What is Mead? Discover the ancient beverage experiencing a renaissance.
What is mead?
We are often asked “What is Mead?”, is mead a beer, a wine, or neither? We’d like to share some information that defines mead and covers everything the aspiring mead enthusiast would like to know about this very special, fermented honey beverage.
What is mead made from?
Mead, generally thought to be the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, is made of a solution of honey and water that is fermented by yeast. History and folklore tell us about the origins of mead. Honey was discovered early on in human history. The earliest evidence of harvesting honey for human consumption dates back over 8000 years, through depictions in cave paintings found in Valencia, Spain, as well as extensive documentation in early texts. Long before the Romans, Ancient Egyptians - perhaps the first beekeepers - erected hives and harvested honey for a sweet treat, to heal wounds, and ceremonially as an offering to the gods. They would make honey cakes and include them in tombs. Honey was even used as an early embalming fluid, though today we prefer its use in baking cakes and making mead. Mead continued to enjoy wide popularity all the way through the middle ages and into the Renaissance in Northern Europe until less-expensive sugar sources for the fermentation were readily available, like cane sugar and cereal grains (wheat, barley, corn) that was cultivated and readily available. This slowed the use of honey as the primary sugar source in alcoholic beverages and introduced beer and grape wine to the world. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in mead due to its versatility, flavors, and mentions in period pieces like the hit HBO series Game of Thrones as well as Budweiser commercials.
As the first naturally occurring bulk sugar source, it’s really difficult to overstate the importance of honey and beekeeping in human history. It’s chock full of short term energy, with its high concentration of sugars and contains lots of naturally-occurring antioxidants called polyphenols. Polyphenols are found in lots of produce and oils, and are thought to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. They help neutralize free radicals in the body. Honey is also thought to reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressure. Honey has a ton of health benefits, and we’ll do a post in the future that covers the health benefits of honey in further detail.
Mead vs. Wine: Wine made from Honey
The creation of the first mead likely occurred very shortly after humans tasted sweet honey for the first time. The first mead was likely a “happy accident,” meaning some gathered honey was left to sit out for a few days. During this time, some wild yeast and water found its way into the honey pot and fermentation occurred spontaneously, turning the honey and water mixture into alcohol. We can only imagine the pleasant surprise when our ancestors tasted what was presumed to be spoiled honey and it turned out to be a delicious and intoxicating beverage. Remember, this was long before the cultivation of grapes and traditional grape wine as we know it, so alcohol for human consumption was not regularly available. It must have been quite a party in the cave that night!
After drinking this novel beverage, mead was officially born and with it, limitless styles of mead were produced by adding fruits and botanicals to the fermenting mixture. This was undoubtedly to improve the taste of some wild-fermentations, which when left to ferment naturally may be drinkable, but can produce mixed results. So, to put it simply, mead is an alcoholic beverage produced when honey is fermented. To add complexity, additional ingredients can be fermented alongside the honey-water solution to create different flavors. As modern meadmaking developed, different techniques were introduced to create different styles of mead. The English would add botanicals and create a sweet mead. That being said, if the primary fermentable sugar is honey, it’s a mead!
How much alcohol is in mead?
The alcohol content in mead can range from the low single-digits, as with light beer, to a high of over 18%, like many ports. Fortified meads, those where additional alcohol is added to a finished mead to increase the alcohol content even further, also exist.
Is mead the same as Honey Wine?
You say mead, I say honey wine, but we’re drinking the same thing. A mead is the same thing as a honey wine and the terms are used synonymously and interchangeably around the world. It's a game of word geography, and depending on where you’re located, you may hear both mead and honey wine being used. We've even heard the terms honey mead, mead wine, and honey drink used, but it's all mead.