates from the standard recipe only by making a point of adding yeast nutrients (specifically zinc) to the mead. Long story short, we have a boiled honey mead that hasn't exactly changed too much (seemingly) in the past 600 or so years. So, how do we make it?
If you've done your mead-homework, you'll have learned that you shouldn't boil honey for mead. Boiling the honey drives off some of the more fragile aromatics and flavors, and can ruin any other style. Not Bochet. Well sort of. Those delicate characteristics do boil off, but they are replaced by wonderful toffee, burnt marshmallow, and caramel notes against a sweet backbone. A lighter bochet, boiled for less time, will be amber or deep mahogany and will lean towards the toffee, light caramel end of the spectrum. A darker bochet will be dark brown to black with more burnt marshmallow and toasty characters. The boil-time between these two points is incredibly short. The above image is from my last batch of bochet, a 10 minute boil on the left, 15 minutes in the middle, and 20 on the right. The color shift happens rapidly, and you need to be stirring constantly and paying attention so that the honey doesn't scorch (that flavor won't age out). Here's the recipe I'll be using for the rest of the article: A Simple Bochet Batch Size: 1 Gallon Original Gravity: 1.110 Final Gravity: 1.030 Boil Time: 20 minutes ABV: 10.7% Honey 3 pounds of Clover Honey Yeast Lalvin D-47 Wyeast Yeast Nutrients. Water My local tap water, carbon filtered. Fairly average in mineral content overall.
1. Gather your Ingredients
After figuring out your anticipated gravities, grab yourself some ingredients. Personally, I use clover honey for my bochet. Any other mead I'd pay more attention to the subtleties, the differences between Buckwheat and Orange Blossom. But for bochet, we are going to boil off those subtleties, we are after the sugar, and so clover honey will be just fine. Plus, clover honey tends to be a bit cheaper than other varieties so you can save yourself a little money here. Lalvin D-47 is my go to mead yeast. It helps showcase the honey character in mead, is alcohol tolerant, and is overall a great yeast. I know quite a few people who make excellent meads (including Bochet) with Lalvin EC-1118. The choice is yours here, pay attention to it in the same way you would a beer yeast. Think about the character you're looking for and roll with it. Do yourself a favor though and pick up some yeast nutrients while you're ordering/at the store. I personally like WYeast Yeast Nutrient, just be sure you're adding zinc to the mead. Because you're just using honey and water, the nutrients to help the yeast along aren't there, and you need to supplement. Water in mead is one of the least explored areas here, I've been hard-pressed to find reliable data. Even the BJCP Mead Making Guide claims that water is critical, but doesn't go into detail beyond low-chlorine content. Possibly soft water. Thankfully, the last issue of Zymurgy has an article Aaron Kueck on the water chemistry of mead, funded by the AHA. Kueck found that a soft water (but not distilled) profile created a better (preferred, by blind tasters) mead. A soft profile was found to have a stronger association with fresh fruit in the aroma, a sharper acid edge (but less acidic in the aroma), a rounder flavor, and overall more drinkable than the other samples. The soft water profile used in the experiment was (in ppm): Na: 16 K: 229 Ca: 46 Mg: 25 SO4: 60 Cl: 127 HCO3: 0 Hardness as CaCO3: 219 pH: 3.5
2. Start your Boil
I like to let the container of honey sit in hot water for a while before pouring it into the pot so that it pours easier and you can get more of it. Add your honey to the kettle and get your boil going. How you do this is up to you, but I recommend lower than full heat. You don't want to scorch the honey. You don't need to be stirring constantly at this point, but stir every couple of minutes and watch for the boil. While you're waiting, now would be a good time to start getting the water ready to add at the end of the boil. I boil the water before use to ensure it is sanitized. At the very least, make sure your water is room temperature or a little warmer. Once the boil starts, watch out. Bochet can be dangerous, boiling honey is incredibly hot, and I have a scar on my thumb to prove it. If a bubble pops the wrong way, you'll have a pretty bad burn, so be careful. I recommend a long, stainless steel spoon. Now that the boil has started, turn the heat down. You don't want high heat here, you're caramelizing, not burning. Keep the boil going, but don't make it too vigorous. Oh, also, you're officially stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Congrats!
3. End the Boil
So you've been boiling and stirring, and the color is right where you'd like it. Take the honey off the heat and get your water ready. You're going to add it. But first, you're going to put on some sort of pair of gloves and protect yourself, because if you add lukewarm water to boiling honey it could "erupt" in a sense. Seriously, be careful. I use the lid to shield my eyes.
Once the mixture is at pitching temps, dependent on your yeast, go ahead and pitch!
Ferment, package, and give it time. Bochet, like any other mead, tends to age well and waiting 6 months to a year may really improve the product. Personally, I wait at least three months before trying the batch. Finally, enjoy your product! I love a medium-dark bochet, full of toffee and toasted marhmallow character. Rich and wonderful.