One of the oldest drinks known to mankind, mead continues to delight those who love its versatility and relatively low alcoholic content. What to know the answers to questions like what is mead? and where does mead come from? Keep reading!
What is Mead?
Mead is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting honey mixed with water, and sometimes ingredients such as fruits, grains, hops or spices are added. It may be carbonated, sparkling, still, dry or semi-sweet.
What is Mead Made From?
The most notable characteristic of mead is that most of its fermentable sugar is derived from honey. The word ‘metheglin’, which comes from the Welsh word meddyglyn (physician) for the drink’s reputed medicinal powers, refers specifically to spiced mead, made with the addition of spices such as cloves, ginger, rosemary, hyssop, and thyme.
What Is the History of Mead?
One of the oldest alcoholic drinks known to man, Mead predates beer and wine by thousands of years. The earliest evidence of a fermented beverage made from honey, rice and fruit dating to 6500-7000 BCE was found in northern China – pottery vessels have shown chemical signatures consistent with the organic compounds of the mead-making process.
Alcoholic drinks made from honey were common among the ancients of Scandinavia, Gaul, Teutonic Europe and Greece and in the Middle Ages, hydromel (a drink similar to mead) was similar to the mead that the Celts and Anglo-Saxons drank. In Celtic and Anglo-Saxon literature, mead is the drink of kings and thanes and Chaucer’s Miller also imbibed mead.
In the 10th century, proof that the Welsh took great interest in mead is evident in the rules for mead making laid down by King Howel the Great. Mead was produced in ancient times throughout Europe, Asia and Africa and has played an important mythological role among certain peoples. In Norse mythology, the Mead of Poetry was fashioned from the blood of the revered being Kvasir and it transformed the drinker into a poet.
There is a poem attributed to the Welsh bard Taliesin, who lived around 550 CE, called ‘Song of Mead’. In the epic poem Beowulf, Danish warriors drank mead. In both Celtic and Germanic poetry, mead was the primary heroic or divine drink.
Mead was a popular drink in medieval Ireland. Beekeeping was introduced there around the 5th century and mead came with it. Celtic mythology tells of a river of mead coursing through paradise, while the Anglo-Saxon culture regarded mead as the bestower of immortality, poetry and knowledge.
Mead is referred to in the ancient cultures of Greece, India and Egypt. The earliest documentary evidence suggests that a fermented honey drink was enjoyed in India approximately 4000 years ago. The ancient Greeks called mead ambrosia or nectar, referring to it as the drink of the gods, descended from the Heavens as dew, before being gathered in by the bees. It is for this reason that the ancients believed that mead had magical qualities and that it would bestow good health, strength, virility, creativity and that it would prolong life.
What Are the Different Styles and Regional Variants of Mead?
There are many styles of mead and each is distinguished by the ingredients that go into making it.
Mead comes in an array of flavours depending on where the honey is from, the additives including fruit and spices, the yeast employed during fermentation and the ageing process. A mead that contains spices or herbs is called a metheglin. Blended varieties of mead may be known by the style represented – a mead made with cinnamon and apples may be referred to as either a cinnamon cyser or an apple metheglin.
A mead drink that contains strawberry or blackberry fruit is a melomel and pyment is mead that is made with grape juice. Mulled mead is popular at Christmas time when it is flavoured with spices and warmed by having a hot poker plunged in it. Some meads are considered to be dessert wines, there are dry meads and you can also drink sparkling meads.
Mead can also be distilled to the strength of a liquor strength; in which case, it is sometimes referred to as a whiskey. A type of mead called “honey jack” can be made by partly freezing some of the mead and applying a process of freeze distillation.
In Finland, a sweet mead drink called sima uses brown sugar in place of honey. During fermentation, raisins are added to increase the sugar available to the yeast and sima is commonly served with both the pulp and rind of a lemon.
Ethiopian mead, tej, is flavoured with the powdered leaves and bark of gesho, a bittering agent. A sweeter version called berz is aged for a shorter time and has a lower alcohol content. In South Africa, mead referred to as iQhilika is traditionally prepared by the Xhosa people. In the United States, mead is enjoying a resurgence and is being produced in small home meaderies.
How Much Mead is Consumed Worldwide?
Although mead has a reputation for being one of the oldest alcoholic drinks in history, it is no longer considered to be ‘outdated’ and it is making its way back, in some instances, through the influence of popular culture medieval TV shows such as Game of Thrones. According to Beverage daily.com, meaderies are springing up all over the world.
Mead is the fastest-growing sector of the American alcohol beverage industry – in 2003, the US had 30 meaderies which rose to 300 by 2016 and there are now more than 400. In the UK, there are approximately 30 meaderies.
How is Mead Made?
You only need a few essential items of equipment to start making mead and these include an airlock, a one-gallon glass jar, plastic tubing, wine bottles and corks, yeast and sterilizing agents. 2 kilograms of honey with 3.5 litres of water yields 5 litres/1 gallon of medium mead. To kill off the wild yeast, the honey and water used to be boiled but now ultrafiltration is used. Thereafter, tea and lemons may be added to deepen the colour. This mixture is fermented for about 6 weeks using fresh yeast
This mix is then fermented for 4 to 6 weeks using fresh yeast and thereafter the mead is racked off in bottles and corked. After a year, if the mead is stored for a further period of 12 months, it will be mature and taste delicious. Mead ferments well, often at the same temperatures at which white wine is fermented and many home mead makers use wine yeasts when making their mead.
Mead makers measure the gravity of the mead throughout the fermentation process to determine the amount of alcohol by volume there will be in the final product.
