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Cuisine Trends

The Art and Science Of Mead – Honey Booze for a Fancy Buzz-Zzzzzzz!

Jacky Chou

Have you ever heard about mead? Little do we know, the history of mead dates back to thousands of years, being the first alcoholic drink. Mead is not as famous as alcohol or beer though all three share many standard features. Mead is an independent category and has loyalists.

In the US, mead started to become more and more prominent to the public in recent years thanks to the many portraits of Vikings culture taking over the silver screen or J.K. Rowling’s successful Harry Potter series. Although it’s lovely that mead finally gets the limelight it deserves, there is more to this fine drink than a 5-seconds appearance in a movie.

What is Mead?

A Brief Introduction to Mead

Simply put: Mead is wine made from honey. This statement is pretty good in terms of giving you an idea of what mead is, yet if you are looking for a more precise definition (because it doesn’t seem like it can be this straightforward), then (yes, you are right) it is a whole lot more complicated.

A Brief Introduction To Mead

The leading experts from the American Mead Makers Association have proposed defining mead as an alcoholic beverage with at least 51% of the fermentable sugars coming from honey.

Other than being created by the best in the field, this rule is valid if you think about it. Calling any honey-flavored drinks with an alcohol base – or beverages that use table sugar as an alternative source for fermentation – a mead is unfair. Both the honey expression and the cost price of those are nowhere near our real deal.

Unfortunately, in places where the mead standard is not regulated and protected by laws, many producers who offer real mead only add honey for flavoring at the end of the brewing process or only use a small portion of honey and other cheaper sweeteners as fermentable.

How Does Mead Taste?

There are more types of mead than there are types of beer and wine combined.  Anything you can find as a beer, a wine, or a hard cider – you can find as a mead!

How does mead taste?

If you also share my interest in fermentation, then I bet mead would too strike you as the most robust kind of beverage since pretty much anything you can come up with has the potential to be made into mead. Sometimes it only takes 3 to tango: honey, water, and yeast. Sometimes (perhaps most of the time), mead makers will add fruit, veggies, spice, herb, juice, grain, etc, or a mix of few ingredients to give their mead a level of complexity.

The characteristic of mead is not easy to break down, having quite the versatility to be admired. You can’t know what to look for until you try. Two bottles of the same variant can differ slightly in aroma and flavor if the honey used doesn’t come from the same honey seasons. Every mead is kind of a mystery box itself.

What’s the Difference Between Mead, Beer, and Wine?

For simplicity, many refer to mead as “honey wine” or “honey beer”. How true is this? All there share several characteristics and have distinct features of their own and there is certainly overlap with certain styles of mead with wine or beer.

Within the mead family, the taste varies greatly from variant to variant. This means some variants can be told right off the bat if it’s not wine or beer, yet sometimes it is a bit of a challenge to tell mead from the other two, even for professional mead makers or sommeliers. Honey beer and Braggot is a clear example. 

Chemically speaking, mead is much more like wine than it is like beer. Yet commercial-wise, mead making is regulated and taxed by the TTB (Tobacco Taxation Bureau) as “wine.”

Exploring Different Styles of Mead

Historical Background: Mead Through the Lens of Time

People tend to associate mead with the Vikings. Some argue that they are too the inventors of this delicate drink. Still, if you take a look, then history might have suggested something completely different: almost anywhere in the world where human beings had access to honey, there was some type of fermented alcoholic beverage made. 

The Ethiopians, for example, had a traditional beverage called “Tej”, which is typically a type of mead. Writings excavated in Askum by King Ezana (at around 4 AD) include a description of a “honey-wine”.

Mead Through The Lens Of Time

Though not as commonly known as wine or beer, mead was too mentioned in mythology and poems.

These pots down here date back 9000 years ago. Researchers analyzed the clay and found chemical evidence of fermented alcoholic drinks. The 9000-year-old brew happened to be a combination of rice, honey, and fruit. I guess food drinks are the one thing that can go beyond geographical distance and timeline! No other has broken the record of these ancient specimens until now.

Mead Through The Lens Of Time

On top of that, even before humans can keep bees, remember that we are honey hunters. This practice has been going on for thousands and thousands of years before history was recorded. Even though there isn’t any archaeological evidence left from that era to prove, mead was likely mead at that time! 

Finding actual evidence can be tricky since the type of containers/vessels used back in that time would have decomposed along with everything else; hence, they are not the best at giving archaeological evidence.

