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Mead 101

Evoking images of medieval knights and fierce Vikings, mead, also known as honey wine, is believed to be the world's oldest alcoholic beverage and one that's generally associated with times long gone by. But recently this fermented honey libation is emerging from the shadows. As a matter of fact, the number of meaderies in the US has more than doubled in the last three years, making mead one of the fastest growing alcoholic beverage categories in the US.

What is mead?

Mead or honey wine is made by fermenting honey with water. Much like beer, mead is sometimes flavored with fruits, grains, spices, or hops. It's generally higher in alcohol than beer and and up around grape wine—typically between eight and 20 percent ABV. Mead is produced in a variety of sweetness levels, from dry to lusciously sweet and can be still or sparkling.  Most varieties of mead tend to be more sweet than bitter. Within the world of mead, there are various sub-groups. For instance, if mead is mixed with beer or brewed with malt and hops, it becomes a hybrid style closer in qualities and taste to beer, known as braggot. This beverage, unlike pure mead, and other mead-like counterparts, can be produced in breweries. Mead with added fruit is called melomel, while hydromel is a diluted version consumed in Spain and France. Great Mead is mead that's meant to be aged.

Honey wine occupies a somewhat unsettled position between beer and wine. Legally, mead is produced in "wineries" and bottles are typically sold in wine shops. But, if hops are involved in the recipe, which some brewers choose to add as a natural preservative, mead is often nudged into the craft beer category. The reality is that mead is in a category all its own much like sake or cider.

History

Believe it or not, the ancient Greeks, Africans, and Chinese all drank mead as far back as 3000 BCE. Mead holds particular significance in Norse mythology, especially in the legend of a fabled beverage with alleged magical powers known as "Poetic Mead." As the story goes, mythological gods created a man named Norseman Kvasir who was so wise he could answer any question posed to him. When he was eventually killed, his blood was mixed with honey, and whoever drank this honey-blood mead, took on Kvasir's power of intelligence. It's also quite likely that this myth that inspired Danish craft mead producer Dansk Mjod to make its Viking Blood Mead, which is flavored and colored red from hibiscus. Mead is commonly consumed in Eastern Europe and Russia. Basically, any country that has a history of producing honey, also has a history of mead production and appreciation. Outside of Europe, mead has an extensive history in Ethiopia, where it's referred to as tej. Normally a home-brewed beverage, tej is typically flavored with powdered leaves of the gesho plant, an African shrub which imparts a slightly bitter flavor and preserves the drink, much like hops do for beer.

Service

Whereas Ethiopians typically drink tej out of a large, bulbous glass container called a berele, nowadays in the US mead is typically served in wine glasses.  Though sometimes the drink will be served in an old style drinking vessel like a mazer cup from Germany, which coincidentally is also the name for the world's largest mead competition. And, for serious history buffs, there's always a mead horn, but that's truly hard-core, old-school mead style.

How to Make Mead

The process is actually quite simple; bit requires a good amount of patience. Following is a brief outline of the steps and the equipment involved with making homemade mead. Fun fact: the term “honeymoon” comes from the festive wedding celebrations of the Norse, who danced and drank until the mead and ale ran out, and woe be unto the host that didn't have sufficient supplies to last the full cycle of the moon! The basic equipment needed for mead making isn’t very expensive, and usually lasts for a long time. Local homebrew shops typically have these items in stock, and if you have any items at home already, feel free to use them.

Here is a bare-bones list of items that are needed in order to make mead:

 

  • Stainless Steel Stock Pot
  • Thermometer
  • Hydrometer
  • Plastic Fermenter
  • Glass Carboy (2)
  • Yeast
  • Yeast Nutrient
  • Yeast Energizer
  • Sanitizer
  • Honey Fermentation Lock and Stopper
  • Racking Cane and Tubing Sanitizer

Instructions for Making Mead

Once you have all your equipment prepared, it's time to start the actual process of making your first batch of mead. The first step is making sure that all your equipment is clean and sanitized. Anything that touches the must (unfermented honey and water mixture) should be sanitized.

Next, fill your stainless steel pot with a gallon of water and bring it to a boil for 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and add the yeast nutrient, yeast energizer, and honey. Stir the pot until the honey and water have mixed completely. Hold the must at that temperature (around 170 degrees) for 10 minutes. Next, chill the must down to 80 degrees and take a hydrometer reading. Pitch (add) your yeast into the must, stirring vigorously for 5 minutes. Place the lid on your fermenter with the air lock attached. Fermentation should begin in about 24 to 48 hours. 2 to 3 weeks later (or when fermentation is finished) rack mead into a sanitized carboy. Let it sit for another 3 to 4 weeks. Rack for the final time into another sanitized carboy and let it sit until the mead is clear (another 2 to 3 months).

Now that your mead is ready, it’s time to bottle. For a still mead you will need to add potassium sorbate to stabilize. Mix the sorbate through out your entire batch then bottle. For a sparkling mead DO NOT add potassium sorbate, but use champagne style bottles for carbonated mead. Now comes the hard part; letting the mead mature in the bottle, as mead will improve dramatically with age. Letting it sit for 6 months to 1 year before opening is ideal, but we all now how hard it is to wait. Your patience will be rewarded with a supremely better brew, enjoy!