Posted: Aug 16, 2019
It's gaining popularity every day.
If someone offers you a glass of mead and you have a brief moment of panic wondering, “How did I end up at the Renaissance Faire?,” you are not alone. Mead is quickly on its way to become a trendy new way to get a buzz, but do you actually know anything about it—besides its frequent links to medieval culture? The first thing to know is that 2019 mead is more farm-to-table cool than wear a corset and watch adults pretend to joust. The second thing you should know is that it’s delicious.
Thrillist reports that as of April of this year, the number of meaderies in the United States was up to 500, with 200 awaiting federal license approval. That total is up from 150 meaderies in the U.S. a decade earlier. According to Vogue, the American Mead Makers Association says a new meadery opens every three days on average. At that rate, mead is about to be everywhere. So, let’s figure out exactly what it is before that happens, huh?
What is mead?
In short, mead is honey wine. It’s honey and water fermented by yeast, but it can also be flavored with fruits, spices, grains and/or hops. It’s its own distinct category, somewhere between beer and wine. You’d sip it like a beer, wine, or cider.
Is it similar to beer?
Yes and no. Mead is like beer and not like beer; it’s like wine and not like wine. Mead tends to be a bit stronger than beer. Author of The Compleat Meadmaker Ken Schramm points out that one similarity to beer is that mead comes in a variety of substyles (none of which are recognized yet by the U.S. government; there’s just one “honey wine” category).
“[Mead has] a tremendous amount of versatility,” Schramm says. “Craft beer opened up the doors for creativity; you can make different styles with different flavors. Mead has that same flexibility. It also has the same range of things you can add to it: spices, fruits, vegetables—there’s no limit to how creative people can get with this stuff.”
These substyles include braggot, which is mead mixed with beer or malt and hops; melomel, which is mead with added fruit; hydromel, which is watered-down melomel (popular in Spain and France); and Great Mead, which is mead intended to be aged. Like wine, it can be still or sparkling and range from crisp and dry to rich and sweet.
The braggot substyle can be made in breweries, but other forms of mead are made in wineries or, of course, meaderies. In any production setting, a mead maker, called a “mazer,” may choose to add hops because they’re a natural preservative. This inclusion contributes to some confusion that groups mead in with craft beer. National Sales Manager of California mead brand Chaucer’s Cellars told Thrillist that in stores, sometimes you find mead in the beer aisle, sometimes you find it in the wine aisle. Presumably, as mead continues its upward climb, more stores will learn more about it and figure out that it needs its own section.
What is mead's ABV?
“It can range from 3% to 20% ABV,” Eric DeRise, owner of Slate Point Meadery in New York’s Hudson Valley, told Delish in an email. “3% to 7% is considered a ‘session’ mead, 7% to 14% is considered standard strength (traditional meads), and 14% to 20% are called ‘sack” meads,’ which come across more like cordial beverages (thick, sweet).”
To put mead’s range into perspective, your pilsners and lagers tend to be about 4% to 5% and popular craft beer styles like IPAs and stouts can go from there to 8%, even 12%. Wine’s alcohol content varies by style, but white wine hovers around 10% and red around 12-% to 5%. “Fortified” wines, like sherry, port, shochu and sake, range from 17% to 34% per serving. Liquors vary, but the range is generally 28% to 60%.
Is mead healthy?
Mead was associated with good health and vitality in ancient cultures and called “the drink of the gods” in Greek mythology. Do those claims hold up today? Maybe. It’s believed that mead has some health benefits because of its star ingredient, honey. Healthline says that according to research, honey has strong antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. However, there’s not enough evidence yet to support that honey still has these magical vibes once it’s been fermented.
The fermentation aspect may be a health plus of its own, though. Those helpful little living microorganisms called probiotics can exist in this naturally fermented beverage, but again, it’s unclear how effective or concentrated they are since other ingredients possibly used in a certain mead could affect or even kill the bacteria.
Calorically speaking, there also isn’t much info yet for mead. You can figure out a very rough initial estimate based on this knowledge from Healthline: Pure alcohol has 7 calories per gram on its own. A serving of any alcoholic beverage has about 14 grams of alcohol, so that’s over 100 calories. This is before calories from the sugar in mead.
Basically, the jury’s still out, but at worst, mead isn’t less healthy than beer and at best, it could have some positive healthy powers. Plus, Schramm notes that aside from braggot, mead tends to be gluten-free, and many meads, like those Schramm makes at his meadery Schramm’s Mead, are also sans sulfites.
When was mead invented?
While mead has gotten a medieval reputation thanks to movies and TV shows, its history stretches back much further. With its simple fermented honey + water recipe, mead was one of the very first alcoholic beverages ever made, predating beer and wine—as far back as 3,000 BCE. It’s thought that mead was first created when rain dropped into a pot of honey, and that the first people to start drinking and making it were those of China’s Henan province. Mead then became a staple for the Greeks, Romans, Vikings (to which it also has a strong bond in pop culture references), Poles, Russians, and Ethiopians, who have their own form of mead called tej. As Vogue points out, you can find mead shout-outs everywhere from the bible to Chaucer to Aristotle to Beowulf.
