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TA (total acidity) measurements

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Dan McFeeley

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I've been meaning to post this information for awhile but haven't gotten to it yet -- apologies!

Not so long ago I did some experimentation on measuring acid levels in mead using the standard acid testing kits used by home winemakers. They're simple and easy to use, about $6.00, and have been used by meadmakers as well. There is a problem, however, in using them for checking TA levels in mead. There is a chemical reaction that occurs in honey when titrating for acid levels in honey and mead that skews the results of any standard titration method. Here's a brief description.

The primary acid in honey, and of course, mead, is gluconic acid. Gluconic acid co-exists with its lactone, gluconolactone, in a pH dependent relationship as part of the process by which honeybees change flower nectar into honey. Bees secrete several enzymes which work on the sucrose sugar in the nectar, first changing the sucrose into glucose, and then into gluconolactone. The gluconolactone then spontaneously hydrolizes into gluconic acid, thus raising pH and acidity levels that help to preserve the now ripened honey. Not all of the gluconolactone will hydrolize into gluconic acid. A certain amount remains behind, and acts as an acid reservoir of sorts. Here's where the pH dependent relationship between the two comes in. Whenever the acid level of the honey is neutralized, the pH will rise. The rising pH triggers the reaction, causing the gluconolactone remaining in the honey to change to gluconic acid, thus lowering the pH again and restoring the acid level of the honey.

Now, picture this process going on during the titration process used in standard acid testing kits. Sodium hydroxide is titrated, raising the pH. All the while this is going on, gluconolactone is changing to *more* acid, making it necessary to add even more sodium hydroxide in order to reach the endpoint. This reaction is *extremely* fast, too fast to see without a pH meter and impossible to detect using the simple titration method. The result is that all TA measurements in mead resulted with a standard acid testing kit are inaccurate.

This is actually a well known reaction, first identified by John W. White jr. in 1958. It had been known for some time that it was impossible to obtain accurate TA readings in honey, but up until then no one knew the cause. White was able to isolate the lactone/acid reaction as the reason for the unstable endpoint problem, and devised a new method of measuring TA in honey that bypassed the reaction.

I did a simple experiment, duplicating White's 1958 experiments but using mead instead of honey. Sure enough, the lactone/acid reaction persists in mead. I got the same results as White. This was published in Bee Culture magazine, and also given attention in Ken Schramm's book, _The Compleat Meadmaker_.

The bottom line here is that using an acid testing kit to measure TA is not reliable. It's far better to ferment the honey must to completion, taste the mead and adjust according to taste.
 

Oskaar

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Dec 26, 2004
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This is excellent information. I was always getting inconsistant TA values using titration so I switched to a handheld pH meter. I generally end up using my tastebuds because the numbers generally don't bear out what I am shooting for.

Oskaar
 

WikdWaze

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Aug 2, 2004
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Well, now I know I have no need to buy those Ph strips at my local supplier.

Is there any way to determine how much "acid" is held in store?
 

Oskaar

Got Mead Partner
Administrator
Dec 26, 2004
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The strips would help to give you and overall idea, mouthfeel would be your measure though. If the pH from the strips, and the mouthfeel jive, then you can proceed to add more acid, or bring it more to the basic end of the spectrum with some Calcium or Potassium Carbonate.

Oskaar
 
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WikdWaze

NewBee
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Aug 2, 2004
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Oskaar said:
The strips would help to give you and overall idea, mouthfeel would be your measure though. If the pH from the strips, and the mouthfeel jive, then you can proceed to add more acid, or bring it more to the basic end of the spectrum with some Calcium or Potassium Carbonate.

Oskaar
Are those carbonates the ones that produce a salty taste when overdosed?
 

JP Leimone

Got Mead? Patron
GotMead Patron
Nov 1, 2019
5
1
1
California
I've been meaning to post this information for awhile but haven't gotten to it yet -- apologies!

Not so long ago I did some experimentation on measuring acid levels in mead using the standard acid testing kits used by home winemakers. They're simple and easy to use, about $6.00, and have been used by meadmakers as well. There is a problem, however, in using them for checking TA levels in mead. There is a chemical reaction that occurs in honey when titrating for acid levels in honey and mead that skews the results of any standard titration method. Here's a brief description.

