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Mead – What Bartenders Should Know

Mead: the drink of gods!

While it’s true the popularity of mead has waxed and waned over the centuries, it appears to be on the increase again as people look for more unusual things to drink. At the beginning of this century, there were perhaps 20 commercial-scale meaderies in North America; by 2015 their number had risen to 250. People may be hearkening back to the early days since mead is suggested as a prime candidate for the very first alcoholic beverage.

If a tree was damaged, exposing a bees nest, rainwater and wild yeast, which was ubiquitous, could start the fermentation process. Although no one knows for certain, our early ancestors probably harvested the liquid for its intoxicating properties. Over the centuries it certainly gained a reputation for aiding sexual prowess, resulting in the birth of a male child (supposedly) which was “desirable” in the early days, as well as acting as an aphrodisiac, or medicine, or any number of other mystical properties.

Ambrosia, or Nectar of the Gods, as the ancient Greeks liked to call it, was said to bestow health and longevity as well as the powers of wit and poetry. This might have been as simple as a crowd of drunks watching another drunk be foolish and being entertained by it. On the other hand, it might have loosened the tongue of someone who was ordinarily reticent about being lyrical or poetical, allowing them to take center stage briefly with relaxed inhibitions.

The Welch created a spiced-mead named Metheglin (from their word “medcyglin”, from which we derive the word medicine). Pollio Romulus attributed his 100 years of life to regular consumption of the beverage, in a time when life expectancy was typically well under four decades. This claim was made in a communique to Julius Caesar.
Mead, however, has been around a lot longer than that. In the Norse history, there is a long tradition of mead drinking. Because grapevines couldn’t survive in the northern climate, the Nordic people remained ignorant of grapes until the north-south trade routes were established. As mentioned earlier, mead was thought to have magic powers and so after a wedding, the groom was fed mead until he couldn’t stand and then tossed in bed with his new wife because that was the most likely way to create a “warrior” (son).

Although honey has over 180 discrete components, so far nothing magical has been discovered. Although it is interesting to note that honey is the only naturally occurring substance that doesn’t spoil. Ancient combs have been taken out of centuries-old tombs, in completely edible condition.

Every batch of mead is unique

While all meads contain Honey, except for the most basic, traditional sort, they also contain additives, adjuncts, or gruit. You cannot control the additives, no matter how carefully you measure them. If you put in 1 pound 4 ¾ ounces of raspberries this year, there’s no guarantee that next year’s raspberries or even another batch from this year picked elsewhere, will impart the same flavor. They might have received less sunlight; they might have a higher sugar content; the flavone and flavonoid balance might be completely different.

And all that is completely aside from the fact that every single honey is unique. Light, delicate honeys, such as those derived from orange blossoms, will possess subtle flavors. Dark and rich honeys, such as buckwheat or even clover, will have much stronger, more dominant flavors. So it becomes obvious that even the base material can strongly affect the outcome.

Here’s a shortlist of some types of mead, but there are many more.

• Traditional Mead sometimes called Antipodal: A fermented honey beverage made from approximately two and one-half pounds of honey diluted with one gallon of water.
• Melomel or Mulsum: made with fruit juices
• Braggot: made with malt or other grains
• Miodomel: made with Hops
• Hydromel: Weak, or watered mead
• Myritis: made with Bilberries
• Acerglyn: made with maple syrup
• Pyment: made specifically with grape juice
• Morat or Alicant Wine: mulberry juice
• Cyser: made specifically with apple juice or cider
• Metheglin: made with herbs & or spices
• Sack Metheglin: made with herbs & or spices, but significantly sweetened
• Hippocras or Hyppocras is Pyment (mead with grape juice) made with herbs and/or spices
• Rhodomel: Rose petals
• Sack (or Sac) Mead: Sweetened with extra honey (20-25%)

Making Mead

Want to brew some mead at home? It’s fun, and legal most everywhere. If you read our article on how to make beer at home, then you know most of the steps for making mead as well. You can even use the same equipment: the 6 gallon carboy, the air lock, the no-rinse sanitizing liquid, the auto-siphon and its hoses, the 5 gallon mixing buckets, and some 12 ounce beer bottles. Glass carboys are $25, so get several and make different varieties, and some beer, too!

Mead can end up with 14 to 16% alcohol, so bigger bottles are not advised. Unless of course you’re making mead for Holiday gifts; this turns out to be surprisingly inexpensive, and highly memorable. Investment in the gear to make it would cost about $70.00. Even if store-bought honey was $5.00 a pound it should cost you $60.00, or $130 all-in, for the first batch of 5 gallons. That would make an awful lot of Christmas present bottles. After the initial purchase you just need to buy the honey and the yeast. And of course buying from a local apiary should save you a significant amount of money.

You can make “still” (uncarbonated) meads in a month, carbonated in four months (or years, depending on how dedicated you are); they can be as dry as the driest wine; they can be as bitter as ale or lager; they can be semi-dry, or downright sweet; they can be spicy or fruity; they can be subtle or brash. There are plenty of recipes available online. Go find one. It’s time to have some fun! If you’re scared, go buy several different types to see what kind you would like to make. Have fun!