Mead is not a homogenous product; there are components within it that must be balanced and harmonized in order to create a pleasing beverage. This is not an easy task, since it relies on having good perceptions of the individual components in mead as well as a clear vision of the finished product. A meadmaker who can achieve perfect balance in an exceptionally well-crafted mead deserves as much respect as a master vintner, master Scotch blender, or master lambic blender.
The Notion of Balance
The concept of balance in mead seems very simple on the surface, but it turns out to be quite challenging. Balance refers to the interaction and harmony between two or more of the mead’s constituents. The topic is somewhat complex because determining balance is somewhat arbitrary – it may differ dramatically depending on the subjectivity of the taster, the type of mead, or the setting.
More specifically, mead balance is the synergy of all the components that formulate an enjoyable tasting experience: aroma (bouquet), flavor (taste, honey flavor), structure (tannin, acid, and alcohol), residual sweetness, and mouthfeel (body, carbonation). In a balanced mead, individual components do not overshadow one another, and the resulting combination is appropriate for the particular style of mead.
The use of words like synergy, balance, and harmony shouldn’t imply that all flavors are of equal intensity. That is much too simplistic (and generally wrong). It means that the components complement each other in a pleasant way.
By far the most straightforward balance is between sweetness and acidity, although not all meads will have these elements. A discussion of this balance will help illustrate the concept. There is no accurate formula for calculating a perfect acid-sugar balance in mead. In the simplest sense, a mead which has a good acid-sugar balance tastes neither too sweet nor too acidic; the sweetness exists in the right quantity for the acid, and vice versa.
By extension, a mead that is out of balance has either too much acid or too much sweetness. A mead with too little sugar for its acid will taste harsh, sharp and acidic; the evolution of flavors in the mouth will be interrupted by the sensation of acidity. A mead with too much sugar will taste cloying, sugary, and flabby, and will not refresh the palate.
Some meads have too much sweetness and too much acid. They are often the result of a meadmaker trying to balance a highly acidic mead by back-sweetening with honey. These meads don’t work because the other elements of the mead, especially the honey flavor, don’t match the sugar and the acid. Experienced tasters often describe such meads as having a sweet-tart character.
While the simplest balance is between sweetness and acidity, there are several other types of balance in mead that will be explored. The most important balance in mead is between acidity, sweetness, and tannin, although sweetness and honey flavor are related and alcohol should be considered along with acidity and tannin. A secondary balance to consider is between honey character and the flavors from added ingredients (fruit, spice, etc.). Other aspects affecting the balance include mouthfeel components, like body and carbonation. The balance of all these components taken together is another form of balance.
Keep in mind that the quantity and intensity of each element of balance varies by the style of mead; there are no absolutes. The relative difference between the constituents is based on the style definition. For example, sweet meads are obviously sweeter, so they need more structure (acidity, tannin, alcohol) to support them than do dry meads.
All competition meads should have a declared alcohol strength level, carbonation level and sweetness level. These attributes must be taken into account when assessing the balance of the mead. A wide range of results is possible, but well-made examples will have an enjoyable balance of honey flavors, sweetness, acidity, tannins, and alcohol. Strength, sweetness and age greatly affect the overall presentation. Any special ingredients should be well blended with the base ingredients, and lead to a harmonious mead.
Components of Balance
There are several components in mead that balance against each other. Some of these are discussed in the Mead Style Guidelines. They are the common descriptors of sweetness, alcohol strength and carbonation. However, these are not the only components; acidity and tannin provide much of the structure of mead (as they do in wine, along with alcohol).
Each of the components is defined, including how they are perceived, from what sources they are derived, and how they are individually adjusted. The discussion of adjusting balance is covered in the next section.
Sweetness simply refers to the amount of residual sugar in the mead, and is generally assumed to be coming from the honey (although it can possibly come from fruit or other adjuncts in certain mead styles). Sweetness is primarily sensed as a taste, although it is suggestive in aroma and body. Sweetness is one of the five basic taste sensations. Sweetness results from residual sugar in the mead, which can come through natural fermentation, from manually stopping fermentation short of full attenuation, or from adding honey or sugary adjuncts after fermentation has ceased. Note that adding sugar sources to mead can restart fermentation if the mead has not been stabilized first.
