What Is Mead? Introduction, Brief History & Making Process
Whiskey, check, vodka, sure, beer, you bet! But when it comes to venturing into the subculture of alcohol that steps past these norms, one may meet the drink of times past (and hopefully times present!) – mead. Right now, we'd like to get you sweet on this honey-based brew while seriously busting the myth that it's only for tipplers with a sugary sweet tooth!
What Is This Golden Nectar?
What is Mead? Mead is a simple girl. She's typically blonde in coloring, has a sweet core that can often be cunningly dry, and she doesn't need much fuss to shine. She consists of water, honey, and yeast. All three are carefully fermented and often aged. Sometimes she comes with an extra kick of flavor. Ready for some fun new words?! Cysers are meads that have apples added. Pyments are meads with grapes. Melomels are meads with pretty much any other fruit besides apples or grapes. Melomel means "honey of honey" and in true melomels the fruit ferments alongside the honey vs. back sweetening with the fruit. See? And you thought all there was to mead was sticky, sweet honey!
So what about that sticky, sweet perception? Well – we hate to be blunt, but it's just plain wrong. Yes, there absolutely are sticky sweet meads out there. And honestly, there IS a time and place for them. But with the craft boom in mead, the range of dry to sweet is vast. Beyond sweetness level, mead can also range from a super sessionable 3% alcohol level to a mighty 20%. It can be sparkling or completely flat. It can be rich and viscous or light and refreshing. You have a veritable rubiks cube of mead permutations to taste and try! Excited yet? We thought so…
A Brief History of Mead
Mead was the drink of choice for much of the ancient world. Ancient as in the times of ancient settlings in Africa, Europe, Asia and beyond. Often, it was the drink of kings and queens. Listen, if it was good enough for them, it's damn well good enough for you! The Shang dynasty of China, which dates back to 1600 B.C., is the oldest dynasty that gave archeological proof of its existence. Then, when moving to Africa the women were the main crafters of mead some 20,000 years ago (thank you ladies). Although the senior male members of a tribe were the ones who chose who drank and how much. Norse mythology holds that "The Mead of Poetry" was a drink that would give you untold powers to recite and obtain information like a scholar. How rich! As you can see, mead has romantic and classical tones that are undeniable, making it as alluring then as it is now. Similarly, meads of the ancient past ranged in flavor. During the cold winter months and in more northern climates they tended to be the more viscous, sweet…perfect for heating up and keeping you warm. But as spring and summer rolled around, or as you moved south, mead was often drier, lighter and more refreshing.
So why do we all have the perception of it as only being sweet? Well, part of it simply has to do with what the earliest makers here in the U.S. personally liked themselves. Another piece of the puzzle is that a super-sweet alcoholic drink was pretty differentiated from other existing alcoholic beverages. Lastly, some of the food cultures that prominently displayed mead-like beverages (Ethiopia's Tej, for example) and helped make it popular tended towards the sweeter side. But the craft mead revolution is here and we are back to wide-ranging flavors and styles for essentially everyone's palate!
Mead Making 101
Creating mead is relatively simple…which is likely part of the reason it's been around forever! For starters, the list of ingredients is generally short: honey, water, and yeast. To be defined as a mead, at least 51% of the fermentable sugars must come from honey. Similar to most alcohol, fermentation is a key part of the process and aging can vastly influence your end result. While making mead is simple, like any other craft alcohol meaderies have their own artistic style and tactics. This results in vastly different final products. Decisions like how much water to cut the honey with, what percentage of honey to use as the fermentable sugars, what strains of yeast to use, aging approaches, whether to carbonate, and what fruit to include (if any) are critical in determining the finished mead.
Most meaderies you'll find are small, using 50-gallon tanks, but tanks can be much larger depending on the producer's ambition and approach. For example, our friends at The Meadery San Francisco use 500-gallon tanks. Additionally, another relatively rare technique is noted in their Cyser. Most meaderies make traditional mead (a blend of honey and water) and then add apple juice in addition to the water. The Meadery San Francisco, however makes their Cyser by replacing water entirely with apple juice. They employ an 80% apple and 20% honey ratio. This gives it a smooth body and a powerfully welcoming apple aroma. The Meadery also focuses, almost entirely, on drier mead styles. So if you fear the sweet stuff, make sure to subscribe so you don't miss our upcoming article all about The Meadery San Francisco!
The Craft Movement
Beyond the one producer we've already mentioned, craft victories in the mead world abound. Heidrun Meadery in Point Reyes Station, CA makes all sparkling meads and often brings in honey from unique parts of the world that express certain flavor notes. Such as their Hawaiian Macadamia Nut Blossom Mead or their Arizona Desert Mesquite Mead. Then there's Oregon Mead & Cider Company who makes a "queen series" which is all sparkling and all at a higher ~16% ABV. For an East Coast example there's Maine Mead Works who makes dry meads highlighting the best of their local Maine bounty from honey to cranberry to hops. There is tradition being brought back into the category along with forward looking innovation. Discovering your own local meaderies (there are now over 600 in the U.S.!) and starting to learn what styles you like will provide an experience and new favorite sip you'll be working into your regular wine drinking and cocktail making rotation! Do you have some favorite meads already? Or are you still skeptical? Either way – talk to us in the comments below and let's get this unsung alcohol hero the attention it deserves!