Mead: A Definition, Brief History, and Explanation of the Process

Mead - it's what medieval knights and ripped Norsemen drink in every super-edgy warrior film. It's what they serve at your local Renaissance fair. But it's got a whole lot more character and room for variability than the super-sweet-and-boozy persona for which it is known. Sure, mead is fermented honey & water (that has occasionally got some fruit, grains, hops, or spices in it) but this does not mean you can always expect a cloyingly sweet mead. Sweet meads are admittedly common, but, like wine, mead can range from sweet to bone-dry. Mead can also be served hot or cold, weak or strong, still or sparkling. Mead's alcoholic content can range from 3.5% ABV all the way up to 22%.

Mead's Long History

Chemical signatures and residual samples taken from early ceramics link mead consumption to northern China in 7000 BC and Europe in 2800-1800 BC. Early texts have also linked mead to the ancient Greek, African, and Indian cultures. Mead is likely best known for its importance in Norse mythology, where legend tells of a beverage with magical powers known as "poetic mead." It was written that the Norse gods created an incredibly wise man named Norseman Kvasir who could answer any question. Once dead, his blood was mixed with honey, allowing anyone who drank the honey-blood mead to take on Kvasir's intelligence. Mead has, in fact, been featured in many folktales, including Beowulf, in addition to the works of Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, T.H. White, and Neil Geiman.

The Process of Making Mead

Store-bought honey is too dense to allow for fermentation, which is why honey is mixed with water to create a more yeast-friendly environment. Before adding their yeast, many meadmakers will heat the water-and-honey mixture, now known as "must," to eliminate any unwanted bacteria or yeast that could lead to off flavors or spoilage. To make a mead with fruit or spices, those ingredients are added after diluting the honey but before the fermentation starts. Remember, adding fruit or fruit juice can replace some or all of the water used to dilute the honey, so you'll need to take this into consideration when you add water for your recipe. Mead is frequently made with wine yeast, especially white wine yeast. This means mead will ferment at the same temperatures required for white wine fermentation. Into the yeast, honey, and water meadmakers will add oxygen and powdered nutrient blends to assist yeast in fermenting the mead. Measuring gravity is often crucial to the mead-making process to reach the intended ABV. Using a hydrometer or refractometer, mead makers can watch the proportion of alcohol by volume, and even take note if fermentation seems to be stopping unintentionally. 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. After primary fermentation, mead is racked to a second container. Secondary fermentation allows the mead to finish fermenting off of the dead yeast cells which could cause off flavors. Also, the mead will have time to clarify. At this point, mead makers can backsweeten the mead using potassium metabisulfite and potassium sorbate. Once the mead is clear and properly sweetened, it can be bottled. Once fermentation is over, mead can age for a few months to several years, depending upon the drinker's preference, as aging allows the mead's flavor to mellow and mature.

Types of Mead

Mead is believed to be the world's oldest alcoholic beverage, and it has roots in cultures on nearly every continent. Therefore, mead goes by a number of different names and has many different varieties. For the sake of brevity, we're listing the varieties we believe will best help you navigate the mead selection at your favorite bottle shop.

  • Braggot (a.k.a. bracket or bracket) Mead made with malt
  • Capsicumel: Mead made with chilli peppers
  • Cyser: Mead made with apples (type of melomel)
  • Melomel: Mead made with fruit
  • Metheglin: Mead made with herbs and/or spices (Common: ginger, tea, orange peel, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla)
  • Pyment: Mead made with grapes (type of melomel)
  • Rhodomel: Mead made with rose, either in the form of rose hips, rose petals, rose water or rose attar
  • Rubamel: Mead made with raspberries (type of melomel)

Experiment, and do not be afraid to make a whole new kind of mead. Although, admittedly, that would be a hard task since it's likely the oldest form of booze in the world.