In competition, a mead may be declared as dry, semi-sweet, or sweet, but there is a range of perceptions within each level. Dry doesn’t necessarily mean bone dry, and sweet doesn’t necessarily mean dessert-like (although both levels fit within their respective ranges).
A dry mead is one with no higher than a barely noticeable sweetness level, although most will remain below the perception level. A sweet mead is one where the sweetness assumes a dominant role within the flavor without being cloying. Semi-sweet (or off-dry) meads are in the middle; they should have noticeable sweetness but without reaching a dominant level.
Sweetness is often confused with fruitiness in a dry mead. Body is somewhat related to sweetness, but dry meads can still have some body. Sweet meads should not be cloyingly sweet, and should not have a raw, unfermented honey character. Sweetness is independent of strength.
Acidity is the perception of acids or low pH in mead, and sometimes could be described as tartness or sourness. Acidity isn’t a primary flavor in mead; it supports the honey presentation by adding structure. Acidity is one of the five basic taste sensations, so it’s primarily a taste but it often has related aromatic elements.
Honey naturally has gluconic acid, although acid levels will vary widely with honey variety, region, and season. Some natural acidity is often present in mead, particularly in ones with added fruit. Fermentation naturally produces acidity (pH drops during fermentation), with some yeast contributing more than others. Mead Makers will frequently adjust the acidity level of their mead (hopefully post-fermentation) using various products such as malic acid, tartaric acid, citric acid, acid blend (a mixture of the three), or citrus juices.
Tannins are astringent, bitter-tasting plant polyphenols that bind and precipitate proteins. Tannins are found in leaves and bark of many plant species, and in the skins and seeds of certain fruit. Tannins produce a puckering mouthfeel, have a bitter taste, and leave a drying aftertaste. Tannins are large molecules that are not volatile, so they don’t have an aroma. However, the source of tannins often does have an aroma that some tasters might associate with them.
Honey does not have natural tannins. Tannins are added to mead by using fruits, spices, tea, chemical additives (e.g., grape tannin), or oak-aging. Berries often add considerable tannin, typically from their seeds, skins, and even stems. Oak-aging is a good way to help compensate for low tannin, while adding complexity. However, it can add other flavors.
In beer, dry indicates a lack of residual sugar. However, in mead (or wine), dry can also mean a considerable tannin content. Dryness in mead is a balance concept; tannin can make mead seem very dry even if some sugar is present.
Alcohol is a fermentation by-product, and usually refers to ethanol. Ethanol in its pure form is colorless but has a strong, sharp, characteristic aroma. Ethanol is a versatile solvent and often can carry other volatile aromatics. Ethanol also has a sharp flavor and can add bitterness while also being perceived by some people as sweet. Alcohol produces a warming mouthfeel, which usually increases with alcohol strength (although extended aging can smooth this sensation).
Meads in competitions are identified by alcohol strength, with hydromel, standard and sack being the primary descriptors. Each descriptor identifies an alcohol strength range; in general, a standard-strength mead is approximately the same as a table-strength wine.
Alcohol strength is managed by controlling the amount of fermentables used and the degree of attenuation in the fermentation. Fermentables are generally honey, but can include other adjuncts like fruit, sugars, and malt. The difference between the starting gravity and the final gravity determines the alcohol strength of the mead. Adding more fermentables increases the starting gravity, which increases the potential for alcohol strength. The degree of attenuation measures the percentage of original gravity that has been fermented. A higher attenuation increases alcohol strength. Attenuation can be increased through selection of a more attenuative yeast strain and managing the fermentation so that it fully completes. Fermentation management is a topic in itself, but in general a stronger fermentation generates more alcohol. Stopping fermentation before it completes (intentionally or unintentionally) results in lower alcohol.
Some types of honey have a strong varietal character, which is a unique flavor derived from the nectar source. Intense honey flavors are often more desirable. Winemakers refer to this as extract, or the flavor intensity of the grapes; substituting fermentable sugar sources, the concept is similar when applied to honey flavor in mead.
Strongly sweet honeys can produce a character that makes them seem sweet even when fermented more dry. The mental association of honey intensity with sweetness makes one think of the relationship even if it isn’t present.