A bit of trivia to impress your friends with over a glass of mead: According to Mental Floss, the term “honeymoon” comes from a newlywed couple drinking “honey,” or mead, a “moon,” or month, after their nuptials, in hopes it would help them conceive a child.
When did mead become popular again?
Mead enjoyed centuries of being a preferred alcoholic beverage, but fell out favor around the 1700s due to new tax laws, an increased availability in sugar, and therefore a decreased need for honey, author of Mead: The Libations, Legends, and Lore of History's Oldest Drink Fred Minnick told Vogue.
Executive Director of the American Mead Makers Association and creator of the seminal online resource GotMead? Vicky Rowe places the initial resurgence of mead in the United States around the 1960s.
“Bargetto Winery in California started making Chaucer’s mead,” Rowe explains. “Chaucer’s got it started and were selling it at Renaissance Fairs and it spread beyond that in the 1980s to regular meaderies making and selling mead.”
As Rowe notes, certain regulations have made the growth of mead difficult until more recently. Interstate commerce laws can hinder the sale of mead between different states, for one.
“Larger industries like craft beer and winemakers, they have legislators, they have lobbyists, and we didn’t,” co-founder of the award-winning Superstition Meadery, Jennifer Herbert, says. “We were kind of suppressed in our taxation rules and the way we make things and the way we label and advertise.” Herbert adds that a movement called the Mead Act will hopefully be passed soon, which will make things a little easier for meaderies. “We’re regulated as a winery; we can’t say what kind of wine grapes we’re using or with meads, we have to just say it’s ‘flavored with natural flavors;’ we can’t say what specific ingredients we’ve used—it’s part of the winemaking rules.”
The upward trajectory of mead has also come thanks to meaderies being nimble and learning how to make mead according to everything from trends to local ingredients, all while representing a range in cost. Previously, meads have been on the expensive side—Herbert says that honey is the most expensive form of fermentable sugar, costing much more per pound than grapes or barley, which contributed to mead’s downfall. In recent years, meaderies have learned ways to bring costs down in other areas so they can also offer affordable meads.
One final reason for mead’s moment happening now is its parallels to craft beer, Schramm says. He pinpoints Charlie Papazian’s book The Complete Joy of Homebrewing coming out in 1984 as inspiring a new crop of meadmakers. While the book motivated many people to enter the craft beer world, there was also a chapter on mead. After reading it, Schramm stepped up to promote mead, create the first all-mead competition with friends in 1992, and work hard to promote the meadmaking community. Mead rose alongside craft beer in the United States, but then became its own niche when people realized how unique and delicious it was as an alcoholic option. Even celebrities are getting in on the trend: Actor Dylan Sprouse opened a meadery in New York City called All-Wise Meadery.
How is it made?
According to Mike Reis’s guide to mead for Serious Eats, mazers begin by diluting honey with water so it’s not too dense with sugar to ferment. Any fruit or spice additions get tossed in after dilution but before fermentation starts. In fact, fruits and/or fruit juices can replace some or all of the water needed to make the dilution happen.
The diluted honey mixture is known as a “must.” This often gets heated to kill off any unwanted bacteria that can create off (a.k.a. gross) flavors. Some meadmakers, though, don’t do this heating step because they believe it kills off some of the honey’s delicate natural flavors. They instead count on those antibacterial properties to take care of any potential spoilage. Then, mazers add the yeast for fermentation, as well as oxygen and nutrient blends because honey and water alone don’t have all the nutrients yeast needs to convert the sugars to alcohol. A few different factors determine how sweet or dry and how low or high in alcohol a mead is: how diluted the honey is, what kind of yeast is used, and the fermentation temperature. Once fermentation happens, mead ages anywhere from a few months to a few years before hitting the market. There are carbonated meads, which are either force carbonated or bottled with live yeast and a little sugar — the yeast ferments the sugar and emits carbon dioxide, which doesn’t have anywhere to go in the sealed bottle, so it creates bubbles.
What does it taste like?
“Mead has its own unique taste due to the honey that’s fermented, but depending on the ingredients added, it can come across like a fruit wine, white wine, even similar to a hard cider,” DeRise explains. Reis’s guide says that the best examples of mead “preserve or amplify the complexities of a high-quality honey and add floral, earthy, or white wine-like fermentation-born aromatics to complement the honey’s flavor.”
Meads can be super sweet, super dry, or anywhere in between. A good place to start is picking a mead flavored with a fruit or spice you know you like. If a mead is flavored with blueberries and you know you like blueberries, you can expect to taste blueberries as well as some degree of honey in that mead—and you can probably expect to like it.
Where can I get it?
Look around you! Rowe says just about every state has its own meaderies now. The beauty of this mead moment is that it’s getting easier and easier to find finely crafted meads and support meadmakers on a local level. You can search meaderies on the American Mead Makers Association’s website or at GotMead. If you don’t have a nearby meadery or you just want to try other offerings (which you should!), Rowe recommends VinoShipper, where you can find and order mead from all over the country providing your own state’s laws allow it. Other meaderies ship through their own sites, including Superstition, Slate Point, and Schramm’s.
By Courtney Iseman
August 15, 2019
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