To most folks, mead is little more than that sickly-sweet honey drink from the Renaissance Faire—a hangover in a glass for nine bucks a pop. But hear me out: that's the crappy stuff. When it's made well, mead can be a beautiful beverage, with all the complexity and taste-of-place of great wine, and all the creativity and flavor diversity of great beer. More and more fantastic meads are showing up at your local bottle shop, and it's time to give mead another try. Let's start by dispelling a couple misconceptions.
First: You don't have to be a Viking to drink it.
You also shouldn't be afraid of the fact that mead is made from honey, and you don't have to relegate the drink to the dessert hour. While sweet meads are common, just-off-dry and totally dry examples are easy to find and super delicious.
There are spiced meads, meads made with fruit, barrel-aged meads, carbonated meads, and still ones. There are meads meant to be served hot, meads to be served cold, rather weak meads, and very strong ones. Whatever your impression of mead is now, there's probably an example out there that will surprise you. And maybe that's the one you'll love the most.
What is Mead?
Mead is the alcoholic beverage that results from fermenting honey that has been diluted with water. Examples you might find at your bottle shop generally range in alcoholic strength from around 6% ABV to 22% ABV or more. Fruits or spices are used to flavor some meads, and most of the bottles you'll find are uncarbonated. Almost all meads are gluten-free. You can find very sweet and fully dry examples, but most live somewhere between the two.
How is Mead Made?
The honey that lives in the plastic bear in your pantry is too dense with sugar to allow for fermentation without some kind of human intervention. Meadmakers dilute honey with water to create a more yeast-friendly environment. If they want to make a mead with fruit or spices in it, they'll generally add those ingredients after diluting the honey, before the fermentation starts. Fruit or fruit juice can replace some or all of the water used to dilute the honey.
Before adding yeast, some meadmakers heat the diluted honey mixture, now known as "must," in order to kill off any unwanted bacteria or yeast that could be in there waiting to create funky off flavors or spoilage. Other producers see this heating as a grave sin, since raising the temperature is thought to drive off some of the delicate honey aromas that can make mead so interesting. These non-heaters rely on honey's natural antibacterial qualities to limit the growth of spoiling organisms.
Whatever the producer's stance is on the heat issue, the next step in mead production is to get fermentation going. Honey and water alone don't offer all the nutrients necessary for yeast to make mead very well, so meadmakers add oxygen and powdered nutrient blends to the liquid in order to help the yeast multiply and remain happy as they do their thing.
The yeast usually come from a lab that specializes in producing the stuff for breweries, wineries, and meaderies. Let loose in the must, the sugar-hungry yeast begin the process of creating mead.
The density of the must (that is, how much or how little the honey has been diluted), the type of yeast used, and the fermentation temperature all have an effect on how much sugar the yeast will eat. This will dictate how much alcohol the yeast generates, and how much of the sweet, unfermented sugar is left behind. Meadmakers know which yeasts to pick and how to treat them right in order to get the flavors, alcohol levels, and residual sweetness they desire.
Throughout the fermentation process, many meadmakers continue to feed the yeast nutrients and do whatever they can to ensure that the fermentation is a healthy and efficient one.
Once the fermentation is complete, mead usually ages for at least a few months and sometimes several years in order to allow the flavors within to unify, mellow, or mature before the meads are packaged and released into the wild. Carbonated meads are usually bottled with live yeast and a small dose of sugar, causing an additional fermentation within the sealed bottle. The carbon dioxide created in this fermentation has nowhere to escape, and is absorbed into the mead as bubbles. Carbonated meads can also be made by forcing carbon dioxide from a gas canister into the liquid prior to bottling.
If you're about to try your very first mead, where should you begin and what should you expect?
Traditional meads, which are made without added fruit or spices, are a good place to start. The best examples preserve or amplify the complexities of a high quality honey and add floral, earthy, or white wine-like fermentation-born aromatics to complement the honey's flavor. These meads offer a clear way to taste what can happen when honey is fermented, providing context for your future mead adventures. You'll find traditional meads that are sweet, dry, or somewhere in between, and many will indicate where along that spectrum they fall on the label. Pick whatever sounds good!
Fruited and spiced meads can also make for a great jumping off point by bringing in flavors you're already familiar with. If you can think of a fruit or spice, some meadmaker somewhere is probably experimenting with it. Berry, apple, and grape meads are pretty common, but don't be surprised if you run into examples spiked with mango, cacao nibs, chipotle peppers, or hops. The best of these will find a balance of honey and any added flavorings, forming a complete, unified package when you take a sip.
Deciphering Mead Labels
With all the different types of mead out there, bottle labels can be perplexing. Here are some terms you may run into in your quest for bee juice boozin':
Braggot: A type of mead/beer hybrid, made with honey and malted barley or other grains. The term also sometimes refers to blends of finished mead and beer.
Hydromel: A lower alcohol mead, named for the higher rate of dilution called for in the recipe.
Melomel: Meads made with fruit, including cyser (mead made with apples) and pyment (mead made with grapes), among others.
Metheglin: Meads made with herbs or spices, including capsicumel (mead made with chili peppers) and tej (an Ethiopian and Eritrean specialty spiced with a plant called gesho), among others.
Sack mead: Stronger mead, made with a higher percentage of honey in the recipe.
Traditional Mead: This term refers to meads that contain no added flavoring ingredients. It's just honey, water, and yeast steering this ship.
Meaderies to Seek Out
B. Nektar: Famous for their experimental melomels with occasionally nutty names and labels. Looking for a mead made with smoked pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and squash? One made with cherries and chipotle peppers? B. Nektar is your meadery.
Heidrun: A small California meadery that makes exclusively fully dry, carbonated, varietal meads. Their Madras Carrot Blossom Mead is an earthy, acidic revelation.
Moonlight Meadery: Proprietor Michael Fairbrother makes beautiful, award-winning melomels. Moonlight is perhaps most famous for their sweet and spicy Kurt's Apple Pie cyser that is spiked with cinnamon and vanilla.*
Sap House Meadery: A New Hampshire-based meadery that is known for their meads made with maple syrup in addition to honey (which are also known as acerglyns). All of their meads have won medals in international competitions, but my favorite is their Ossipioja, a semi-sweet pyment made with Spanish red wine grapes.*
Schramm's: A meadery best known for their teeny-release cult favorite melomel, The Heart of Darkness, which is made with cherries, raspberries, and black currants. Only available in Michigan.
Superstition: A celebrated Arizona meadery known for their experimental spirit. Their lineup includes a series of pyments made with single grape varieties and a sweet mead made with raspberries and white chocolate called—wait for it—Berry White.
Disclosure: the author works for the distributor that sells these meads in the state of California.