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What Is Mead? Just the World's Oldest Spirit

BY: Aimee Algas Alker | Jul 30, 2018

Casks and jugs of mead

According to experts, mead is the oldest spirit known to man. Evidence of it has been found in China in pottery vessels that date back to 7000 BC. Recently, it is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, one of many its endured over the millennia. To find out why and get the lowdown on this ancient brew, we spoke with Oron Benary, owner of The San Francisco Mead Company in California, and Jeff Herbert, co-owner of Superstition Meadery in Prescott, AZ.

What is mead?

Put simply, mead is what happens when honey is allowed to ferment and produce alcohol. Honey can ferment naturally, just from the yeast in the air—if honey is mixed with water and left alone, it makes alcohol.

"Before there was agriculture," says Oron, "the most available sugar source was honey. It was probably made before we recorded anything." Mead was known to ancient Greeks as the Nectar of the Gods; the elixir was sipped by royalty throughout history, including—according to Oron—King Tut and Queen Elizabeth II. Even the Mayans, says Jeff, made mead.

As sugar got cheaper, and wine and beer became more popular, "mead became a lesser known beverage that only beekeepers and royalty got to enjoy," says Jeff. Today, these two meadmakers are among a few hundred in the US working hard to reintroduce to the world its oldest beverage.

How is mead made?

"You can literally mix honey and water and let it sit to turn it into mead," says Jeff. "I've seen instances of mead happening by itself." Perhaps a bear smashes a tree, breaks open a hive, and water gets into the tree, and mead is just created "with no human intervention."

A more conscientious meadmaker uses an exacting alchemy of honey, wine, and yeast, then lets time works its magic.

What are types of mead?

Mead runs a similar spectrum to wine: dry to sweet, hearty to light. Some meaderies even add carbonation to create sparkling versions. Some basic iterations include:

  • Traditional: simply water, honey, and yeast

  • Melomel: mead made with added fruit

  • Hydromel: watered-down version

  • Pyment: a blend with grape juice, sort of a wine-mead hybrid

  • Braggot: mixed with beer or brewed with hops and malt (like beer)

What does mead taste like?

Many newbies assume mead will taste cloyingly sweet, which can sometimes be the case. But while mead will always have a distinct honey flavor—just like wine, its sweetness will vary, depending on how dry the mead is.

The source of the honey also affects the flavor of the mead, as it does with honey straight up. To connoisseurs, honey made from clovers has a distinct taste from that made from apple blossoms. Consider how a grape's growing conditions can affect the taste of wine. In the same way, the flavor of the honey can change from locale to locale and from season to season, making each batch of mead unique.

Glasses of mead

What can you do with it?

Oron lauds mixologists who are crafting mead cocktails, something that isn't done often with its brethren wine, beer, and cider. "Whiskey mixed with an apple mead is to die for," he says. The meadery also crafts a "mead-hattan," swapping vermouth for a semi-dry traditional mead.

He's also excited by people who cook with it. Some simply use it to make sauces, but Oron also excited describes how one guest "injected four bottles of our apple pie mead into a pig and roasted it. It was awesome."

Where do I start?

Oron recommends those new to mead start with a traditional mead to get their feet wet. But really it depends on what you prefer in other beverages. "Are you into cider, are you into big wines, are you into beer?" There's likely a mead to match. "For example, if you're into chardonnay, I'd start with the drier meads."

Jeff suggests that newbies start with a melomel, but echoes the idea that they go with their palate. The best thing, he says, is to go to a meadery and try a flight of meads. "If you tried a Bud Light, and thought that's what beer tastes like, how disappointing would that be?"

What do I pair it with?

"Honey opens flavors in foods that grapes just don't," says Oron. Jeff echoes this sentiment, adding, "Just like with beer or wine, you can pair it with anything. . . . Lots of meads can go with desserts in a complementary pairing." Alternately, a tarter mead is "outstanding" with red meat, and a dry mead can go with "tacos and nachos, and it's awesome."

Where can I get it?

You might be able to find it at any place you'd find wine or beer, but it could be difficult given mead's young renaissance. The best place to go is a nearby meadery. Click here to see if there's a meadery near you.

 

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