Mead, or the “nectar of the gods,” as the Ancient Greeks used to call it, has seen a huge rise in popularity over the last few years. Just take a look at the beer and wine aisles of your local hypermarket and you’ll notice the ever-growing mead section. But is it a beer or a wine?
Well, neither, really. Mead is a type of drink that stands all by itself. As the market for craft beers has grown, so too has the artisanal mead sector. Recent reports from the American Mead Makers Association (AMMA) suggest, on average, a new meadery opens in the U.S. every 3 days.
How is mead different from beer? What exactly is mead, and how is it produced? Is it just the fermentation process that is different from beer and wine?
A Brief History of Mead
To understand what mead is and the complexity of its many flavors, we need to quickly look at how this heavenly, some would say, drink originated.
Acknowledged to be the oldest alcoholic beverage in history, mead predates both beer and wine by several thousand years. Mead is often referenced in the ancient cultures of China, Egypt, India, and Greece; there’s even documentary evidence of fermented honey alcoholic drinks being drunk in India some 4,000 years ago.
Going back even further, pottery vessels found in Northern China containing traces of early mead compounds were dated from around 7000 to 6500 BC. Literature, and more recently, period movies and dramas are littered with references to mead, with the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones” partially credited with the resurgence of mead’s popularity.
But that’s enough of the history lesson! We are here to discover what mead tastes like and the main differences from beer.
If you are still curious to know more about this ancient drink, the Encyclopedia Brittanica is a good place to start.
What is Mead?
Sometimes called “honey wine”, when you first encounter mead, it may feel a lot like wine, but it also has many flavors characteristic of craft beer. Taste a good mead and it certainly won’t be your last encounter with this heavenly drink.
At its most basic, mead is a mixture of honey with water and yeast. Diluted honey is often added to the brewing vessel before yeast is introduced along with oxygen to feed the yeast. Other aromatics like hops, grains, fruits, or spices can also be added to create more complex flavors.
The adding of hops or fruit still doesn’t make mead a wine or a beer; the differences go much deeper.
What Are The Key Differences Between Mead vs Beer?
For an ale, a brewer will traditionally use a top-fermenting Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, which offers a fruity and aromatic flavor. India Pale Ales, stouts, goses, and wheat beers all serve as good examples of aromatic beers normally brewed at warmer temperatures.
By comparison, lagers have a crisp flavor and cleaner taste while brewed at lower temperatures with apastorianus yeast, which settles at the bottom of the brewing vessel when fermenting.
The main difference in the production of meads is the ingredients used. Whereas a session mead will use just honey and water with yeast for the fermentation, there are also meads that throw in some fruit and are called “melomels.” Meads will also use more of a wine type of yeast, rather than ale yeast.
Mead makers have been known to toss in all kinds of fruits, including apples, berries, pineapples, cherries, and many more, to give an array of flavors. Adding hops and spices can also give more complex flavors to a simple mead.
Mead vs Beer — How are They Brewed?
The main difference between mead and beer production is the brewing process.
Beer brewing generally involves four stages: malting the cereal grains, mashing, boiling, and finally fermenting. Mead uses a much less complex brewing process with just two stages, the thinning, or diluting, of the honey with water, then finishing with fermentation. Most mead brewers tend to skip this stage as they believe boiling the raw honey may affect the batch’s potency.
Although both beer and mead are made from the final fermentation of sugars, that’s about where the similarities end. While mead just needs a simple mixture of yeast, water, and honey, beer requires a complex balancing act of starch, hops, and grains to get that perfect beer taste.
As a rule of thumb, the source of the fermentable sugars will determine whether a drink is a mead or another category of alcoholic beverage. Even though some wines or beers may use honey as an ingredient, the primary source of fermentable sugars will come from fruit or grain, respectively.
To be classified as a mead, the fermentable sugar profile has to come primarily from the honey.
Mead vs Beer — How Long Should They Be Left to Age?
Like all fine things in life, the best mead comes to those who can wait. Beers are meant to be drunk in shorter periods, as the fermentation process is much quicker compared to mead.
