What is Mead?
Mead is a fermented beverage made from honey. In its most basic form it’s just honey diluted with water, with yeast to convert the sugars to alcohol. It’s a very old beverage. Archaeometric evidence suggests that it might be the earliest fermented beverage.
Mead has a big share of historical imagination about beverages. The saga of Beowulf features mead and when Vikings died honourably in battle they were thought to wake up in a great mead hall (the mead came from the udder of a goat . . .) In addition, ‘honeymoon’ describes a gift of mead that newlyweds were given. It was believed their consumption of it over the following month would increase fertility.
About Historical Mead
He’s doing a thing he loves. More power to him.
All of this romanticism about mead has made it popular with a certain class of enthusiast. Now, I’m not one to criticize Renn Faire devotees, but their tendency to uncritical devotion to mead as some kind of special beverage has left little room for the truth about it: most historical mead tastes exactly like other historical drinks: oxidised, poorly fermented, and badly balanced towards excessive sweetness and alcohol levels.
Mead came before wine, and co-existed with early cereal beverages. Beer made with ancient grains would rarely have been higher in alcohol than four or five percent, and would have been consumed at least in part for the rich, porridgey calories it gave. Fermented honey could exceed 10% ABV, sometimes even higher, intoxicating drinkers with a swiftness that nothing else did. It deserved the reputation it had.
But just as we no longer drink bowls of murky porridge through a filtering straw (true story) we no longer have to drink overstrong bee-juice for kicks. Modern brewers use a variety of recipes, techniques and post-fermentation interventions to achieve clear, stable beers that have more-or-less subtle and well-balanced flavours. If beer brewing was stuck where most amateur mead-making seems to want to stay, we’d all be crumbling up biscuits into clay pots on brew day, and drinking it three days later, before ‘demons spoiled it’.
So how do you make good mead?
Don’t Make Mead Like a Brewer
Brewing is a craft derived from empirical observations, while winemaking is a science influenced by serendipity. The difference is subtle, but for me it comes down to the fact that brewers can control the starting conditions of their beers more-or-less completely by manipulating the grain bill, the mash schedule, the water chemistry, the hop additions, the yeast choice, etc. However, once they’ve pitched the yeast the number and kind of interventions they make to their brew drops off pretty steeply.
In winemaking on the other hand, the vintner is always at the mercy of his ingredients. some part of weather, climate, terroir, late rain, mold, bird attacks, et cetera, will influence the raw materials coming into the winery. Important interventions can be made to ensure a clean and healthy fermentation, but how all of the factors that go into a wine will eventually meld together can’t be completely predicted.
Post-fermentation is where a winemaker can work magic. The process of taking a wine after primary fermentation to being finished is called elevage. It’s a French term that means ‘raising’ or ‘upbringing’ and it’s applied to both children and livestock to mean the same thing: doing what you can to ensure the best outcome for something in your care. Acid balancing, adjusting sweetness and alcohol, fining and filtering adding tannins (or taking them out) preventing oxidation or re-fermentation, sur lie, battonage, barrel-ageing . . . the host of techniques goes on. Mead makers needn’t avail themselves of all of these, but approaching a mead like a winemaker who is shaping it as they go is an important distinction that separates us from the ancient ways.
Step One: Recipe
One of the nicest mead recipes is also one of the most overlooked in homebrewing: Barkshack Gingermead from Charlie Papazian's The Joy of Homebrewing. Let's look at it with the eyes of a winemaker:
- 7 lb Light honey
- 1 1/2 lb Corn sugar
- 1 oz To 6 oz fresh ginger root
- 1 1/2 ts Gypsum
- 3 tsp Yeast nutrient
- 1/4 tps Irish moss powder
- 1 lb To 6 lbs crushed fruit
- 3 oz Lemongrass, or other spices
- 1 pk Champagne yeast
Not bad, but there were some weird things in there, like gypsum (calcium sulfate) and Irish moss (seaweed) that didn’t make sense to a winemaker. Sure, gypsum would drop the pH, but there are more subtle ways to do that. Also, it was a lot of honey for what we're shooting for. Our revised recipe looked more like this
- 4 lb really Light honey
- 3 lb sugar
- 6 oz fresh ginger root
- Zest and juice of one lemon
- 20 grams of tartaric acid
- 10 grams Yeast nutrient
- 5 lbs crushed fruit (rhubarb, raspberries)
- 6 stalks bruised Lemongrass
- 1 pk Belle Saison yeast
The next step is to score some really top-notch ingredients. We'll show those off in the next blog post.