Many mead producers use techniques identifiable in wine-making. An example is racking the product into a second container when fermentation slows down, a process that is referred to as primary and secondary fermentation. Racking allows the mead to sit away from the lees (remains of the yeast cells) and it also gives the mead time to become clear.
Cloudiness, which is caused by yeast, protein molecules or fruit pectin, can be cleared by leaving the mead in a cold environment (‘cold breaking’) or using a fining material. The duration of primary and secondary fermentation varies according to the source of the honey, pH, additives used and water percentage. Mead comes in a variety of sweetness levels, ranging from dry to delectably sweet.
Is Mead More Like Wine or Beer?
Mead cannot be categorized as wine or beer because it exists in its own category. Although people confuse the drink mead with wine or beer there are significant differences. Mead is not boiled (like beer) but goes directly to fermentation. Wine uses grapes but mead production involves honey and water and the option of spices. Like wine, mead is left to age for a longer period than beer – on average, two to three years. Beer and mead are brewed and fermented whereas wine is not brewed.
Another important difference between beer, wine and mead is the amount of alcohol or ABV (alcohol by volume). Meads range from 6 and 20 percent ABV while wine and beer have a lower ABV. Mead can be distinguished from other alcohols by the fermentable sugar source – if it is mostly honey, then it is decidedly mead but for wine and beer the deciding factor would be grain or fruit.
What Does Mead Taste Like?
Of course, the answer is subjective but there are mead drinkers who define it as nothing short of amazing. However, like any beverage, mead varies by style and maker, not to mention AVB. You can sip on a low ABV spritzer on a hot day or you can enjoy a high alcohol aperitif. Some people won’t try it because they think it will be too sweet, but this also varies – some meads are bone dry.
Most meads are sweet with an obvious honey taste – the reason why mead is called ‘honey wine’. However, some meads are tart due to the fruits, herbs or spices that have been added. Popular commercial meads contain ginger, vanilla, apples and cinnamon, orange and grapefruit, peach, passionfruit and Zinfandel.
Seasonal variations, weather changes, rainfall and soil all have an impact on the taste of the honey and the mead can take on additional or unexpected flavours by adding ingredients such as fruit, yeast and spices. Given these variables, you may battle to find a mead drink that tastes the same so if you find one you love, buy a lot of it!
What is Mead’s Alcohol Level and Will It Get You Drunk?
If you drink mead with a high ABV, you certainly can get drunk on it. You may not get the same effects as when you drink Scotch or bourbon whisky which are much stronger than the average mead, but as with other types of alcohol – if you indulge too much, you will get drunk.
Is Mead Healthy?
In ancient times, mead was associated with good health and vitality.
The Greeks offered this ‘drink of the gods’ to wounded warriors after a fight to speed up the healing process. While there are still those who believe mead benefits your health, there is no evidence to support this. Many health proponents will cite the honey in the mead as being good for you as well as its probiotic contents from the fermentation process.
Which Breweries Make the Best Mead?
A Google search of excellent breweries in the UK yielded the following results:
- Cornish Mead Co Ltd
- Wye Valley Meadery – Hive Mind Brewery
- Great British Mead Company Ltd
- Lindisfarne Mead
- Gosnells Production & Warehouse
- Northumberland Honey Co, Meadery & Bee Farm
- Apothecary Mead
- Mountain Mead – Medd Mynydd
- Nidhoggr Mead Co.
- Fosse Way Honey & Mead
- Magic Mead
- The Rookery – Craft Mead
- Ninemaidens Mead
- Wheatley’s of Yorkshire
Meads Produced in Europe
- Stakliškės is produced in Lithuania and is made with additives such as lime blossom, hops and juniper berries.
- Sima is a fizzy drink with a sweet and citrusy flavour that comes in a non-alcoholic and alcoholic forms.
- Midus is a Lithuanian term used for traditional mead that is made with honey and water.
- Metheglin is an ancient Welsh mead variety that was typically flavoured with herbs and spices.
- Chouchen comes from Brittany and is comprised of honey and apple juice.
What Foods Pair Best with Mead?
Dry mead has properties that are similar to wine so it goes well with cheese. So, break out the cheese board and add nuts, fruit and thinly sliced cold meats. If you have a fruitier mead, enjoy it when you eat Indian food or tacos to balance the spiciness.
Sweet meads go well with desserts like cheesecakes, apple tarts, carrot and chocolate cake and other delicious baked goods. The general trend followed by people who love mead is that dry mead goes with dinner, sweet meads are imbibed after dinner and sparkling meads can be drunk on their own.
If you are eating dark meat such as beef stew, a darker mead, like apple cyser, will pair well with it whereas chicken or fish will pair better with a dry, lighter mead. Pork and venison, which have deep flavours, pair well with a mead that is neither too dry nor sweet, but somewhere in between.
Floral and citrus meads blend with salads – strawberry, citrus and floral flavours go well with salads and you can try a mead with the same fruit that you put into the salad. If you’re having a party, sparkling mead goes well with snacks from chips and dips to cheese cubes and salty crackers. If you find a mead you really enjoy, remember to note the name so you can enjoy it again.
Drinking Mead is Aspirational
One of the great aspects of mead is that it is versatile because it is flavoured with a wide variety of herbs, spices and flavours. It is currently on the rise throughout the world and more and more people are enjoying it as more meaderies are opening.
Finally, if you drink mead, you could have aspirations of royalty, because it was enjoyed by kings, queens and inspiring leaders such as King Solomon and Queen Elizabeth.
Clearly, they had great taste!