Experts recommend storing mead in a dark, cool cellar where you can control the humidity. Leave it as long as possible when you can — preferably for a few months (though, it never lasts quite that long in my household!) — as the flavors of the basic honey will intensify over a period of time. You should always try to control any other strange odors in the room as it may spoil the flavor profile of the mead.
Traditionally, beers are best stored in a refrigerator, which increases the taste and also creates a consumer demand for more, especially those ice-cold lagers on a midsummer day.
Mead vs Beer — The Taste
If you’ve never tried mead before, you’re in for a treat. Often called the “Drink of Monarchs,” mead can taste like a luxurious wine with as many diverse flavors as specialty beer.
Fruit juices and spices are added to many meads for a more fruity flavor, with one of my favorites being an apple and cinnamon combination for a resulting mead with the taste of a crisp cider. I’m not sure about the horseradish mead, which many people claim was popular in the past.
I’m just not that brave yet. Are you?
Three of the more common types of meads you will come across on the local bar menu or in a store are:
- Melomel: A fruity mead using ingredients such as strawberries, blueberries, or melon, to name but a few.
- Pyment: A more traditional, wine-tasting mead using honey and grape juice or unfermented wine.
- Cyser: An apple juice or cider combined with fermented honey mead.
If you are new to the world of mead, it’s always a good idea to start with spice or fruit flavor combinations, which you might be more familiar with (forget the horseradish for now).
Where do you even start? It sometimes seems like there are more beer styles than there are stars in the sky. Generally they fall into one of two categories: lagers and ales, but you can then further split these into approximately another 80 distinctive styles of beer.
The magical mixture of malt, hops, and yeast employed by beer breweries is responsible for a beer’s characteristic flavors. Common beer varieties include:
- Pilsner, Wheat Ales, and Blonde or Amber Lagers: Crisp and made with light malt and hops, these will usually have a fruity or spicy flavor.
- Indian pale Ale, Pale ales, Summer Ales, Saison beers: Intense, hoppy flavor derived from the large amount of hops added during the brewing process.
- Scottish ales, Dark lagers, and Barleywine: Extremely malty beers dependent on the grain used in the mash. Familiar flavors include a nutty taste or a hint of toffee/caramel.
- Porters, Stouts or Brown ales: These darker beers are a result of the grains being roasted at higher temperatures, giving an almost burnt taste.
To cut to the long and short of it, whereas mead will taste more like a fruity wine, beer will have a more malty taste.
Mead vs Beer — The Alcohol By Volume
The final, and by far biggest, difference between mead and beer is the alcohol content of each drink.
Most beers in the US will settle around the 5 – 6% alcohol by volume (ABV) range, although some New York artisanal beers can often go as high as 10 -12 % ABV.
Mead has a much wider ABV range with different varieties ranging from as low as 3% and often rising to 20% ABV. The alcoholic strength can also further categorize mead:
- Hydromel mead: A higher dilution of water to honey results in the lowest alcohol content. Often called a “session” mead, these will commonly be in the range of 3 – 8% ABV and can be a great place to start if you are new to the world of mead.
- Traditional mead: Otherwise known as standard mead, this will normally fall into the 7 – 14% ABV range. A traditional mix of honey and water with wine or Champagne yeast results in an easy-to-drink, but potent, wine-style drink.
- Sack mead: These stronger meads will have a more pronounced honey flavor with higher levels of fermentable sugars resulting in a higher ABV, often as high as 20%. Adding extra fruits will also add to the sugars which breakdown into alcohol.
Mead vs Beer — The Takeaway
Have you dipped into the world of mead? With such a diverse range of flavors, there’s bound to be one you like. From the carbonated Champagne-like “honey wines” (it’s not a wine, remember) to the still apple-flavored cider-style meads, why not crack open a bottle at your next gathering?
And let us know if you have a favorite mead! One of my favorite craft meaderies is the Heiderun Meadery, in particular their California Orange Blossom. It’s basically springtime in a bottle.
Even better still is trying your hand at home brewing some mead. It only needs good honey, water, and wine yeast — what could be simpler?
If you want to give it a shot, we have a simple guide to making mead here.