The craft beer industry often hyper-focuses on the latest trends -- hazy New England IPAs, dry-hopped DIPAs, massive barrel-aged stouts, or wild sours. A flood of new styles fill up pint glasses every couple years and become the new, new thing. Look closer, and you’ll notice each new trend is actually a blend of new innovation with a historic lineage. But as far back as beer styles stretch into the past, it all pales in comparison to the oldest known alcoholic beverage: mead.
Mead takes the cake for being the granddaddy of all alcohol, with its first roots some 20,000 years ago in Africa as a naturally-occurring process without human assistance. Mead pre-dates the use of cereal grains in fermentation, which is an essential component to making beer (a mere 7,000-year-old practice by comparison). The primary ingredient in mead is honey, which supplies the flavor, color, and sugars necessary for the transformation from a benign (yet deliciously-sweet) liquid into an alcohol-packed, buzz-inducing nectar.
Another gift from the bees
The first evidence of mead is traced to the central African woodlands, where high concentrations of bees and weather patterns contributed to the natural fermentation of the fresh, sweet honey. As Dr. Garth Cambray of South Africa’s Makana Meadery describes it, "This region has its honey flow prior to the torrential spring rains, and hence, wild hives fill up holes in baobabs (e.g. a species of tree) and anything else they can find. Then, the spring rains come. They’re submerged and ferment naturally into mead. San bushmen (the “oldest inhabitants of Africa”) climb up these trees and drink this gift from the ancestors, as they view it."
The lucky bushmen who happened upon this discovery were indulging in the yet another of the delightful spoils from the hard-working bees, not knowing that long before yeast was discovered and used to create bread and beer, they were witnessing the work of wild yeast from flower pollen. Leave it to our friends the bees to provide us with another of nature’s candies.
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Think of mead as wine's cousin
Mead is quite a simple drink, requiring only honey, water, and yeast for production. It can fall within a wide range of alcohol volumes (anywhere from 3% - 20% ABV), depending on the concentration, yeast type, and other ingredients used. While it is sometimes referred to honey wine, there is actually a difference between the two. The most traditional mead has no fruit, spices, or herbs. However, variations on mead can consist of a honey base, with those types of ingredients added in for flavor. Honey wine utilizes a fruit base, with honey added for sweetness and extra sugars for fermentation.
While mead originated in Africa, its influence stretched across the globe, from the warrior Vikings clans in the north, to the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Chinese, among others. Depending on the region, mead can take many different characteristics. Over the years, the different cultures developed their own variations of mead with additives that were locally available, and with bees on every continent except Antarctica, mead can be found anywhere. From tree bark to berries, chili peppers, nuts and spices -- a culture around the world has surely added it to mead.
According to Miranda Johnson, Sales & Marketing Director for Ferndale, Michigan’s B. Nektar Meadery, “The most common misconception [about modern mead] is that it’s defined by Medieval origins, and they’re all sweet and syrupy. While meads like that do exist, there’s a world of variations. They can either be sweet, semi-sweet, dry or semi-dry, and can have either a still or sparkling consistency.”
A modern take on an ancient libation
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Being that the primary ingredient in traditional mead is honey, there can be drastically different flavors coaxed from the delicious golden elixir by changing the flower the nectar is sourced from. Orange blossom honey is one of the most popular, which produces light, citrusy, and floral characteristics in the mead. Clover blossom honey is a close second, which tends to have more of a spiced composure, while apple blossom, wildflower, alfalfa, blackberry, and many other varieties each impart unique flavors of their own.
While the history of mead stretches back farther than any other alcoholic beverage, it’s not nearly as popular as younger options such as wine, beer, or even cider. Marty Bargetto of Soquel, California, meadery Chaucer’s notes that “many craft consumers have never heard of mead.” And if they have, their opinion might need educating. “Those who know of the category have the notion that mead is only sweet in style and has only earthiness in flavor profile.” This is a recurring theme for the uninitiated, which is one of the biggest difficulties facing the mead industry. Educating craft consumers about the history, variations, and intricacies of mead is one of the keys to building up a more mainstream following from both wine and beer drinkers alike.
As with the beer community, craft meaderies are often split in two camps -- the purist, traditional interpreters, and those that push the envelope with innovative flavor profiles and ingredients. Some of those innovations are the result of the adoption of hops into the mix, which can help bring regular beer drinkers on board who might be hesitant to venture into mead country. While some may have strong feelings one way or another (much in the way one might have about Bavarian/Czech pilsners or Belgian variations), both styles are integral to the growing popularity of the beverage.
Whether you’ve heard of mead before and never taken the plunge, or never knew honey could get any better, take a chance and dip your toe into the mead pool. The diverse spectrum of flavors is virtually never-ending, and new taste dynamics come into play when drinking cold, slightly chilled, heated, or even with added mulling spices. Explore the very first “nectar of the Gods" with these four meads we quite enjoy.
Chaucer’s Traditional Mead
10.5% ABV (Soquel, CA)
This meadery has been pumping out the ancient sauce since the 1960’s, and has gotten pretty good at it. Their traditional offering is made from orange blossom, alfalfa, and sage honeys for a bright golden straw-colored pour. The orange blossom honey brings some floral sweetness, which is complemented by a slightly herbal note from the other honeys. This is one of the sweeter meads I’ve tasted, and reminds me of a dessert wine like a Moscato or Riesling. Chaucer’s suggests trying it either chilled or heated with mulling spices (like cinnamon, orange zest, apple cider, and clove) for a nice winter warmer.
B. Nektar NecroMangoCon
6% ABV (Ferndale, MI)
B. Nektar is one of the meaderies shaking things up in a big way, with wild fruit and spice potions plastered with some great label art. Their fun, edgy take on this old beverage pushes the boundaries of what mead can be. Their NecroMangoCon is a mango-blasted honey booze, with extreme floral and orange blossom notes on the nose, which carry through on the tongue. On the palate, a deep tropical fruity honey-sweetness, which rounds off with a nice black pepper finish. Meanwhile, a lively effervescence allows the flavors to pop on the tongue for an overall well-crafted beverage.
Redstone Meadery Traditional Mountain Honey Wine
12% ABV (Boulder, CO)
Redstone Meadery is located a stone’s throw from the charming mountain town for which the establishment is named, and the pristine Colorado mountain water still makes its way into every batch they ferment. A traditional mead, this brilliant, deep golden liquid relies strictly on honey for flavor -- you get to choose between orange blossom and wildflower. Redstone opts for Montrachet wine yeast, with the end result being an incredibly delicious and drinkable (yet potent!) concoction. Medium sweetness, bright citrus tanginess, and a clean finish with lingering warmth characterize this delightfully smooth sipper.
B. Nektar Black Fang
6% ABV (Ferndale, MI)
Another delicious mead from B. Nektar, Black Fang pours a brilliant, deep blood-red with a pink head. The ominous appearance belies the extremely approachable blend of honey, blackberry, orange zest, and clove that’s incredibly balanced and berry-dominant. The medium sweetness and lingering zest/clove combination make for intriguingly juicy mead notes, which B. Nektar says are “reminiscent of Spanish sangria and Garnacha grape wine.”