Mead. Mead the misunderstood, mead the confused, mead the forgotten. The times, though, they are a-changin’.
Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermentation of a honey & water mixture. Simple enough, but the breadth of mead is expanded with the use of other fermentable ingredients, non-fermentable additives, and various other techniques. Mead is sometimes called “honey wine”. This is technically incorrect, as wine involves the fermentation of fruit; however, the alcoholic strength (and taxation) and flavor profile of mead is not dissimilar from wine. Mead should be considered its own category of fermented beverage, a cousin of the more well-known beer and wine.
Some producers flavor white wine with honey and other spices after fermentation; these should not be considered meads. To qualify for the category, honey must undergo fermentation, and must contribute the good majority of the fermentable sugars (the exact amount necessary being debatable).
Mead is sometimes considered to be the most ancient of fermented beverages. The yeast in fermentation convert sugars into alcohol; where wine requires the harvest and/or cultivation of fruit, beer the mashing of grains (typically barley), and sake the conversion of rice starches into sugars, mead is based on honey – a readily available source of immediately fermentable sugar. Readily available to primitive man, who quickly found the effects most enjoyable.
Mead History & Mythology
You close your eyes. You think of mead. What images do you conjure? The Knights of the Round Table? Rampaging Vikings? African tribesmen?
The earliest evidence of the existence of a honey-based alcoholic beverage is from northern China where pottery containers show evidence of mead ingredients from 6500-7000 BCE. Europeans lagged far behind their Asian counterparts; what we oft consider to be the historical beginnings of mead was some 4500-5000 years later, around 2000 BCE.
At about the same time, the San people of southern Africa were depicting honeycombs in their rock art, along with pictographs for water and drinking vessels; whether this was a reference to a honey-based beverage is uncertain, but the pictograph for a dizzying spiral (“the spins”?) accompanies these, and at least suggests an inebriating effect.
The earliest written record of mead comes to us from the Hindu Rigveda texts several hundred years later (1700-1100 BCE): Krishna and Indra are called Madhava, meaning “the honey born ones”, and in heaven “there is a spring of mead”. Nice. Westerners often associate mead with the Scandinavian countries, perhaps because of Beowulf (around the year 1000), which mentions Danish warriors imbibing in mead. According to legend, Odin won the first mead from the Giants; this mead was brewed with blood as well as honey; to the best of our knowledge no modern-day meadmaker has attempted this. Afterwards, the gods pulled mead directly from the teats of the she-goat Heidrun, who ensured an endless supply from her udder.
The Greeks, too, mention mead. Kronos was made drunk on mead from Zeus, and Plutarch tells us that mead was the libation of the Gods.
In more recent times, the tradition of a “honeymoon” can be traced to mead. It was an English tradition for a young couple to be given mead (honey) for a full month (moon) to ensure a happy & successful procreation. Historic references to mead are far too numerous to include here. Suffice it to say that most early cultures knew of – and appreciated – fermented honey beverages. Strangely absent from the history of honey-based intoxicating beverages are North America peoples; perhaps those of the First Nations were too preoccupied with tobacco.
How to Serve Mead
Mead has always conjured the image of drunken Norsemen, quaffing their indulgence from tankards or mazers, while frivolity and wenching reign.
Fortunately, it’s the 21st century, and we are comfortable appreciating the beverage as we would a fine wine, for it is not just the setting that ensures enjoyment of the occasion but the beverage, itself, that must be appreciated.
Pretty pewter mazers and stone tankards are best left on the display shelf; they are drug delivery vehicles, meant solely to deliver the alcoholic beverage to the stomach and hence to the bloodstream, bypassing eyes & nose. These vessels celebrate themselves, not their contents. To enjoy the liquid to its fullest is to appreciate the polish – nay, the sparkle – of the meadmaker’s art complete with colors & aromas.
