What is Mead?
Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey. Think of it this way:
Wine= fermented grapes
Beer= fermented malts
Cider= fermented apples
Mead= fermented honey
But what is fermentation, then?
That's simple, too! Fermentation is the process of yeast turning sugar into alcohol. A meadmaker, winemaker, or brewer all start by making a sweet liquid known as a must (in wine or meadmaking) or a wort (in brewing). The yeast, single cell organisms, are added (pitched in meadmaker terminology) by the meadmaker into the sweet, sugary liquid and allowed to go nuts eating sugar molecules and making them into alcohol molecules. Which leads us into another common mead question:
Since it is made from honey, is mead sweet?
Not necessarily! Mead, like wine or beer, is made by fermentation. As we just learned, fermentation is the process of turning sugar into alcohol. If all the sugar is converted into alcohol, then the result is a mead (or wine or beer) that is not sweet. This is known as "dry", which is not to be confused with the dry sensation you get on your tongue when drinking a tannic red wine. Of course, if all the sugar isn't converted to alcohol, you get a mead (or beer, or wine) that is not dry. It could be considered "off-dry" (almost dry), "semi-sweet" (a little sweet), "sweet" (just as it sounds), or "dessert" (very sweet).
Mead is all Viking stuff, right?
Well, certainly in the English-speaking world most of us get our first exposure to mead by reading about it in Beowulf, which is set in a Danish mead-hall. And the Norse countries do have a proud and long history of meadmaking. But mead has been known by different names across the globe by a wide variety of peoples and cultures for a very long time. Anywhere that honeybees, and therefore honey, can be found mead has been known.
So what is the history of mead, then?
Mead has a claim on the title "oldest fermented beverage". It is thought that even in our hunter-gatherer stage, people could have been fermenting honey diluted with water in wineskins and drinking the resulting magic elixir. Perhaps not the finest of vintages, but effective nonetheless! This fermentation would have happened spontaneously at first, but early meadmakers would have found it worth repeating in order to set the mood around the campfire at night.
Ancient cultures around the world are known to have made mead or mead-like beverages, from the Ancient Greek Nectar, "drink of the gods" to the Soma of Vedic scrolls. Mead often had an association with religion, ceremony, and royalty. The ancient Egyptians believed that bees were messengers of the gods, and the honey divine in nature. It is said that the tradition of a "honeymoon" comes from giving a newly wed couple enough mead to keep them libated for a cycle of the moon. Mead has continued to be popular in much of the world- eastern Europe and the Sahel region of Africa have maintained a meadmaking tradition from antiquity to modern times.
Even in America, mead has a long history. We have found references to mead produced commercially in Cleveland in the 1830's, and in Minnesota in the early 20th Century. But mostly in America mead has been a "cottage product" made on kitchen counters and in basements by homebrewers, beekeepers, and historic recreationists.
How do you make mead?
Mead is made by making a "must", or sweet fermentable liquid, from honey and water. Fruits, spices, or grains- otherwise known as "adjuncts" can be added at this time, as well. Using the best honey is necessary to make the best mead. Best fruits and spices, for that matter!
Yeast, a single-celled organism responsible for fermentation (the transformation of sugar to alcohol) is then added, or "pitched" into the must. Yeast are hard working little microorganisms, but require care to complete the fermentation in a consistent and "clean" manner. This is a big part of the craft of meadmaking- its how a good meadmaker turns great ingredients into great mead!
When the fermentation is complete, the mead begins the clarification and aging processes. The yeast fall out of the mead to the bottom of the tank. The spent yeast is known as the "lees", and the finished mead is separated from the lees by transferring it carefully to another vessel while leaving the less behind. The mead also begins maturing- flavors develop and blend. When the mead is ready, it can be bottled. It can then continue aging until it is ready to drink.
What are the common styles of mead?
Traditional or Show Mead
The most basic type of mead, a traditional mead is made of only honey, water, and yeast. They are very dependent on the type of honey, known as the variety, for their color, flavor and aroma. The variety of honey brings distinctive flavors that can be bold or subtle. For example, orange blossom honey has a light citrus flavor while buckwheat honey has bold chocolate and malt notes.
A spiced mead is known as a metheglin. The spices can be used to add balance, body, and complexity to the mead. Often, sweet baking spices are employed as they are a natural complement to honey's sweet, floral, and fruity notes. But the world of spices is broad and the imagination of meadmakers endless, so other flavors from the earthy to the herbal to the fiery hot can find there way into a mead!
Honey goes so well with so many things, why not add fruit? Berries, stone fruits, or exotic tropical fruits, all can be made into delicious melomels. A couple special cases of melomel exist- cysers are made with honey and apples, and pyment is honey and wine grapes.
A mead created from caramelized honey. The caramelization of the honey can bring out additional flavors- think caramel, toffee, or toasted marshmallow. Often only a portion of the honey will be caramelized and then blended with the original honey- the result is a more layered and complex mead.
Session Meads are the lightest meads, and usually sparkling. They can have hops, fruit, or spices added. Session meads make an excellent honey-based alternative to beers or ciders!
Also on the lighter side, hydromels tend to feature light, subtle and delicate flavors. They are comparable to white wines, but their varietal honey notes lend them their own distinctive character.
Sack or Great Mead
The grandaddy of meads, sack or great meads are full bodied, strong, and usually fairly sweet. They make an excellent dessert wine.