The craft beer world has been making headlines for quite some time now as more and more Americans make the switch from mass produced, bland beer options to small batch brews with flavor, character and real taste. However, beer’s not the only thing on the menu these days. Craft mead is actually becoming more and more popular in today’s world and you might just find that local mead producers in your area have some rather tempting options to offer you. What is mead? Should you bother with it? Let’s take a look at what it is, where it came from and where it’s going in the modern era.
Mead – The Original Alcoholic Beverage
Beer has an incredibly rich history that reaches back into the misty recesses of time. Wine has a similar history. However, if you look closely, you’ll find that there was only one original alcoholic beverage – mead. Long before the Egyptians were brewing beer or the Greeks trading amphorae of undiluted wine, mead was being made and enjoyed by local populations throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world.
You’ll find references to mead everywhere from Viking myth to Geoffrey Chaucer, Pliny the Elder to Taliesin, and the archaeological record bears evidence of mead making all the way back to 7000 BC, though it most certainly dates back farther than that. Mead is the ancestor of any drink made with fermentation, and likely predates the beginnings of civilization, going back to early hunter-gatherer cultures.
What Is Mead, Anyway?
Now that we know a bit about mead’s history, it’s time to touch on what it actually is. Some call it honey-wine, though that’s not truly correct. In its purest form, mead only has two ingredients – water and honey. The honey carries both the yeast needed for fermentation and the sugars for the yeast to transform into alcohol. Of course, there are countless varieties out there today, many of which can trace their roots back centuries.
Types of Mead – Variety Is the Spice of Life
For those who are considering giving mead a try, you’ll find that you have quite a few different options out there. While pure water/honey varieties are probably the most common, there are quite a few others that can provide you with some great flavors and enjoyment. What’s on the menu? Let’s take a look at the variations of mead.
Melomel: A melomel is basically mead that contains fruit. Almost any type of fruit can be used here, though you’ll find that strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are some of the most frequently used. Originally, mead was used as a type of food preservation (much like pickling) for summer fruits to help them last through the year.
Metheglin: A metheglin is similar to a melomel in that it contains additives. However, while a melomel will have mostly fruit, a metheglin uses herbs and spices to flavor the beverage. Hops, chamomile, cloves, nutmeg, lavender, oregano and others have been used to flavor mead in the past.
Cultural Variants: In addition to “types” like melomels and metheglins, there are plenty of regional/cultural mead variants. As you might expect from a beverage with close to 10,000 years of history, the options are pretty staggering. Here are just a few:
Morat, oxymel, pyment, sack mead, short mead, medica, cyser, bochet, balche, great mead, medovina, midus, myod, sima, white mead.
Yeasts Used in Brewing
Traditionally, wild yeast was responsible for fermenting the sugars within the honey. However, as anyone who has ever attempted to use wild yeast in home brewing can tell you, the results can be enormously inconsistent. In an attempt to provide consistent results from batch to batch, quite a few modern brewing supply companies have isolated specific strains of yeast just for brewing mead.
Some brewers do use yeast commonly associated with brewing beer or wine. However, specialty yeasts are available. Why bother with these? If you’re planning to brew a batch of mead, specific mead specialty yeasts can offer some benefits, particularly in the area of preserving the delicate flavors found in mead. Beer/wine yeasts simply don’t do a very good job here. If you’re interested, White Labs and Wyeast both have mead yeast options commercially available.
Mead in Today’s World
While you might not be able to hit your local grocery store and snag a 6-pack of mead from the beer and wine section, it’s more widely available than you might think. According to some sources, there are as many as 150 local meaderies operating in the United States today, and another one opens its doors every few weeks.
Quite a few meaderies are actually wineries seeking a way to diversify their offerings. Others are specialty operations, such as Brothers Drake Meadery in Ohio. There are even mead-specific resources available online that cater to mead brewers and drinkers all over the world.
One of the newest trends in mead making is “complete sustainability.” Brothers Drake Meadery provides an excellent example of this in action. They use only locally sourced ingredients, from fruit to honey, gathered from around Ohio. The company has a mantra of sourcing local, brewing local and selling local.
You’ll find plenty of other meaderies out there too, from Ring of Fire Meadery in Arkansas to Heidrun Meadery in California, Meadery of the Rockies in Colorado and Celestial Meads in Alaska.
Why Give It a Try?
Why should you bother trying mead? Obviously, it’s not going to be a drink for everyone. Confirmed beer lovers who aren’t particularly fond of wine might not find any reason to sample a mead variety. However, for those who have a love of new beverages and exploration, then indulging in this beverage might be a great way to find a new favorite drink. There are plenty of options out there, particularly during the holidays when mulled mead and spiced mead become more prevalent. Why not give mead a shot and see what your ancestors were enjoying so much!