Mead (“honey wine”) is believed by many historians to be the oldest fermented beverage, dating back to about 8,000 B.C. It was enjoyed by ancient people in Europe, Africa and Asia, and mentions of it can be found in ancient myths, folktales, hymns and sacred texts from around the world. To the ancients, mead was more than an enjoyable beverage. It was also the drink of the gods and was believed to have magical and sacred properties.
Primitive people probably happened upon mead by accident. Perhaps a hunting party found a beehive, collected the honey and added it to their drinking water, or perhaps after collecting honey combs, they decided to soak them in water to clean the wax. Lucky that the right conditions for fermentation happened to exist, when they drank the sweet honey water sometime later, they found it had been transformed—and mead was “discovered.” Over time, as people learned to cultivate grains and fruit, making them more readily available and abundant than honey, beer, wine, and fruit wine supplanted mead as the principal liquor in many cultures.
Similar to grapes, which have different characteristics depending upon their variety, there are thousands of different kinds of honey. Honeybees transform flower nectar into honey with the aid of enzymes they produce, so honey’s qualities are influenced by the type of bee that produced the honey and the flowers which were the source of the nectar. Traditional mead was probably made with whatever honey was available, but modern-day mead makers tend to prefer using lighter honeys, such as clover honey.
Mead comes in a wide variety of flavors depending upon the type of honey used, the proportion of honey to water, the type of yeast used, additives (such as spices, fruit or hops) and the aging process. As honey lacks acidity, some mead makers incorporate either citric acid or a mixture of citric/malic/tartaric acids into their recipes. Mead can be sweet, semi-sweet, dry, sparkling or still.
There are three basic steps in the mead making process. First, the ingredients are combined and fermentation begins. This step can take two to four weeks depending upon the type of honey, the temperature, etc. When the rate of fermentation slows, the liquid is siphoned off and placed in a new container where it will spend up to several months. During this time, it may continue to ferment, but at a slower rate. Finally, when all fermentation is complete, the liquid is siphoned off again, bottled and aged. If sugar or honey is added just before bottling, as per the méthode champenoise, a secondary fermentation will occur, producing sparkling mead.
According to Robert Gayre, an authority on the history of mead, there are five classic types of mead:
- Traditional Mead: Basic mead brewed from honey and water at a ratio of 2 ½ lbs of honey per gallon of water
- Sack Mead: Similar to Traditional Mead except for the addition of an extra 20-25% more honey
- Metheglin: Mead that contains herbs and/or spices
- Sack Metheglin: Metheglin made with more honey (like Sack Mead)
- Fruit juice/mead combinations: Made by mixing honey with fruit juices and then fermenting the mixture; for example, a clarre or pyment is a ferment of honey and grape juice, a cyser is a ferment of honey and apple juice, and a melomel is a ferment of honey and any fruit juice other than apple or grape juice.