The ancient alcoholic beverage with limitless potential.
One of the many reasons mead is such an interesting beverage is its versatility. Meads can be sweet or dry, dark or light, contain only honey or include a number of different additional ingredients. Meads can be low in alcohol and carbonated, or high in alcohol and still. Meadmakers have been experimenting with mead recipes for millennia, with many tasty results — and some surprising ones.
Due to the many ingredients that can be used in meads, there are a lot of terms you'll hear when classifying them. While beer is classified mostly by style, and wine by grape type and appellation (i.e. where the grapes are grown), mead is mainly classified by the ingredients it contains, the amount of alcohol, and residual sugar level. This results in a lot of jargon, but once you understand it, it will begin to make more sense and you can continue your mead tasting journey, deciding what types of mead you really enjoy.
Melomels (Fruit Meads) and Traditionals
The first distinction we can make is to categorize our meads by the ingredients they contain. If a mead contains fruits in addition to the honey and water base, the technical term for this fruit mead is melomel. For example, Beacon Meadery's Raspberry Mead is a melomel. Melomels can be made with a variety of fruits, including berries, peaches, pineapple, apricots, and many more. Thanks to the fruit content, they tend to be big on flavor.
Traditional meads, as you may have guessed, are meads that do not contain any additional ingredients beyond the essentials. Traditional meads contain just the three main ingredients of mead: honey, water, and yeast. Because there are no additional flavoring ingredients, a traditional mead showcases the flavors of the particular honey and yeast combination used to produce it. This can create wonderful meads when varietal honeys are used. Varietal honeys are harvested from bees that primarily feed on nectar from specific types of plants. For example, an orange-blossom honey traditional will taste quite different than a blueberry-blossom honey traditional.
However, with no additional flavors from fruits or the like, traditionals leave no room for hiding flaws. A traditional meadmaker must possess great skill, as poor or improper fermentation can ruin an otherwise great traditional mead. There is little room for error!
Special Types of Mead
Meads by Ingredient Type
Acerglyn: A sweet mead made with maple syrup.
Black Mead: A melomel mead made with black currants.
Pyment: A mead made with grapes. Pyments are not to be confused with grape wine. Pyments still rely on honey as the main fermentable sugar to create the majority of the alcohol in the mead.
Metheglin: A mead with added botanicals or spices. Spices such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, rosemary, spruce, and more can add lots of flavor to these special meads. Metheglins can be made with mulling spices for a holiday beverage. Metheglins were once extremely popular as they were used for medicinal purposes for many years. Metheglins may also be enjoyed warm. These are called mulled meads.
Cyser: When apple juice is added to the fermentation, cysers are created. A cyser is not to be confused with a cider, which relies on apple juice to produce the alcohol. In a cyser, the honey still provides most of the fermentable sugar to be turned into alcohol. Cysers have added complexity to many ciders for unique flavors. Who doesn't like apples and honey?
Rhodomel: A mead made with rose petals or rose hips.
Capsicumel: For the capsicum lovers, this mead is flavored with chili peppers. It doesn't always result in a spicy mead, but can lend balance to the sweetness of honey.
Bochet: Meads made with honey that has been previously heated or toasted to add caramelized flavors.
Bochetomel: Meads with toasted honey and fruits.
Braggot: A braggot is a mead that's closer in style to a beer. Braggots are mixed with beer or brewed with malt or hops. It's a mead with an identity crisis.
Morat: Melomel mead made from mulberries.
Coffee Mead: A mead brewed with coffee or espresso beans.
Show Meads: Another term for traditional meads that contain no added ingredients aside from honey, water, and yeast. These meads are designed to showcase the meadmaker's skills and are commonly produced for shows or mead competitions.
Hippocras: Pyments that contain added spices and botanicals.
Oxymel: Meads made with wine vinegar, usually a traditional.
Meads by Time to Make
Quick Mead: Also known as small meads, are meads that ferment quickly and don't require a long time to age. These are great when time is of the essence.
Long Mead: You guessed it! These meads require some time to age to realize their full potential
Meads by Alcohol Content
Meads can be further categorized by the amount of alcohol contained in the finished honey wine:
Hydromel: Hydromels are the lightest meads, and contain the least amount of alcohol, usually between 3.5% to 7.5%. These meads will drink like a light beer and are easy to drink. These meads may also be carbonated and sold in a can; these are commonly called session meads.
These meads also contain the least amount of honey. Because the yeast converts the honey into alcohol during fermentation, the amount of honey determines how much alcohol the final mead will contain. Sometimes, hydromels will be created by diluting a standard mead. (A quick side note: while in English hydromels refer to a type of mead, in France and other European countries, this word means the same thing as “mead.”)
Standard Mead: The "standard" in meads, these wines contain more alcohol than hydromels, but less than 14% alcohol. Many traditional meads on the market are standard meads.
Sack Mead: Sack meads, also known as great meads, contain the highest amount of alcohol (14%+) and require the largest amount of honey to produce. These meads pack a lot of flavor and can be similar to full-bodied dessert or even red wines. Because of the high level of alcohol and residual sugar, these meads are better suited to aging and can take quite some time to make! Many will get better after several months, and in some cases, years!
Other Types of Mead
Sparkling Meads: Hydromels or standard meads that are carbonated either via forced carbonation (using carbon dioxide, like seltzer) or via bottle conditioning (usually a process similar to the one used to make champagne, where a small amount of honey is added to the mead as it's bottled). Remaining yeast converts the sugar into carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for bubbly beverages!
Oaked Meads: Meads that are aged in or otherwise exposed to oak, which can add a variety of flavors and tannins. Oak is usually added during the secondary fermentation or is used to age finished meads.
Regional Meads: Meads that hail from a specific geographic region may have certain characteristics and names. For example, Polish meads have a storied history and come in various strengths of both alcohol and sweetness. We’ll have another post about them soon!
Tej is a traditional honey wine from Ethiopia and Eritrea, made with the leaves of the gesho shrub (rhamnus prinoides).
Some Final Considerations
Like many wineries and breweries, many meaderies will specialize in certain styles of mead. Meadmakers develop a specialty and expertise, and dedicate much of their lives to sharing it with the world.
Beacon Meadery produces a variety of melomels, or fruit meads. Our Raspberry Mead is a melomel and could be classified as both a sack mead and long mead — it takes a long time to produce! Our Raspberry Mead is also built to age, with a high level of alcohol and residual sugar. Because it will improve for years to come, our bottles and corks are also designed for cellaring.