The Beer Snob Explores Mead

This article was originally published in the November 2010 issue of the Local Rag newspaper in my “Beer Snob” column.

Most people think of beer as fermented barley and wine as fermented grapes. Often, this is true, but in reality the definitions go farther than that. Neither one, however, goes quite far enough to include a wondrous beverage from ages past that’s making a comeback in America: mead.

Beer is any beverage made from malted and fermented grains. The core is typically barley, but many other grains can be added. I’ve written in this column in the past about wheat beers (“weizen”), rye beers, and oatmeal stouts. Lighter beers like Bud and Miller use rice and corn. More adventurous homebrewers use exotic grains like triticale (which you can pick up at the Regis Cafe).

Wine is any beverage made from fermented fruit juices. Connoisseurs may scoff at the use of anything except grapes, but who hasn’t tried other fruit wines at some point? Blackberry, pomegranate, cherry, apple, and pear wines aren’t uncommon at all. Remember Elton John’s song, Elderberry Wine? How about the TV commercials for Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine? If so, you must be as old as I am!

Mead fits neither category, as it is made from fermented honey–although wine lovers often call mead “honey wine.” People unfamiliar with the drink have an instant preconception of something sickly-sweet, but they couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Mead, wine, and beer are created through a fermentation process where yeast converts sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fruit and honey have easily-accessible sugars (fructose and glucose), and grains must be malted to convert the complex carbohydrates into fermentable sugars. If you taste the unfermented blend of honey and water (known as a “must”), it is very sweet. After fermentation is complete, the majority of those sugars are gone. A typical mead will be around 12% alcohol (similar to wine), but residual sugar often varies anywhere from 0% to upwards of 8%. Just like wine, mead can run the gamut from dry to sweet.

Since good basic meads are fairly easy to find (the liquor store in Red Lodge carries a selection), home meadmakers tend to experiment. Some use hops for a more beer-like flavor profile. Many use berries and other fruits. A friend of mine gave me a bottle of his homemade mead last week which used (among other things) vanilla beans. Definitions of these “crossover” beverages become complicated. When I made a batch of homebrew beer and added a few pounds of honey to the wort (the unfermented liquid), I called it a “honey beer.” A beverage produced by fermenting honey and blackberries could rightly be called a blackberry mead or a honey-blackberry wine. I tend to define the drinks by volume. If there’s more fruit than honey, it’s a wine. If there’s more honey than fruit, it’s a mead.

If you’d like to try a few meads and see what you like, you don’t have to go far. We have a meadery right here in Montana. Hidden Legend Winery (formerly known as Trapper Creek Winery) in Hamilton makes both wines and meads (being wine people, they often call their mead “honey wine”), and their meads are made with 100% Montana honey.

If you’re unsure of this whole mead concept, but want to give it a try, let me give you three pieces of advice:

  1. Mead isn’t wine. If someone gives you a porkchop and says it’s a t-bone steak, you’re going to think it’s pretty bad beef. I think this is what happened with the mead our resident wine snob tried a few months back. If you judge it as a wine (or a beer), you won’t like it. If you leave your mind open for a new experience, you just might get hooked.
  2. The first time you try it, don’t overpower it. If your first sip of mead follows a jalape?o popper or five-alarm chili–or even an extra-sharp aged cheddar cheese–you won’t get an accurate impression of the mead’s flavor. If you’re serving it with food, have a slice of French bread or a couple of pita chips before tasting it.
  3. Match the mead to your personal tastes. I’ll use some examples here from Hidden Legend, since it’s the easiest mead to find in our area.

Give it a try!

If you’re a fan of drier white wines or crisp golden lagers, open a bottle of Hidden Legend’s basic “Pure Honey Mead” and break out your stemware to serve it. Serve slightly chilled, but not ice-cold, perhaps with some fresh rainbow trout or Gruyere cheese.

If you can’t ever get enough porter or Scottish ale, and you think of Guinness as a lighter beer, then try their dark mead. Pour it at room temperature into your favorite pewter mug and drink it with grilled venison or chocolate fondue. I recommend wearing a horned Viking helmet and toasting your favorite Norse god while you drink it.

If you like to sip a nice port or sherry–or perhaps a stout aged in oak whiskey barrels–pick up a bottle of their Wild Elderberry mead. It doesn’t have the complexity of a 30-year-old amontillado, but there are a lot of subtle undertones if you look for them. I’d serve it in a snifter at cellar temperature. It’s sweet, and strong enough to stand up to a sharp cheese.

And if you’re the experimental type, give their maple mead (yes, made with honey and maple syrup) or their spiced mead (serve it warmed up on a snowy December eve) a shot.

Incidentally, if you want to make proper traditional mulled mead, add the spices, pour it into a bowl or pitcher, and plunge a hot poker–straight from the fire–into the mead. It not only heats it, but caramelizes some of the remaining sugar for a unique taste.

The history of mead

Mead has been around for a very long time. It was described in sacred Vedic hymns well over 3,000 years ago, and people like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder talked about it in their writings.

The poem below was written by a Welsh bard by the name of Taliesin. It was originally called the “Kanu y med,” which translates to “Song of Mead.”

Kanu y med (Song of Mead)

I WILL adore the Ruler, chief of every place,
Him, that supports the heaven: Lord of everything.
Him, that made the water for every one good,
Him, that made every gift, and prospers it.
May Maelgwn of Mona be affected with mead, and affect us,
From the foaming mead-horns, with the choicest pure liquor,
Which the bees collect, and do not enjoy.
Mead distilled sparkling, its praise is everywhere.
The multitude of creatures which the earth nourishes,
God made for man to enrich him.
Some fierce, some mute, he enjoys them.
Some wild, some tame, the Lord makes them.
Their coverings become clothing.
For food, for drink, till doom they will continue.
I will implore the Ruler, sovereign of the country of peace,
To liberate Elphin from banishment.
The man who gave me wine and ale and mead.
And the great princely steeds, beautiful their appearance,
May he yet give me bounty to the end.
By the will of God, he will give in honour,
Five five-hundred festivals in the way of peace.
Elphinian knight of mead, late be thy time of rest.