What Exactly Is Mead?

Get the buzz on this fermented honey wine.

December 05, 2019
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If the mention of mead conjures up images of Vikings hoisting steins in the mead hall or Hagrid ordering a round at the Three Broomsticks pub in Harry Potter, you're not alone; many of us think of mead as a drink of yesteryear. But while mead's roots are ancient — fermented honey wine is one of the oldest beverages in history — modern mead is much more nuanced. So, raise a glass and say "Wassail!" (that's the mead drinker's "Cheers!") and read on to get the buzz on mead.

What exactly is mead?

The short answer: Mead is wine made from honey. But since honey is roughly 80% sugar, it won't ferment on its own, so it's diluted with water and combined with yeast to help it ferment. "It takes anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months to finish fermenting. Some need age, others don't," explains Steve Villers, who along with his wife, Joanne, owns Blacksnake Meadery in Dugspur, Virginia, and The Hive tasting room in Roanoke.

Because it's made with honey, it's fair to assume that it tastes sweet. While some meads are indeed sweet, this wine can be made in a variety of flavors and finishes, just like any other craft beverage.

There are a dozen different styles

There are around 12 different styles of mead, varying in sweetness level, finish and alcohol content. Diane Currier, the owner and mead maker behind Honeygirl Meadery, in Durham, North Carolina, says that within each style there is a lot of range, from bone dry (as in the wine world, "dry" means "not sweet") to sweet. "There's a lot of diversity," agrees Villers. "Ours range in sweetness from dry to fairly sweet, so we adjust the sweetness by diluting the honey more for dry mead, or less for sweet mead."

There's usually a correlating reference point for whatever your usual beverage of choice is, and mead makers, aka mazers, believe there's a mead for everyone. (Many meaderies have taprooms where you can sample a flight or have a mazer walk you through a tasting.) Besides traditional, semisweet mead, here's a primer on other common styles you can expect to encounter on your mead-tasting journey.

Mead made with herbs and spices are called metheglins. Ivar Schloz, who owns Bee & Bramble in Fairview, North Carolina, makes a full-bodied one with local ginger, lemongrass and orange zest that boasts plenty of aroma, tartness and zing. (Calling all riesling and pinot grigio fans!) Honeygirl's hibiscus-lemon-thyme metheglin is dry but comes across as a lighter-bodied white wine with a honeyed finish.

Melomels are meads brewed with fruit; depending on the kinds of fruit and the fermentation process used, some are fruitier than others, and they can be sweet or dry. If you're typically a red wine drinker, Currier advises opting for a mead brewed with dark berries, which can take on similar tannic qualities.

Cysers are meads made with apples, so they're a natural entry point for cider drinkers. (Note: These are typically cloudier in appearance than other styles.) Currier has recently started making session meads, which are another natural bridge for cider drinkers, since they have a lower level of alcohol (7% or less) and they're almost always carbonated.

If beer is usually your thing, try a braggot, a mead made with malted grains and often hops, too. Blacksnake makes one in which the honey is boiled with local hops, imparting a touch of bitterness akin to that of a pale ale.

A bochet-style mead is one crafted with caramelized honey, which can add complexity to sweet meads. Some mead makers heat the honey almost to the point of being burnt, which imparts a toasted-marshmallow flavor. Villers doesn't take his amber-hued bochet quite that far, but it still boasts plenty of caramel notes and an almost sherrylike quality, making it ideal for sipping in place of port (great as a nightcap).

It has its own terroir

Just as similar grapes grown in different regions take on characteristics of the earth, the flavor of honey is informed by its various nectar sources — flowers, fruit blossoms, herbs — which in turn imparts different qualities to the mead.

"Our brains automatically go 'thick, syrupy, sweet' – those are our quick association with honey. But as soon as we start talking about it, people are blown away, because honey is nectar made from billions of visits to flowers," Currier says. "So, when we ferment with it, we're working with all of those nectars and the magic of bees transforming that into honey. We can tease out and ferment out the different sugars that exist in honey, so we can discover all those nuances."

Currier makes mead with North Carolina wildflower honey, but the yields vary depending on the time of year and what the bees are pollinating. "The apiary [we work with] has a lot of buckwheat on the land where the hives are kept, so that honey tends to lean more towards the darker side," Currier says. "I make a mead with that honey exclusively and age it for a couple of years. I add oak to it, because it has almost molasses notes." The resulting mead has a winelike viscosity and a rich flavor profile dictated by the bold, dark honey.

"The source of honey gives you different characteristics, just like the variety of grape [in wine] or the types of grain or hops that go into beer. A lot of honey in Virginia, especially darker wildflower honey, has a nutty flavor and a little bitterness," Villers says. "With other honeys, especially in Roanoke with the black locust honey, you get a lot of floral aroma. We have made mead from Tupelo honey from Florida which has a bit of acidity, so it gets a citrusy character from that."

Given Bee & Bramble's locale in the southern Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina, Schloz uses blended wildflower mountain honey. "Because we ferment to dry conditions, the floral characteristics of each blend will present themselves in the aroma of the finished wine, and blended wildflower honey is ideal for producing a nose with true character," Schloz explains. Next, he'll introduce meads made from single-source, single-season mountain honeys, each aged in oak barrels with different toast levels to harness the honeys' seasonal characteristics.

Its flavor possibilities are endless

Currier was inspired by Thanksgiving for Honeygirl's cranberry-sage mead, pitting a Southeast regional honey with striking caramel notes against tart cranberries, then pulling in earthy sage to bridge the sweet-tart flavor profile. Blacksnake frequently uses its semisweet mead as a base for flavor infusions, such as mango-habanero, an autumnal medley of cranberry, orange zest and clove, or even coffee, crafted with Red Rooster Coffee Roasters beans. Ginger is a complementary and frequently used addition that can stand on its own or meld with other ingredients. At Bee & Bramble, Schloz makes a blueberry-ginger number and a floral-leaning metheglin with ginger, chamomile, rose petals and hibiscus.

It plays nicely with others

Because the flavors and styles are so nuanced, meads can inspire pairings just as other wines can. Bee & Bramble's labels indicate whether the mead skews sweet or dry, then offer pairing suggestions accordingly. Its traditional dry mead, for example, is on the dry and floral end of the spectrum, which makes it a versatile player that can stand up to the likes of beef dishes or spicy vegetarian food, without overwhelming lighter fare like salads.

Currier says that mead and cheese are a natural match and a great place to start if you're looking to experiment with mead pairings. "We have acidity, sweetness and balance in a glass; that can be complemented by the creaminess or sharpness of cheeses," she says. A cyser, for example, with its natural apple notes, would pair nicely with an assertive blue cheese. As for Honeygirl's cranberry-sage mead, pairing suggestions include rosemary chevre, roasted duck, butternut squash soup and turkey sandwich (hello, Thanksgiving leftovers).

While mead is great sipped on its own, it can also easily step into a cocktail, filling roles usually played by other ingredients. "If it's a fruit-based mead, it can be fruit juice. If it's a semisweet traditional mead, it could be simple syrup. If it's a metheglin, it can be the herb and syrup in one," Currier says. In the All You Mead Is Love cocktail, featured in Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor's book The Art of Mead Tasting and Food Pairing, Honeygirl's hibiscus-lemon-thyme mead mingles with gin, hibiscus tea and rosemary simple syrup to refreshing, botanical effect.

You can also cook with mead; try using it in place of wine as a deglazing agent to make pan sauces, as with this orange mead sauce, which accompanies pan-roasted duck.

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