Have you ever wondered what ancient Chinese emperors, Irish peasants, Vikings, and Greek philosophers have in common? They all enjoyed drinking mead.
Mead is one of the earliest alcoholic drinks, with a history that stretches back thousands of years. It is a delicate drink with a sweet flavor profile that includes a strong honey taste.
Although mead is less popular now than it has been in centuries past, it is making something of a come back. The resurgence is largely due to home brewers and commercial breweries trying their hand at mead making for the first time and coming up with some delicious new flavors.
If you are curious about mead, you’ve reached the right place. This guide will share all of the information you need to know about mead, including what it is made from and what it tastes like.
- Mead is one of the world’s oldest alcoholic drinks.
- Many ancient civilizations drank mead including the Vikings, Bronze Age Europeans and Chinese, Romans, and Greeks.
- The Greek philosopher Aristotle discussed mead in his writings.
- Mead’s primary source of fermentable sugar is honey, which makes it different to beer and spirits like whiskey.
- Mead can contain a huge variety of additional herbs, spices, fruits, and hops.
What Is Mead?
Mead, also known as “Honey Wine”, “Ambrosia” or “Nectar of the gods”, is a fermented alcoholic drink made from honey, water, and yeast. Other ingredients can be added to change its flavor but the primary source of fermentable sugar is always honey.
People have been making mead since at least 7000 BCE. We know this because scientists have found brewing vessels in China with chemical signatures suggesting they contained honey, rice, and compounds associated with the fermentation process. This makes mead one of the world’s oldest alcoholic drinks.
Historians have also found written references to mead dating back to Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, 1700 BCE India, the Roman Empire, and the time of the Vikings (793 AD – 1066). This suggests mead drinking was a popular activity in many cultures.
The original mead making process was very straight forward. Honey and warm water were combined in a clay or wooden vessel. Airborne yeast, along with any yeast contained within the honey, would ferment the solution, adding carbon dioxide and alcohol. Other ingredients could be added to provide more yeast or more sugar to the brew.
Mead can take a long time to ferment, particularly if relying upon yeast found in the natural environment. The initial fermentation can take 28 to 56 days. After this period, it would usually be placed in a secondary fermentation vessel for another 6 to 9 months.
Some variants of mead have an even longer fermentation period. For example, the Russians made a mead called Myod from a mixture of honey and water or berry juices. They would use an extremely slow anaerobic fermentation in airtight vessels, which lasted anywhere between 12–50 years. It creates a very complex and powerful mead, which is understandably quite expensive.
Modern mead makers often perform a second fermentation in oak barrels which used to contain sherry or bourbon. This can add more complexity to the flavor to the mead.
What Is Mead Made From?
Mead only requires 3 ingredients: water, organic honey and yeast, with honey being used as the primary source of fermentable sugar. However, it can also include a variety of other herbs, spices, fruits, and hops for additional flavor.
Whisky and beer, on the other hand, use grains as their primary source of fermentable sugar, while wine uses grapes as the main source of fermentable sugar.
The ingredients that go into mead have changed over the centuries. Different cultures would use the spices, fruits, grains, and hops that they had easy access to. That’s why Chinese mead makers sometimes added rice to their mead, while the Irish chose malted barley or wheat.
Some countries have special names for mead that is made with certain ingredients. For example, a mead that contains spices (like cinnamon or nutmeg) or herbs (like chamomile or lavender) is called a Metheglin in Wales and Ireland.
Meads that contain strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, or other berries are known as Melomel, while meads fermented with grape juice are called Pyment.
In Finland, they make a mead called Sima, which contains brown sugar instead of honey. The Ethiopians make Tej, which uses the leaves and bark of a hop-like plant called gesho, which acts as a bittering agent.
As you can probably tell by now, there are dozens of varieties of mead. This makes sampling mead quite exciting, as it can tell you a lot about local brewing traditions.
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Mead Alcohol Content
Most meads are between 3.5% and 18% ABV, as the natural yeast used to produce it struggles to reach beyond this point. However, there are also distilled meads which be much stronger, in the same way that whiskey is stronger than beer.
Can You Get Drunk Off Mead?
Absolutely. The ABV of mead can be fairly high, so a few glasses will quickly put you over the limit. However, don’t expect the same effect as drinking a few glasses of Scotch whisky or bourbon whiskey. Those spirits are much stronger than the average mead.
Is Mead Stronger Than Beer?
Most meads are stronger than the average American beer (which is around 4% ABV). However, it is relatively easy to find mead with a low ABV.
Why Is Mead So Expensive?
Mead tends to be expensive for two reasons. The first reason is that it requires organic honey, as this type of honey still contains yeast which can trigger the fermentation process. Most commercial honeys have been pasteurized to kill yeast and prevent crystallization/granulation of the honey.
The other reason is that mead is not a popular drink compared to beer or whiskey. As a result, there aren’t many large scale breweries producing lots of mead and benefiting from economics of scale.
What Does Mead Taste Like?
Most meads will have a sweet flavor with a very obvious honey taste, hence the name ‘honey wine’. However, some meads are quite tart due to the herbs, spices or fruits that have been added.
You can find carbonated meads which are quite dry and taste similar to a dry white wine. The ability for brewers to add any virtually any ingredient means there is a wide range of flavors and aromas to enjoy. It is a part of what makes drinking mead so much fun.
To give you an idea of the variations that are available, the most popular commercial meads contain: peach and passionfruit, ginger, vanilla, apples and cinnamon, orange and grapefruit, and Zinfandel grapes. Plenty of options to try.