What is Mead? Learn About Honey Wine
What is Mead? Honey, water and yeast!
Mead is made simply from fermenting honey with water and yeast. When people hear that mead is made from honey they usually think it will be an overly sweet drink, but that’s not always the case. Mead is one of the most versatile alcohols available. Sugar ferments into alcohol, the more sugar the more alcohol. Honey is incredibly dense with sugar so it makes a great starting point for mead.
Top Things to Know About Mead:
- Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from fermenting honey
- Fruit, hops, spices, grains can all be added to mead
- Mead is possibly the oldest alcohol with origins from Europe, Asia and Africa
- Referred to as "nectar of the gods", mead was believed to be sent from the heavens and collected by bees
- The term "honey wine" is often synonymous with mead, but it's important to note that adding honey to grape based wine is not mead unless 50% of the fermentables come from honey
- Mead is not always sweet, it can be dry, off-dry, semi-sweet and sweet.
- Not all mead is made equal, with many different processes and variations on fermentation, each mead is unique.
Mead. It’s the elixir of old, the nectar of the gods and, apparently, the drink of the ages. That’s right – over the past several years, mead has been on the upswing. Credit [insert your favorite fantasy show here] if you want, but the truth is this: Mead is a simple concoction and magically delicious (sorry, Lucky Charms).
So what makes mead…mead? Let’s look at that and more, including:
- Is mead always sweet?
- Is mead more like beer or wine?
- Is mead just honey wine?
- Is mead healthier than other alcohols (beer, wine, liquor)?
- 8 facts about mead that you might not know
- How do you make mead?
- Where can you buy mead?
Yeah, we got a lot of mead talk coming your way. Let’s get going.
Is Mead Always Sweet?
The sweetness you might taste in a sweet mead is from the “back-sweetening”. Back-sweetening is adding honey back in after the fermentation is already complete. This allows us to control the sweetness level of mead, if no honey is added back in, then the mead will be very dry with little residual sweetness.
With alcohol percentages ranking from 4% all the way up to 20% for some barrel aged meads, it can be a heavy hitter.
IS MEAD MORE LIKE A BEER OR WINE?
Mead is more like wine in terms of process, but no grapes are used in the mead fermentation. Mead is typically made solely from honey, water and yeast. The beer process requires boiling of grains, honey is only warmed to make mixing easier.
IS MEAD JUST HONEY WINE?
Mead is made from fermenting honey, it must be 60% or more fermented honey to be considered mead. Honey wine is a catch all phrase that can refer to mead or to wine (sometimes grape-based wine) that has honey added. The mead community gets annoyed when they see the words "honey wine" because it sometimes refers to "non-mead" products.
IS MEAD HEALTHIER THAN OTHER ALCOHOLS (WINES, BEERS & LIQUORS?)
Technically all the health benefits of honey are present in mead unless the mead maker boils the honey (typically called a bouchet). Honey is known to contain antioxidants, minerals and antibacterial properties.
Fun Fact: All our meads at Batch are heated no higher than 110 degrees to maintain the integrity of the honey.
WHAT DOES MEAD TASTE LIKE?
Traditional mead should taste like smooth honey with a slight bite of acidity, light floral & citrus notes similar to a white wine depending on sweetness level. If mead has fruit or spices added, those should be detectable on the palette. Meads come in varying profiles, sweetness, alcohol content, mead making process and ingredients can significantly alter the taste of one mead to the next.
WHAT KIND OF WINE IS MEAD?
Mead is often called "honey wine" and is made from fermenting honey. Although mead is typically called "honey-wine", wine is typically made from fermenting fruit, like grapes to create alcohol. Mead is considered it's own category within alcohol. Fruits, hops and grains can sometimes be added to mead, but is usually higher in alcohol than beer.
WHAT DOES MEAD SMELL LIKE?
Mead aromas are very pleasant and typically have the aromas of honey, florals and citrus depending on the honey used during fermentation. For example, a mead made with orange blossom honey will usually give off those same aromas when finished. You might also detect notes of bread, slight acidity and fruit.
WHY IS IT CALLED MEAD?
"Mead" comes from an Old English word "medu" or "meodu", which means “fermented honey drink.” Similar variations of "mead" are the old Norse mjǫðr, Old High German metu, Proto-Slavic medъ, Middle Dutch mede, and also closely related, Irish queen Medb.
8 facts about mead that you might not know
1. It’s the oldest alcoholic beverage on earth
Historians believe mead to have been discovered in Neolithic China, even before agriculture and ceramic pottery. So before people were planting food or eating said food out of bowls, they were discovering mead. The best part? Mead’s discovery is widely considered to have been an accident, the result of natural fermentation of honey from rainwater! It’s no wonder that mead became associated with the gods.
