After centuries of taking a back seat to wine and beer, the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage is now the fastest growing fermented drink in the United States.
Sweet tasting mead is gaining a following as local brewers are showing what they can do with fermenting honey (not grapes as used in wine, or barley as used in beer) and water to make drinks that range from sweet to tangy to fruity. The beauty of this beverage that’s often (mistakenly) called honey-wine is that it can be made into innumerable flavorful concoctions – right from your own kitchen.
Making Your Own Mead is a new book from Fox Chapel Publishing, shows the simple techniques to make this complex alcoholic beverage, and advises on everything from the best types of honey and equipment to use to the proper glassware to serve it. Before details on fermentation and bottling gets mentioned, this quick reading paperback tells the history of mead from ancient Nordic and Greek times and its historical significance in many cultures. You’ll be getting a thirst for mead before the first recipes are even dissected.
The book by Bryan Acton and Peter Duncan, updates Making Mead which the duo first published in 1968, after decades making the honey wine in Europe and Canada. Contributor Dan Vallish, who has been making mead since 1984 and runs a homebrew store in Georgia, expounds on the techniques and recipes to give a fresh look at alcoholic drink.
Even if you’ve never heard of or tasted mead, the book will ignite your taste buds and senses and help lift it out of the shadows of beer and wine. Mead is making a comeback with meaderies opening around the country much in the way small craft breweries revolutionized beer making in the early 2000s, allowing customers to drink a locally made product in a host of veritable styles.
The first step in making mead is mixing honey and water. That mixture is then combined with yeast and allowed to ferment. After a few weeks, a spice or flavor can also be added. Sounds simple, but the entire process tends to take between two and three months, and there are subtleties to the techniques.
Mead can range in strength from 7% ABV to 22% ABV. It can be light or dark colored and result in a range of flavors. Depending on fermentation techniques, any myriad of ingredients can be added in the process ranging from grapes to herbs to coffee. It can be more expensive to make than beer but cheaper to produce than most wines.
When I first mentioned I was reviewing a book on mead to a friend, her first remark was its connection to the word “honeymoon.” Indeed, that story is told in the first chapter of Making Your Own Mead. The authors explains the term “honeymoon” comes from the practice of drinking honey wine during wedding celebrations in ancient times – which were known to last about a month. What is less known is how in some parts of the world, it was customary to send the bride off and have the bridegroom drink up with mead until he could barely stand. At this point, he would be sent to bed alongside his bride and it was believed that they would conceive a child that very night. In another folklore section, the authors highlight how the Greeks and Romans both believed mead had powerful aphrodisiac properties. While the authors find no scientific proof behind this theory, they do not belittle the idea, either.
While mead was heavily consumed from ancient Greek times through the early 18th century, it fell out of favor alongside honey itself with the development of giant sugar plantations in the West Indies that brought the price of sugar way down in Europe and elsewhere. As malt-based beer became cheaper to make and its flavor differed little from low alcohol meads, consumers voted with their feet and wallets. Some wine-type meads luckily survived, which helped the drink survive in a sleepy state until its sudden revival.
Like any beverage, when mead is made with fruit and spices added as flavorings, it is called by different names, including melomel, metheglin, pyment, cyser and a variety of others. The authors clearly explain the vocabulary and the temperatures at which meads should be tasted, as well as the best types of glasses to serve it in.
Any instruction book about mead has to devote ample time to its core ingredient: honey. And this book does that in explaining the differences between store bought and farm honey and lighter versus darker colored. “One of the keys to making the best mead possible is selecting the best honey you can find,” the book says. “You really do get what you pay for.”
While the cookbook does well at giving home brewers a wide choice of meads to make, it could have done more to explain the recent renaissance of the beverage. About 400 meaderies exist in the United States with a new one opening every three days, according to the American Mead Makers Association. But perhaps that’s a story for another book.
The core of Making Your Own Mead is its explicit directions, including helpful pictures that show the equipment (which can be purchased at any homebrewer store) and the steps to prepare and turn honey and water (and a few other ingredients such as yeast and grape tannin) into mead. The authors carefully explain everything from type of yeast to employ to fermenting to bottling techniques. Then the authors lay out 43 different meads recipes from dry mead, to sweet mead to mead with peaches and pineapple and grapefruit. There’s also mead drinks served hot or mulled including the Honey Bishop and Boswell. Several of the mead recipes will have a taste similar to wine, while others make it seem closer to an ale.
As with all good things, making a good mead takes patience. The fermentation and aging process can take from a few weeks to a couple years.
Overall, Making Your Own Mead is a great introduction to mead and will leave you hooked on wanting to explore this age-old beverage that’s suddenly hot again. How sweet is that?