Because the flavors in honey – derived from blossoms – are both more nuanced and complex than those from fruit or malt, it is important to present mead in a way best to capture these essences. Ideally, mead should be served in stemware to capture its delicate aromas and distribute its flavors across the tongue. More viscous and fruity meads do well in various glassware meant for red wine, while lighter and more “table oriented” meads do best in white wine glasses. Higher-alcohol versions should be presented in a cordial glass, or a snifter.
Mead is easily ‘bruised’ by transportation, and any sediment will be stirred up by a journey; it is best to let the bottle rest for at least 24 hours before serving. Mead is often served refrigerated, especially for lower alcohol versions. Higher-ABV (alcohol by volume) meads may be served at cellar temperature.
Gone are the days when mead is used to wash down one’s turkey leg or beef rib, with little thought to how the beverage and the cuisine play together. Consider the pairings thoughtfully, as one would select a fine wine for the holidays.
Dry meads are best served as an aperitif, or with lighter foods. Steamed fish, poached chicken, calamari, and salads all pair well. Semi-sweet meads are ideal with curries, fried fish, couscous dishes, and many vegetarian selections. Semi-sweet meads are the true ‘table wine’ of the category.
Pasta with red sauce. A difficult pairing for malt-based beverages in the best of times, a well-chosen mead of sufficient (but not overwhelming) sweetness nicely counterbalances the acidity of tomatoes.
Sweet meads can be paired with richer dishes such as duck, barbecued pork, and braised short ribs. Yes, your turkey legs work here. Higher alcohol expressions are best served after the meal.
Because meads are gluten-free, they may be recommended to those with coeliac condition.
Mead around the World
One challenge we face when discussing meads from around the world is the extensive number of different terms for ‘mead’ in different cultures. Terms such as medovina, chouchen, and tej are not styles themselves; rather, they are regional terms for the meads we will describe below. Worse, some meaderies have adopted these regional appellations as their name, further confusing the issue. Fear not, for you alone may know the truth.
When tasting meads, one should note the following characteristics:
- Clarity. Generally, meads should be clear and never cloudy.
- Honey aromas, particularly if a single varietal honey is being used. The origin of the honey should be represented in its floral notes.
- Additional aromas from fruits, spices, or herbs in incorporated. Freshness here is paramount, and should not recall fruit concentrates. Real fruit, #thankyouverymuch.
- Mouthfeel is generally light-to-medium with drier meads, and medium-to-heavy as one progresses towards sweeter meads.
- Acidity in drier meads should balance out honey sweetness, with less acidity needed for sweeter meads.
The categorization of meads is fraught with confusion over ingredients & techniques. Rather than a slavish adherence to a pre-defined “style”, many modern meadmakers are blurring the distinctions between definitions. We usually select the dominant ingredient/additive when it is necessary to categorize.
It is important to recognize mead descriptors which can be applied across categories, so should not be considered as categories themselves:
- Sparkling (sometimes called ‘Draft Mead’) vs. Still
- Dry vs. Semi-Sweet vs. Sweet
Note that the term “sack” is rarely used these days; we find it to be a leftover from the old BJCP and homebrewing orientation.
For our purposes, the following categories are recommended:
Traditional meads should incorporate only honey as a fermentable ingredient, along with water and of course yeast. They can range in character from dry to semi-sweet to sweet, and may be sparkling or still. While not necessarily “traditional”, they may also be fortified and/or barrel-aged. Whether the honey used is a single varietal or a mixture, it is important for a successful traditional mead to evidence the floral nature of the honey; indeed, it should be the defining characteristic. Some acidity is often desired to balance sweetness, but this is not necessary. Lighter versions may be analogous to white wines of corresponding sweetness/dryness, but should present distinctly honeyed emphasis.