2. The type of honey used impacts a mead’s flavor
Mead might be three simple ingredients, but each of these ingredients come with its own caveats. For example, the aggressiveness of a yeast can impact a mead’s final ABV. Similar story for flavor – the type of honey used has a direct impact.
Honey types like orange blossom, clover, wildflower, and blackberry all offer their own flavor profiles. Interestingly enough, a honeybee’s diet can also affect the taste of the honey it produces.
3. Mead coined the term “honeymoon”
We’re all familiar with the term honeymoon; however, in medieval times, it was used in a much more literal sense. European cultures measured time back then in months, or moon cycles.
At a wedding ceremony, a couple would be bestowed with a moon’s worth (see: one month) of mead and encouraged to drink together every day because mead was considered an aphrodisiac.
Yup. Mead, the drink of love. Apparently.
4. Mead can help support gut health
Earlier, we said honey retains much of the health benefits that it holds when made into mead. Spiced, herbal meads known as metheglin were used as medicine in early England.
In fact, honey has a long history of supporting gut health, with research suggesting that certain kinds can minimize the presence of infection-causing bacteria in the stomach (things like Salmonella, Escherichia coli, etc.).
5. Mead comes in many different shapes and sizes
The beauty of mead is that in its simplicity, is a wonderful complexity of nuances. Traditional mead, sack mead, hydromel, melomel, pyment, capiscumel, cyser, bochet, braggot, acerglyn – the list just keeps going. There are so many different types of mead, each with their own ABVs, flavor profiles, and processes.
6. Mead appears in many old works
When’s the last time you read Beowulf? The big bad monster, Grendel, attacks the mead hall Heorot in the epic poem. And you can bet several of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin’s characters have partaken in mead tasting (or chugging).
Beyond fiction, mead has been mentioned in the hymns of the Rigveda, a historical book of the Vedic religion (which would later become Hinduism). It also shows up in many Grecian records, referenced by scholars like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder.
7. Yes…the vikings drank mead
8. Mead was a drink enjoyed by all
Everyone might enjoy a goblet of mead, it just sometimes depended on who you were when it came to the quality of mead you were given.
For example, in viking culture, honey was collected using a cloth bag to allow the combs from a beehive to drain. In an effort to not be wasteful, the vikings would crush the drained combs into water. The crushed combs would produce something lower in quality than the pure honey, and your social class might dictate which one you were able to enjoy.
HOW DO YOU MAKE MEAD?
Mead is a fairly straightforward process, much like wine, but there’s lots of room for error in each step. Typically you take honey, mix with warm water and add yeast. The ratio of honey to water will determine the alcohol percentage (as well as the aggressiveness of the yeast). Once the fermentation is complete, more honey or fruit is added to add complexity.
Given its limited ingredients, it's easy to think of mead as a simple process. This is partly true – making mead is fairly straightforward; however, like winemaking, there’s plenty of room for error in each step.
The basics are this: Mix honey with warm water, then add yeast. The ratio of honey to water (as well as the aggressiveness of the yeast) will determine the mead’s end ABV. Once fermentation is complete, more honey or fruit can be added to create complexity.
Curious about the different types of mead (hint: there are many)? Learn about all the different types of mead in our article about mead types.
WHERE CAN YOU BUY MEAD?
Since mead is considered a wine, you can buy mead online direct from a meadery or you can see if your local liquor store carries mead. Mead is typically sold in bottles and cans. You can buy mead online from many award-winning meaderies. If you're ready to try? Order Mead from Batch Mead, a small batch craft mead producer in Temecula, CA.
- Schramm, Ken (2003). The Compleat Meadmaker: Home Production of Honey Wine From Your First Batch to Award-winning Fruit and Herb Variations. Brewers Publications. ISBN 978-0-937381-80-9.
- Hornsey, Ian (2003). A History of Beer and Brewing. Royal Society of Chemistry. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-85404-630-0.
- "Mead | Definition, Production, & History | Britannica". www.britannica.com.
- Acton, George William Bryan; Duncan, Peter (1984). Making mead : a complete guide to the making of sweet and dry mead, melomel, metheglin, hippocras, pyment and cyser. Ann Arbor, Mich.: G.W. Kent. ISBN 0961907282
- "Prehistoric China - The Wonders That Were Jiahu The World's Earliest Fermented Beverage. Professor Patrick McGovern the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia"
- McGovern, P. E.; Zhang, J; Tang, J; Zhang, Z; Hall, G. R.; Moreau, R. A.; Nuñez, A; Butrym, E. D.; et al. (6 December 2004). "Fermented beverages of pre-and proto-historic China"