The primary acid in honey, and of course, mead, is gluconic acid. Gluconic acid co-exists with its lactone, gluconolactone, in a pH dependent relationship as part of the process by which honeybees change flower nectar into honey. Bees secrete several enzymes which work on the sucrose sugar in the nectar, first changing the sucrose into glucose, and then into gluconolactone. The gluconolactone then spontaneously hydrolizes into gluconic acid, thus raising pH and acidity levels that help to preserve the now ripened honey. Not all of the gluconolactone will hydrolize into gluconic acid. A certain amount remains behind, and acts as an acid reservoir of sorts. Here's where the pH dependent relationship between the two comes in. Whenever the acid level of the honey is neutralized, the pH will rise. The rising pH triggers the reaction, causing the gluconolactone remaining in the honey to change to gluconic acid, thus lowering the pH again and restoring the acid level of the honey.

Now, picture this process going on during the titration process used in standard acid testing kits. Sodium hydroxide is titrated, raising the pH. All the while this is going on, gluconolactone is changing to *more* acid, making it necessary to add even more sodium hydroxide in order to reach the endpoint. This reaction is *extremely* fast, too fast to see without a pH meter and impossible to detect using the simple titration method. The result is that all TA measurements in mead resulted with a standard acid testing kit are inaccurate.

This is actually a well known reaction, first identified by John W. White jr. in 1958. It had been known for some time that it was impossible to obtain accurate TA readings in honey, but up until then no one knew the cause. White was able to isolate the lactone/acid reaction as the reason for the unstable endpoint problem, and devised a new method of measuring TA in honey that bypassed the reaction.

I did a simple experiment, duplicating White's 1958 experiments but using mead instead of honey. Sure enough, the lactone/acid reaction persists in mead. I got the same results as White. This was published in Bee Culture magazine, and also given attention in Ken Schramm's book, _The Compleat Meadmaker_.

The bottom line here is that using an acid testing kit to measure TA is not reliable. It's far better to ferment the honey must to completion, taste the mead and adjust according to taste.
Thank you for posting this description, I first came across the shortened version it in the book you mention.
-as a wine maker we add acid at the beginning of fermentation as it will bend in better to the final finished wine. Would it be better to acid adjust my water, keeping in my mind the basic acid content of a particular honey? (I’m looking to make champagne like mead, dry and tart) first time mead maker!
 

Dan McFeeley

Lifetime Patron
Lifetime GotMead Patron
Oct 10, 2003
1,897
5
38
65
Illinois
It's best not to add acid at the start of the fermentation, although you'll find lots of old recipes where this is recommended. Honey must is different from wine grape must, there is a risk of a pH crash that can stall the fermentation.

Gluconic acid is the primary acid in honey, and its flavor properties are different from the organic acids found in wine grape must. This will also affect balance in mead.

I wrote an article for Zymurgy in 2002 where I go into more detail on this. Here's the reference, it might be online in an archive.

Dan McFeeley. The Taste of Mead: Acidic Properties and Flavor. Zymurgy, Sept/Oct 2006, pp. 15 - 21.
 

JP Leimone

Got Mead? Patron
GotMead Patron
Nov 1, 2019
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California
Thank you Dan for the response! I've been chewing through as many white papers as I can, its been fun to dip into a whole new world of fermentation. Coming from a world of grapes out here in California its really hard to let go of pre-fermentation adjustment. So being a bit stubborn let me ask another question: I find the basic TA of honey variations but I haven't found a good understanding of what the TA looks like once the honey is diluted down with water, or to ask in a better way.... Should I aim to balance my water to a particular TA / PH as a base level prior to fermentation? I should say that my goal with mead is to create brut show meads with champagne's traditional method as inspiration.
 

Dan McFeeley

Lifetime Patron
Lifetime GotMead Patron
Oct 10, 2003
1,897
5
38
65
Illinois
I'm not sure what you'll be able to find on the TA of honey must, as you can see from my post above, standard titration methods used for measuring TA in grape must won't work with honey must. A good chemist might be able to calculate it based on the TA of that particular honey, if it is recorded, but even that will vary a great deal according to the individual honey. IMHO, it's best to rely on pH as a measure. I'd suggest trying a forum search to see if anyone else has worked with champagne techniques in meadmaking.
 

JP Leimone

Got Mead? Patron
GotMead Patron
Nov 1, 2019
5
1
1
California
I understand and I'll stick with PH. I was referring to the very general TA given in books and online for a style of honey, but if I understand these may very from, season to season which makes sense and so not very reliable. PH is a great indicator in wine so I will be content with that. For my current mead I tossed in 2oz of acid blend and brought the PH inline with sparkling wine, we have fairly neutral water in the bay area, its happy fermenting away at 49 degrees
 
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