Mead, also known as “honey wine”, conjures images of husky, horned-helmeted warriors and ferocious Goths drinking from clay chalices and is believed to be the world’s oldest alcoholic libation. Associated with civilizations of the past, this fermented drink may seem dated, but it has grown steadily in the United States on the commercial and homebrewing side.
What is Mead?
Mead is as simple as fermenting diluted honey. It’s generally higher in alcohol than beer and puts the beverage more in line with grape wine, but it can be flavored like beer with fruits, spices, grains, hops, and more. Mead is produced in a variety of sweetness levels from dry to sweet, and carbonation levels vary from still to sparkling.
And within the tapestry of mead, there are subdivisions. For example, if mead is mixed with beer or brewed with hops and malt, it becomes a braggot. If mead is made with fruit, it is called melomel, while hydromel is a watered-down version consumed in Spain and France.
Mead is produced in wineries (called meaderies), and bottles are usually sold in wine shops. However, when hops are added to mead, it is often grouped into craft beer. In reality, though, mead is it’s own category, just like cider, sake, wine, and beer.
This tutorial covers one of the easiest ways to make mead at home, without the use of any heat in order to preserve the flavor and aroma characteristics of the honey. For more information on how to make outstanding mead, check out 5 Tips for Making better Mead.
Similar to wine and beer, many cultures—Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and Vikings—drank mead. The Greeks called mead ambrosia, or nectar. It was believed to be the drink of the gods and was thought to descend from the heavens as dew before being gathered in by bees. Many European cultures also thought bees were messengers of the gods preferred mead over wine in rites and grand ceremonies.
Mead holds particular importance in Norse mythology. A draught of mead, delivered by divine maidens, was the reward for warriors who reached Valhalla. And, the Norse god of poetry, Brage, is said to have consumed mead from a Brage-beaker, later called the bragging cup. Mead mythology continues in our culture today: the very term “honeymoon” comes from the ancient tradition of giving bridal couples a moon’s worth of honey-wine to ensure a fruitful union.
Flowers tempt bees with their bright colors and sweet nectar to pollinate. Jumping from one flower to the next, bees gather nectar for immediate energy and reserves. The bees fill their chambers with the amber fluid, viscous and sweet. Nectar transforms into golden hexagons that taste of the clover that fills the meadows.
Two things happen when bees convert nectar into honey. First, they reduce the moisture content from more than 50 percent to less than 20 percent. Second, bees add enzymes that change the chemical composition of the nectar. Two of these enzymes are of particular significance. The enzyme invertase converts sucrose into its constituent monosaccharides, glucose and fructose. Second, the enzyme glucose oxidase acts on glucose, producing gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. The sugars provided by the honey are consumed by brewer’s or winemaker’s yeasts, which produce alcohol and CO2 in a process called fermentation.
The flavor and aroma of honey are directly related to the varietal source of the nectar from which it comes. Names like “orange blossom,” “alfalfa,” and “clover” signify the types of flowers the honey was derived. Wildflower honey simply means the bees visited many different types of flowers.
Honey intended for meadmaking is ideally sourced from a local beekeeper. If you can’t go directly to the source, local farmers markets or gourmet grocery stores are great places to find quality honey. It is wise to avoid mass-produced honeys, which are often treated with heat and a filtration process that can degrade the flavor and aroma of the honey and, ultimately, the mead. Find a non-heat-treated, local honey that tastes and smells good. Any honey you like raw is worth trying to ferment into mead!
It takes about 20,000 trips by a bee, and roughly four million stops at blossoms, to produce a single pound (454 g) of honey. The average colony of European bees produces about 70 pounds (32 kg) of honey per year, with some hives producing up to 200 pounds (91 kg).