Mead: The Only Drink Older Than Beer
By Thomas C. Kolakowski
Mead. We've all heard of it, but most people don't have any idea of what it is. And of those who do know, even fewer have sampled the Nectar of the Gods. Mead conjures up a image of Viking warriors sitting in a huge mead-hall drinking vast amounts of golden nectar from their horn glasses. This is an ancient drink, one whose origins have become lost in the mists of time. There is rather mystical quality to it, for it was once central to many ancient religious rites. Even our modern term "honeymoon" is carried over from the ancient tradition where a newly married couple would drink mead for a month to ensure the birth of a male child.
Before homebrewing beer was made legal in 1978-79 homebrewers was limited to making wines. Luckily, mead was legally classified as a wine and thus it's production was legal. This allowed the budding homebrewing hobby to produce a light, sweet and carbonated alcoholic beverage that was not readily commercially available. The tradition of meadmaking was kept alive mainly by members of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, a medieval recreation group. Since the production of beer was not a viable possibility, members of the SCA concentrated on the making of meads. Much of the research into historical recipes was done by members of the SCA's various local brewing guilds. Unfortunately for mead, the legalization of homebrewing beer has caused mead to take a back seat while that of beer-making has exploded.
Mead, in its most basic form, is nothing more than honey that has been diluted in water and then fermented. There are several classes of mead, each with a distinct character and name. "Melomel" is mead that has either fruit or fruit juice added to it. Many meaderies produce melomels that are flavored with either raspberries, pears, cherries or blueberries. The one requirement for producing a good melomel is that the fruit have enough acid in it to aid in the fermentation process. A mead that has apples or apple juice added to it is known as "Cyser" and "Pyment" is a melomel that has grapes or grape juice added to it. In many ways the various melomels might be considered the inspiration for the wonderful Belgian Lambic beers.
Besides the fruit meads, there is also a class of meads that have various spices or herbs added to it. These meads are called "Metheglin". Metheglin can have any number of spices added to it, but most are made with either cloves or cinnamon. Ginger root is another popular additive in metheglin. Finally, pyment that has spices added to it is known as "Hippocras".
The "Traditional" recipe includes only Honey, water, yeast and a small amount of acid. The amount of honey used depends upon whether you want a dry or sweet mead. Dry meads are made using 2 pounds of honey per gallon of water, while sweet meads can use 4 pounds or more. Any mead that has a higher amount of honey (and is thus stronger and sweeter) is called "Sack". Unlike other alcoholic beverages there are practically no individual strain of yeast used in mead making. Many homebrewers use Champaign yeast, as it is hardy enough to withstand the high alcohol content of the mead. Your average ale or lager yeast would die off long before the mead had fermented out. Meads generally have a final alcohol level between 10% and 18%, but several homebrewed "Sacks" have produced 20% batches.
Homebrewing mead is much easier today than is was only a decade ago. Meadmaking has always had it's problems. The first is that a honey and water mixture is too alkaline to properly support fermentation. This leads to very slow fermentation. Using the "traditional" recipe one might have to wait several months for a batch to be fully fermented, and aging can be from one to six years! Certain strains of yeast, such as Prise de Mousse, will expedite the process, but the flavor with differ greatly depending upon what strain of yeast is used. The second problem is that honey does not contain all the nutrients that yeast needs to multiply. One of the primary reasons why brewers of the past added fruit to mead was that the fruit added the missing nutrients, thus allowing the mead to ferment quickly. Today you can buy yeast nutrients in your local homebrew shop, something your average Viking was unable to do.
So now that you know what mead is you are probably asking yourself "where can I get some?" Unfortunately, in many ways the micro-brew craze has only recently started to spill-over to the production of mead. Most of the true "meaderies" in America are relatively new, most only being open since 1992 with many new meads appearing on the market each month. When is comes to finding meads that are produced locally you really have just one choice... head on over to your local homebrew shop and learn how to make some yourself. (You might even be lucky enough to sample some locally made mead there). You can also order mead from one of the growing number of commercial meaderies throughout the U.S. There are relatively few meaderies around, and nearly all of them sell their ware via mail-order. The following list of Meaderies include most of the major mead producers in America.
California Meadery 15549 Brookview Dr. Sonoma, CA 95476 The Meadery at Greenwich RR4 Box 4070 Greenwich, NY 12834 (518)695-9669 Earle Estates Meadery RD1 Box 246 Locke, NY 13092 (607)898-5940 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Oliver Wine Co. 8024 North Highway 37 Bloomington, IN 47401 Rocky Mountain Meadery 3701 G Road Palisade, CO 81526 (970)464-7899 E-mail: email@example.com The Hogtown Brewer 21 SW 2nd Street Gainesville, FL 32601 (Mail order carrying Screaming Viking Mead from FL and Chaucer's Mead from CA)If you are interested in more information on mead and have Internet access the following sites include numerous recipes for all of the styles mentioned. Try "The Brewery" at http://alpha.rollanet.org. The brewery has a huge archive of recipes and brewing techniques. If you want a more medieval twist you can amble on over to the Medieval-Renaissance Brewing Homepage at http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/brewing.html. Also, Rocky Mountain Meadery, Earle Meadery and The Hogtown brewer all have sites on the Internet.
So go on... put on your "horned" helmet... grab a mead horn and drink the Viking way!