5. What is Mead?

Mead has possibly been around for over ten thousand years — anthropologists and food historians tend to feel that the earliest mead production was around 8000 BC. It is a beverage that conjures up many images. It has been associated with Druids, Vikings, and Celts. It has been said to be the drink of the gods on Olympus. It has played a role in the writings of the Irish bards, the Icelandic sagas and in the epic poem Beowulf. It has even brought up romantic images in the myth of the Honeymoon. All of this brings up exciting images and in reading all of the folklore you would imagine that this beverage would be almost untouchable – something that could never be recreated properly to such a majestic level. It is amazing that with all of this history, Mead is essentially unknown in the general population. What is even more amazing is how easy Mead is to make.

At its basic elements – Mead is simply fermented honey. Throw some honey and water together with yeast and you get Mead. Well, maybe it isn’t quite that simple but there really isn’t much more to it. By adjusting the amount of honey or the type of yeast used, you can make the Mead sweet, semi-sweet or dry according to your preference. The different types of honey available will also change the flavor and aroma, as will the yeast strain. You also need nutrient for the yeast and a good recipe. All of this is easy to obtain. If you want to make a variation on this plain mead, you can add any kind of fruit you want and you have a Melomel or you add any spice imaginable and you have a Metheglin. You might want both fruit and spice added for even more variation or you might want to blend your Mead with beer for a Braggot. There are so many possibilities that it is endless. In the end though – they are all Mead.

What is Honey?

Honey is the substance made when the nectar and sweet deposits from plants are gathered, modified and stored in the honeycomb by honey bees1. It is composed primarily of glucose (38%) and fructose (30%) but smaller amounts of maltose (7%) are also present. Honey has approximately the same sweetness as table sugar (sucrose). Honey is typically about 17% water. The major acid present in honey is gluconic acid, and the pH of honey can range from 3.4 to 6.1, with 3.9 being the average. Honey also contains some proteins, complex carbohydrates, trace elements and minerals. Trace chemicals derived from particular plant nectars provide the unique varietal character of any specific honey.

Honey has natural antimicrobial properties and a long shelf life. The strong concentration of sugar creates a high osmotic pressure, which is stressful to bacteria. The low pH of honey is hostile to micro-organisms. Honey has low water activity and is generally hygroscopic, meaning that it tends to pull water from its surrounding environment and any microbes that may be in it. Ancient Egyptians recognized honey’s antimicrobial properties and used it as a topical antiseptic and antibiotic. While honey can prevent microbes from growing, it does not actually kill them. Dormant bacterial endospores may be present in honey and could create toxins (such as botulinum) in the immature, low-acid intestinal tract of infants, which is why honey is not recommended as a food for young children.

Honey is produced by honey bees as a food source. In cold or dry weather or at other times when natural food sources are scarce, bees use honey as their primary source of energy. Bees have a strictly hierarchical hive social structure, with a colony having one fertile female (queen bee, which lays eggs), many fertile males (drone bees, which die during mating), and thousands of sterile females (worker bees, which cooperate to collect nectar). Nectar is partially digested, regurgitated, and stored in the honeycomb structure where water is evaporated through the fanning of the bee’s wings until the honey is sufficiently concentrated to prevent fermentation.

Honey collection is an ancient activity predating human civilization. Bees were semi domesticated in antiquity, before 2500 BC, by inducing bee swarms to nest in artificial hives. Beekeeping (or apiculture) is the maintenance of honey bee colonies in hives for the purpose of collecting honey and beeswax, and for pollinating crops. A location where bees are kept is called an apiary, and a beekeeper is called an apiarist.

How does Mead differ from Other Beverages?

Mead belongs to the family of fermented alcoholic beverages. Fermentation is the process by which yeast convert simple sugars into cellular energy, producing ethanol and carbon dioxide as metabolic waste products. Yeast carry out ethanol fermentation in the absence of oxygen, so fermentation is classified as anaerobic respiration. Fermentation is a less efficient cellular process than aerobic respiration, but it does produce the ethanol that mead makers (and their brewer and vintner kin) desire.

Alcoholic beverages are differentiated by the source of fermentable sugar consumed by yeast. Mead is fermented honey, wine is fermented crushed grapes or grape juice, cider is fermented sweet apple cider, fruit wines are the fermented juice of fruit other than grapes, sake is fermented unmalted rice, and beer is fermented cereal grains (typically malted barley or wheat). Starch sources must be mashed, or converted to sugar through enzymatic action, before being fermented. Distilled spirits may be produced from any fermented sugar source (cane sugar, corn, potatoes, grains, etc.) by separating and concentrating ethanol through the distillation process. When distilled spirits are added to other fermented beverages, the resulting products (e.g., Port, Sherry) are said to be fortified.

Spirits are distilled fermented beverages and typically have an ABV of 20% or higher. Alcohol is toxic to yeast, and most yeast cannot function when the ABV reaches 18% (although some yeast strains have been selected, bred, or genetically-engineered to have higher alcohol tolerances). Different strains of yeast have different alcohol tolerances; most mead yeast come from the wine industry and can have alcohol tolerances ranging from 14 to 18%.

Mead and wine typically have similar alcohol levels, so some people erroneously call mead honey wine. However, this is not correct since wine is defined as fermented grape (or other fruit) juice and mead is the fermented mixture of honey and water. The prepared, diluted honey solution ready for fermentation is called must, which is the same name applied to the grape-based solution at the same stage in winemaking. Must in mead making is analogous to wort in beer brewing.

1 True honey bees are classified as genus Apis, with seven species and 44 sub-species. The Western honeybee, Apis mellifera, is most common domesticated species in Europe and America. Honey bees are not native to North America; they were introduced by European colonists.