Traditional meads are becoming increasingly difficult to find, as brewers gravitate more and more to the possibilities presented by additional ingredients & techniques (hey, it’s more fun to play the role of the alchemist ;) however, several examples of traditional meads are:
Empire “Royal Mead” (sweet) Apimed “Original Slovenska Medovina” (sweet) Lurgashall “English Mead” (semi-sweet) Intermiel “Bouquet Printanier” (dry)
Metheglin is a traditional mead to which a mixture of spices and/or spices have been added. It is interesting to note that the word ‘medicine’ is derived from the word ‘metheglin’. Here’s where we start to have some fun. While the honey character in both aroma & palate can be variable, the primary emphasis in this style is how well the spices and/or herbs are integrated into the beverage – they should not overwhelm the honey characteristics, but should be featured. A synergy of the individual ingredients is ideal.
Examples of metheglins of different types:
Kuhnhenn “Bourbon Barrel French Toast Mead” (maple syrup, hazelnuts, spices, barrel-aged)
Dansk “Viking Blod” (hibiscus, hops, sweet)
Makana “iQhilika African Chili Mead” (chilies, semi-sweet) Redstone “Nectar of the Hops” (hops, semi-sweet, sparkling)
Melomel is a traditional mead to which fruit has been added. The fruit character is the driver here, and whether dry or sweet should be very evident. Key here is a natural, ‘off-the-vine’ evocation rather than any suggestion of artificial flavorings. Examples of melomels incorporating different fruits:
APIS “Póltorak Jadwiga” (raspberry)
Maine Meadworks “HoneyMaker Elderberry” Intermiel “Black Currant”
Cyser is a particular sub-category of melomels, where the fruit in question is specifically: Apples. Some haze may be present here, especially if actual fruit (vs. filtered juice) was used for fermentation. Examples:
B. Nektar “Zombie Killer” (cherry cyser) Celestial Meads “Stonewall’s Cyser”
Pyment is a particular sub-category of melomels, where the fruit in question is specifically: Grapes. It is important to note that the grape juice should be fermented with the honey, rather than blended in afterwards. ‘Mulsum’ is a historic variety of pyment that generally refers to the post-fermentation blend of wine and honey (and sometimes water or sea-water). Example:
Celestial Meads “Que Syrah – Syrah”
Braggot a traditional mead fermented with malt/beer. The proper ratio of honey:malt is widely debated, but should generally fall between 1:2 and 2:1. Outside this range, a malt-dominant proportion should be considered a “beer”; a honey-dominant beverage should be considered a metheglin. Braggots tend to be more turbid than their mead brethren, and often are on the sweeter side. Acidity is generally not desirable, unless the base beer is of that persuasion.
Atlantic Brewing “Brother Adam’s Braggot” Hanssens “Mead the Gueuze”
So, yes, when you start to combine styles & descriptors you can end up with concoctions like a “Semi-Sweet Macademia Nut Honey Metheglin with Mango” or a “Dry Sparkling Cranberry Clove Melomel Fortified with Grappa and Sherry-barrel- aged”.
As is the wont of brewers, especially Americans, the industry sees constant innovation in the production of fermented beverages including mead. While the rest of the world represents perhaps the best and the archetypal examples of traditional meads, meadmakers in this country continue to push the boundaries of possibilities.
The use of single-varietal honeys is often seen. These present differences analogous to hop varietals in beers, and the differences between them should be pronounced. Modern meadmakers enjoy experimenting with different flavors & ingredients to stretch their vision far beyond the categories discussed above. Mixtures of fruits, herbs, spices matured in barrels of various pedigrees are commonly seen by the more prolific producers.
Increasingly, kegged meads – to be dispensed via CO2 – are seen at better establishments. This encourages the publican to experiment with mead-based cocktails, as well as blending with other draught beer selections; the latter practice is frowned on many mead purists, but in essence is the creation of a ‘house’ braggot.
It’s All Good
In the final analysis, mead should be shared and reveled with in the best of times – an historic beverage that is finding contemporary acceptance and enthusiasm. It is a budding category that has yet to be fully explored with fine cuisine and in the craft of mixology – an ancient indulgence that can be rediscovered together by a group of friends.
A friend in mead is a friend, indeed.