The 4 Styles of Mead

  • Traditional mead: it includes mead made with honey, water, yeast, and a few limited additional ingredients such as tannin, oak, acid.
  • Fruit mead: consists of 5 sub-categories: cyser (mead version of hard cider), Pyment (mead version of wine), berry bomb (a kind of its own), stone fruit mead (fruits that have a pit such as peaches, apricots, mangoes – yes, mangoes, cherries, etc.) and Melomel.
  • Spiced mead: meads with herbs and/or spices as the additional ingredients. You can add vegetables and fruit into the mix too. Something noteworthy is if you enter into a competition, then you have to use the culinary definition. Take tomatoes as an example. Botanically tomatoes are the fruits of the tomato plant; however, since they are vegetables in cooking, they should be submitted into the M3B category by BJCP Style Guidelines of Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Mead.
  • Specialty mead: this group contains any type of mead which doesn’t fit in with the other groups. The 3 sub-groups are Braggot (mead version of beer), historical mead (historical or indigenous types), and experimental mead (bourbon barrel-aged, molasses fermentable, sour mead, etc.)

How to Become a Certified Mead Maker?

The Process of Mead Making Today in the United States

Mead has been around for as long as we are, but its popularity fluctuates throughout time. When our ancestors figured out how to use grape or grain malt, they were intoxicated with wine and beer, which caused mead to be out of style for a decent amount of time. 

Only until recently do we witness a global resurgence of mead. The amount of commercial mead is experiencing a remarkable increase. Many surveys on liquor sales growth in the early 20s have pointed out that mead is considered the fastest-growing segment of the total alcohol US business.

Competitions and Certification Program Introduction for Those Interested in Professional Mead Making

This section is direct to any homebrewers who want to take it to the next level and go professional. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) has particular and detailed guidelines on categories of mead. It is free, and you can find them quite easily on the BJCP website. If you can’t decide on any style yet, the guidelines will offer excellent recommendations.

Competitions And Certification Program Introduction For Those Interested In Professional Mead Making

Standard Description for Mead

Although the documents have provided in-depth info, I want to elaborate on how these standards will be applied in real life with this super valuable sharing from a certified BJCP mead judge.

As you can already see, mead is categorized based on four factors: 

  • Level of sweetness

In some cases, besides measurements, the relative sweetness can be perception-based. The judges judge what’s in the glass, three so there are no clear-cut boundaries between styles. 

For example, if you entered the semi-sweet category with a mead that meets the measurement of a sweet mead instead. Yet suppose your mead is more acidic, and the taste screams semi-sweet; judges aren’t going to take away a lot of your points. It only becomes an issue if you enter the dry category.

  • Level of carbonation

Again, this is determined heavily by perception so that each judge can have a different conclusion.

  • Level of alcohol

Hydromel will resemble the alcohol content of a beer, hard cider even and wine cooler. Standard is analogous to table wine. Sack strength is similar to those higher-alcohol drinks you’ll know when you have a sip.

And judged by six main attributes:

  • Additional ingredients other than honey
  • Appearance (clarity, color, etc.)
  • Aroma (honey expression, aromatics from additional ingredients, combination/complexity, and alcohol strength)
  • Flavor (sweetness, acidity, balance, aftertaste, etc.)
  • Mouthfeel (acidity, alcohol, tannins, sugar, carbonation, etc.)
  • Overall Impression

Your score is calculated based on whether your mead strays fall into the correct category you entered and these five characteristics of the mead put together. If you want to launch a business into a bigger market, certifications and prizes will help.

A Beginner’s Guide To Enjoying Mead

If you’re neither interested in owning any meadery nor pursuing a career as a sommelier, you simply want to look for a way to enjoy this drink – say no more. Here are a few suggestions to start with:

  • Dry mead: a cheese platter or salty appetizers accentuates its properties. I’ve paired a Charcuterie board with a bottle of Kinsale Atlantic, and these two stole the show. Seafood or desserts are bombs too (buttermilk panna cotta seems like a good idea).
  • Light and fresh mead: goes well with spicy food (or the other way around). Mexican or Indian food will be just right for a night of fruit mead – cyser, apricot, or plum mead to name a few.
  • Floral/citrus mead: treat yourself to a refreshing bowl of salad or shake things up with a lemon pie. I feel like orange blossom and jasmine are perfect for everything, but most people will recommend that you draw the drink and the side dish from the same suit (peach mead with peach cobbler, strawberry-rhubarb Melomel with strawberry shortcake).

However, no matter how you approach it – enjoying mead is a form of art that might only be appreciated adequately by boldness and experimentation. So grab a bottle, soak in the essence of it, and allow your taste to take you where you need to be!

How To Buy Mead?

We hope that this information will help you have good knowledge about mead. Mead has various flavors determined by the honey sources and ingredients like Melomel, Mothering, Acerglyn, Brochet… So if you want to buy some mead, it is essential to read about its components. It makes sure that you will meet any allergic reactions when using. 

On the other hand, you also need to research authorized dealers for not choosing the fake mead. And here are the tips for you. The last one, you can also make mead at home. Hope you like it. 

Jacky Chou

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