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An Introduction to Mead

Craft mead ranks as a hot new trend in the alcohol industry, but few imbibers truly understand and appreciate the complexities and defining characteristics of this historic, legendary beverage. How does mead differ from wine, cider and beer? What goes into mead fermentation and production, and how are the varied styles of mead defined?

Wine is fermented from grape or fruit juices. Beer starts with converting the starch of barley grains into fermentable sugars using a hot water infusion, then boiling the sweet liquid with hops to balance the sweetness. Cider basically arises from fermented apple juice. With mead, honey makes up most of the fermentable sugar, and the final alcohol-by-volume (ABV) content can range from around 3 percent to over 20 percent, depending on the style.

Robin Kosoris of Georgia's Viking Alchemist Meadery believes that mead innovation is only limited by the imagination of the mead maker. “Like wine, mead has terroir,” she says. “Wildflower honey is the ‘bees’ choice’ of local flowers and has a distinctiveness based on location as well as time of year. Like beer, mead has a wide variety of styles and lends itself well to creativity.”

Millennia ago, water soaked into a damaged beehive, or maybe rain, diluted a container of honey that was left out in the elements. The watery honey fermented from microbes found in the environment, and some calorie-deprived soul drank the resulting liquid and found it to be delicious and delightfully intoxicating. Early mead production was going on almost 10,000 years ago, based on residue found in ancient Chinese pottery, and for thousands of years, this “nectar of the gods” was probably the favorite alcoholic drink in the world.

Honey, water and yeast are essential in the creation of mead, and the final product can fall on a carbonation spectrum from zero carbon dioxide (still) to lively and sparkling like champagne. Depending on the amount of residual sugar at packaging, meads are available in versions that can be described as dry, semi-sweet or sweet. Dry meads make for splendid aperitifs, while sweet meads pair well with desserts.

With mead, honey makes up most of the fermentable sugar, and the final alcohol-by-volume (ABV) content can range from around 3 percent to over 20 percent, depending on the style.

Bees collect nectar and pollen from surrounding flowers and convert this mixture into honey in the hive. Mead’s major flavors come from the type of honey that is used, and different flowers give rise to honeys with a surprising array of aroma and flavor characteristics. Most standard, mixed blossom honeys produce meads with appealing, neutral flavors. Orange blossom honey contributes a pleasing hint of citrus. Tupelo honey can produce meads with somewhat earthy undertones, while an unusual honey type such as eucalyptus offers notes of pungent menthol.

In general, all meads aspire to be brilliantly clear, with colors that range from almost colorless to dark brown, based on the color of the honey. Most meads fall in the straw to golden spectrum. Aromas are indicative of the base honey type, with some fruity esters and spice-like compounds arising from the fermentation process. Higher ABV meads offer a greater depth of honey flavor than lighter session versions, and sweeter meads provide a more viscous, full-bodied mouthfeel.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) mead guidelines explain, “Dry meads will have no residual sugar, sweet meads will have noticeable to prominent sweetness, and semi-sweet meads will have a balanced sweetness. In no case should the residual sweetness be syrupy, cloying or seem like unfermented honey.”

Looking through the BJCP style descriptions makes it immediately apparent that mead is no simple beverage. An impressive range of mead varieties can be created from additions of fruit, spices, herbs, hops, vegetables and malt. “Honey is the defining element of a mead,” notes Jeff Herbert, owner of Superstition Meadery in Arizona. “While honey makes a delicious mead on its own, it has the amazing ability to elevate the profile of special ingredients.”

As mentioned earlier, classic, traditional meads – made with only honey, water and yeast – are built to showcase the type of honey. Mead producers shoot for an enjoyable, appealing, balanced combination of honey, alcohol, acidity and fermentation complexity, all based on the body and sweetness level that are appropriate for the particular style. Dry meads can be reminiscent of a Sauvignon Blanc, while sweeter examples may taste like Sauternes or Riesling dessert wines.

Fruit additions create meads known generally as “Melomels.” These exquisite meads can be dry to sweet, with the type of fruit being apparent and well-balanced with the underlying canvas of honey. Creative, modern melomel producers choose from an interesting range of fruits that can include berries, stone fruits, figs, exotic fruits, citrus and more. BJCP descriptions use the culinary, not botanical, definition of “fruit.” For example, a jalapeño pepper is technically a fruit, but its culinary reputation classifies it as a vegetable. Some fruit meads may also contain one or more complementary spices for added complexity.

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