Honey flavor is adjusted by honey variety selection and the amount of honey used. Using more honey results in stronger flavors. Meads with more residual sweetness will have a stronger honey flavor since more unfermented honey is present. Stronger, sweeter meads will have a more prominent honey flavor than weaker, drier meads. Different varieties of honey have different intensities and characters; some (e.g., orange blossom, buckwheat) are more recognizable than others (e.g., safflower, palmetto).
Carbonation refers to the amount of dissolved carbon dioxide in solution. It is an aspect of mouthfeel, although higher carbonation adds carbonic acid to mead. A mead may be still, petillant, or sparkling. Still meads do not have to be totally flat; they can have some very light bubbles. Petillant meads are “lightly sparkling” and can have a moderate, noticeable amount of carbonation. Sparkling meads are not gushing, but may have a character ranging from mouth-filling to an impression akin to Champagne or soda pop.
Body refers to the viscosity of mead perceived as a sensation of weight or thickness on the tongue; it is a mouthfeel texture, not a flavor. The descriptors used for normal ranges of body include light, medium and full, but can go outside those descriptors for defective meads. Thin and watery are terms that describe very light-bodied meads. Syrupy, viscous, heavy, thick are terms that describe very full-bodied meads.
Different honey varieties have different bodies. Attenuating meads more generally lowers body. More unfermented (or raw) honey in mead adds body. Managing a fermentation for final gravity can thus control the final body. Back-sweetening mead can increase body. Using more honey (fermented or not) generally increases body. Higher alcohol content increases body. Higher tannin levels increase body.
Now that we have discussed the components that can be balanced, we now turn to which specific elements can be used to balance each other.
The sweetness-acidity-tannin balance is most important in determining the overall drinkability of mead, but the balance between honey flavors and those of added fruit or spices is important in melomels and metheglins. Low honey flavor intensity and acidity together will make a mead seem boring. A higher honey flavor intensity with proper sweetness and structure will seem luscious in comparison.
A mead with low sweetness compared to acidity will seem tart. A mead with high sweetness compared to acidity will seem flabby and soft. Tannin and acidity are somewhat interchangeable. Together they provide balance to sweetness and honey flavor. Less tannin means that more acidity can be used; less acidity means that more tannin can be used. Using too much of both results in a harsh, astringent mead.
Acidity, tannin and alcohol help balance the overall presentation of honey and sweetness. The combined tannin and acidity must roughly match the amount of alcohol to be in balance. If there is not enough tannin/acidity for the alcohol, the mead will seem soft, heavy and flabby. If there is too much tannin/acidity for the alcohol, the mead will seem astringent and tart.
The balance between astringency (tannins) and acidity is an interesting topic, since both provide structure to mead. The less tannic a mead is, the more acidity it can support. The higher a mead is in tannins, the lower its acidity should be. The combination of high acid and high tannins make for the hardest and most astringent meads, particularly if sweetness is low.
Alcohol (and some honey varieties and some adjuncts) can add bitterness. Bitterness balances sweetness. Low sweetness in the presence of higher alcohol will make the mead seem bitter. High sweetness and low alcohol will make the mead seem cloying. Adding honey/sweetness reduces perceived sourness, bitterness and saltiness.
Higher carbonation adds carbonic acid to the mead, which gives a “bite” to the finish and can help balance sweetness. Higher carbonation can also balance higher body, making the mead seem lighter.
Tannins make mead seem drier, so take that into account when balancing acidity and tannin in the context of overall sweetness. While it may seem like tannin and acidity can be interchanged, acidity doesn’t make a wine seem dry. Both can balance sweetness but tannin can begin to change the impression of sweetness
Alcohol also balances the structural elements of mead (acidity and tannin). Too little alcohol will cause the acidity and astringency to dominate, making the mead harsh and thin. Too little acid and astringency will cause the mead to taste overly soft, heavy and flabby, with the spirit quality of the alcohol playing too much of a role. Mead tolerates acidity better when the alcohol content is higher. A considerable amount of tannin is more acceptable if acidity is low and alcohol is high.
Finally, remember that serving temperature can play a role in balance. In beer, a cold serving temperature suppresses malt and makes the beer seem more bitter. In mead, low serving temperatures make tannins seem much more apparent while suppressing the honey flavors. Lower temperatures make mead seem a bit less acidic. Higher serving temperatures will make alcohol more apparent. So sometimes balance can be achieved simply by manipulating serving temperature.