When it comes to mead, there are a lot of commonly held beliefs that are, well, downright false. If the mention of mead immediately renders thoughts of horned helmet-wearing, axe-wielding, bearded barbarians, it’s time to reevaluate your perception of mead (not to mention your idea of historically accurate Viking attire). You’re not wrong to make that association. After all, mead was an important element of Norse mythology, even serving as the source of poetic inspiration.
Mead is much older than that, however. Pottery vessels dating back to 7,000 BC have been found to contain the remnants of honey and organic compounds associated with fermentation. In fact, mead had enjoyed widespread popularity throughout Europe, Asia & most of Africa before the Vikings even existed.
While mead is certainly a historically significant and ancient beverage, it is also an exceptionally modern product. With over 300 commercial meaderies operating in US, and more in the planning stages, mead is carving its well-deserved niche in the American craft beverage industry.
But what exactly is mead? At its simplest, mead is a fermented beverage made from water and honey. When it comes to peoples’ understanding of mead, this is roughly the point at which common knowledge ends and common misconceptions begin.
When I describe mead to someone, I’m careful avoid using the term, “honey wine.” This is for two reasons. For one, it doesn’t pay mead the respect it deserves as its own class of beverage. Beer is beer. Wine is wine. And mead is mead. After all, we don’t refer to cider as apple wine.
Additionally, “honey wine” tends to bias peoples’ expectations of the beverage. They may anticipate something wine-like, which is not always the case. There are many beer-like and cider-like meads that exist, as well as wholly unique meads that can’t be likened to any other type of fermented beverage.
Perhaps the most common preconceived notion about mead is that it must be sweet. Honey is sweet. Mead is made with honey. Ipso facto, mead must be sweet, right? … Not exactly.
As it turns out, mead can be exceptionally dry. Honey plays the same role in mead as grapes in wine, barley in beer, or rice in sake: sources of fermentable sugar, and thus, potential alcohol.
Mead: Perhaps the Most Versatile Beverage on Earth
What’s really unique about mead is its remarkable versatility. It can resemble wine, or beer, or cider depending on the types of ingredients and methods of production employed. It can be dry or sweet, session-strength or considerably alcoholic, and highly effervescent or still. A 15% ABV, still mead produced from a blend of honey and Merlot grape must is more likely to resemble a wine, while a 7% ABV mead made from a combination of honey, malted barley, and hops or other bitter herbs will share more of beer’s defining characteristics. Alternatively, a beautifully simple, unadulterated “show” mead can highlight the subtle and alluring characteristics of the honey itself.
If you’ve tried one mead that you didn’t enjoy, don’t let that dissuade you from keeping an open mind. As with wine or beer, there is tremendous variation in styles, as well as quality (and trust me, there are some bad meads out there).
If you’re an avid wine drinker, you may enjoy the rich, complex offerings of Schramm’s Mead in Ferndale, MI. If quality is important to you (and why wouldn’t it be?), it is abundant here. Ken Schramm quite literally wrote the book on mead, and accordingly, he and his team know a thing or two about making it.
More of a beer enthusiast? You’ll unlikely be disappointed by the session-strength, sparkling meads offered by nearby Cellarmen’s and B. Nektar. If you live outside of Michigan, you’re more likely to find B. Nektar’s products at your local retailer (or on tap at HopCat), but if you ever find yourself visiting the Detroit area, I highly recommend stopping by the Cellarmen’s taproom in Hazel Park. In addition to their Moscow Mule-inspired mead, they offer an excellent selection of other meads, beers and ciders in a unique space that formerly served as a lumberyard.
Should you find yourself craving a little bit of both, Crafted Artisan Meadery in Mogadore, Ohio and The Colony Meadery in Allentown, Pennsylvania produce some of the best full-strength and session-strength meads in the country. I regularly feature Crafted’s meads on tap at HopCat, and while The Colony’s meads are not yet available in in the state of Wisconsin, they are available for purchase online.
If you live in the Madison area like myself, and you haven’t tried the meads of Madison’s own Bos Meadery, you’re doing yourself a serious disservice. Bos offers a wide array of world-class meads, both culinary-inspired and traditional, ranging in strength from 6-14% ABV. Most often, you can find them on tap HopCat, or at their newly opened Mead Hall, located less than a mile from the state capitol. This new venue hosts some of my favorite events in the area, including live music and comedy shows, as well as their undeniably unique and infinitely entertaining Mead & Metal Festival.
Making Mead at Home
Don’t have access to the quality or variety of mead you desire in your area? Luckily, mead is exceptionally easy to make at home, and there are plenty of helpful resources available online to help you make mead according to your own taste. Just remember, the quality of the honey dictates the quality of your mead, so you’ll want to avoid using grocery store-bought honey. Making mead at home is also a fun excuse to peruse your local farmers market for fresh, high-quality honey this summer.