Conjuring images of medieval knights and fierce Norseman, mead, also known as “honey wine,” is believed to be the world’s oldest alcoholic libation and one that’s generally associated with eras past. But this fermented honey drink is tiptoeing out from the shadows. In fact, the number of meaderies in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last three years, making mead one of the fastest growing alcoholic beverage categories in the U.S.
What is mead?
Mead or honey wine is made by fermenting honey with water. Like beer, mead is sometimes flavored with fruits, spices, grains, or hops. But it's generally higher in alcohol than beer and more in line with grape wine — typically between eight and 20 percent ABV. Also like wine, mead is produced in a variety of sweetness levels, from bone dry to lusciously sweet and can be still or sparkling.
Within the world of mead, there are sub-group. For example, if mead is mixed with beer or brewed with hops and malt, it becomes a hybrid style closer in taste to beer known as braggot. This beverage, unlike its purely mead-made counterparts, can be produced in breweries. Mead with added fruit is known as melomel, while hydromel is a watered-down version consumed in Spain and France. Great Mead is mead that's meant to age.
Honey wine occupies a somewhat precarious position between beer and wine. Legally, mead is produced in "wineries" and bottles are usually sold in wine shops. But, thanks to the presence of hops, which some brewers choose to add as a natural preservative, mead is often clumped into the craft beer category. But, the reality is that mead is in a category of its own much like cider or sake.
The history of mead
A ubiquitous alcoholic beverage, everyone — ancient Greeks, Africans, and Chinese — all drank mead as far back as 3000 BCE. Mead holds particular importance in Norse mythology, especially in the legend of a fabled beverage with magical powers known as “Poetic Mead.” As the story goes, mythological gods created a man named Norseman Kvasir who was so wise he could answer any question. When he was eventually killed, his blood was mixed with honey, and whoever drank this honey-blood mead took on Kvasir’s power of intelligence. And it’s likely this myth that inspired Danish craft mead producer Dansk Mjod to make its Viking Blod Mead, which is flavored and colored red from hibiscus.
Mead is frequently consumed in Eastern Europe and Russia. Pretty much any country that produced honey has a history of mead production and appreciation.
Outside of Europe, Mead has been and continues to be popular in Ethiopia, where it's referred to as tej. Customarily a home-brewed beverage, tej is usually flavored with powdered leaves of the gesho plant, an African shrub which imparts a slightly bitter flavor and preserves the drink, like hops do for beer.
How to drink mead
While Ethiopians typically drink tej out of a bulbous glass container called a berele, nowadays in the U.S. mead is usually served in wine glasses. Though sometimes the drink will come in an Old World drinking vessel like a mazer cup from Germany, which is also the name for the world’s largest mead competition. And, for > serious history buffs, there’s always a mead horn.
Mead producers to know
Enlightenment Wines based out of Hudson Valley, NY produces an abundance of meads, from sparkling to unfiltered, some flavored with toasted buckwheat, other with lavender and juniper. Meanwhile, B. Nektar and Kuhnhenn, two Michigan breweries, make their own take on mead, also flavored with a slew of fruit, spices, and botanicals. Those interested in sampling the hybrid mead style known as braggot can check out Dogfish Head’s Bitches Brew.