A Brief History of Mead
Mead, made primarily of fermented honey, is one of the oldest fermented beverages known to man. Ordinarily highly resistant to spoilage because of its high sugar content, honey is easily fermentable when diluted with water. The first meads were likely discovered serendipitously as honey, diluted by rainwater, was fermented spontaneously by naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria in the honey. The ancients probably enjoyed the effects of the alcohol in the mead and discovered that it could be replicated by mixing pure honey with water and letting it sit for a time in a warm environment. Eventually, they added fruits, herbs and spices for flavoring or medicinal purposes. A mead made with spices and herbs is called a metheglin.
Choosing the Ingredients
While your choice of honey may be limited by local availability, a varietal honey, derived from a predominant flower, offers the best selection of flavors. As in cooking, where spices and ingredients of equal strength should be paired to prevent an imbalance in flavor, strongly flavored honeys should be selected to accompany strong spices. Generally, the darker the honey, the stronger the flavor. For varietal honeys, the pungency of the flowers visited by the bees often expresses itself in the honey’s flavor. Examples of stronger honeys include avocado, mesquite, and buckwheat. Lighter, subtler honeys include tupelo, clover and sage.
Any spice or herb used in cooking can be used in a metheglin. Spices and herbs can be combined in familiar combinations to evoke various regional or national flavor profiles or to make a mead designed to accompany specific meals. Basil and oregano can be combined to produce a metheglin designed for Italian food. Mint and ginger can provide refreshing flavors when consumed chilled on a hot afternoon. Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves can be used for holiday meads. The combination of herbs and spices is limited only by the meadmaker’s imagination.
In addition to well-known spices and herbs, flowers can also be used for flavoring a metheglin. When using flowers, always ensure that you use edible flowers as some flowers can contain poisonous compounds. Common flowers such as rose, jasmine and lavender can be used to provide intriguing flavors and aromas. When using flowers, one technique is to steep the petals in a 3:1 mixture of water and vodka. The water and alcohol leach the flavor and aroma compounds out of the petals, while the alcohol also kills any wild yeasts and bacteria that might contribute off-flavors to the mead. The infusion can then be added to the mead without the need for boiling, which might eliminate subtle aromas from the flowers.
While the ancients had a hit-and-miss approach to fermenting, relying on naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria, a number of cultured yeasts are available to the modern meadmaker. While any brewing yeast can be used, many yeast companies now offer specialized yeast strains for mead which are designed to enhance the subtle flavor profile of most honeys. This is advantageous when making a metheglin as it allows the sweet honey flavor of the mead to better compliment the spice palate selected for flavoring the metheglin.
Making the Mead
To make approximately seven gallons of mead, begin with 10 pounds of honey and mix with water to make approximately seven-and-a-half gallons of liquid. You may need to use two pots to accomplish this. Bring the liquid to a gentle boil and reduce the liquid until almost seven gallons of liquid remain. Add your selection of spices, and allow the mixture to boil for another 10 to 15 minutes. Then cool the unfermented mead, called the “must,” to room temperature, add the yeast, and allow two to three weeks for the must to ferment to completion. Bottle the mead–adding corn sugar and waiting two additional weeks if you would like a sparkling mead–and enjoy at your leisure. Happy meadmaking!