Mead is a classic fermented beverage with a long history. Ancient text and drawings, some dating back as far as 4000 BC, mention both wine and mead. Several Biblical writings describe this wonderful drink, as do many Roman and Egyptian texts. The first detailed mead recipes began appearing in the early 1500’s and make reference to these ancient texts.
Originally mead was made by fermenting honey and water with wild yeasts. Over time, many variations were invented. Some recipes add spices and some add fruit, while other recipes even call for adding grape juice! Each of these variations have taken on different names over the years such as Melomel, Metheglin, Pyment and Cyser but the foundation of these fermented beverages still remains sweet honey. Mead-making offers endless possibilities, giving Batch 1 Brewing a new arsenal of tools to use in the quest for making wonderful fermented beverages. Mead can be fermented as either wine or beer. When fermenting it with malt, and at a lower original gravity, with the final beverage resembling and tasting much like ale. We also increase the starting sugars and ferment it so the resulting beverage has alcohol levels that resemble wine. Malt will be the primary determining factor in the final flavor; by adding it to our mead, the finished drink will resemble beer more than wine.
Where does honey come from?
As everyone knows, honey is produced by bees. The Latin name for honey bees is Apis Mellifera, which means “honey carrier.” The various flavors of honey, which include Orange Blossom, Wildflower and Clover, are the result of the different nectars collected by a hive of bees in a particular year.
The nectar collected by bees from various sources is primarily a complex combination of sucrose (cane sugar), dextrose (grape sugar or glucose) and fructose (fruit sugar). The nectar is stored in the bee’s “honey sac” and transported to the hive. Enzymes are added to the nectar inside the sac. The nectar is then delivered to the honeycomb, where the bees evaporate its moisture by fanning their wings. The nectar has now become honey, and the bees seal it into the comb with wax.
The composition of honey
The average composition of honey is water, amino acids and enzymes, dextrose, sucrose and fructose, minerals and organic acids. (Raw honey also contains pollen, wax and Propolis, a gummy substance that bees use to seal the honeycomb.
Under most circumstances the amounts or percentage of each of these compounds can vary substantially. The sugars tend to have the most consistent levels; they average 80 percent of total composition, with water content averaging 17 percent. The remaining three percent is comprised of minerals, vitamins, proteins and enzymes.
The amount of water contained in honey is critical to its quality and to its stability.
Average sugar content of honey
Fructose (d-fructose) 38.5%
Dextrose (d-glucose) 31.0%
Sucrose (table sugar) 1.5%
Other higher carbohydrates 4.2%
Different Types of Honey
Honey gets its flavor and consistency from the floral nectars on which the bees are foraging. North America has more than 300 floral sources for honey, and each nectar varies in the type of sugars, proteins, minerals and trace elements present. The small quantities of aromatic oils also differ between flowering plants. Honey falls into one of two categories, “monofloral” and “polyfloral.” The difference is whether the bees collected nectar from a single source or from different sources.
Not every kind of honey is good for making mead, so let’s look at some that are excellent:
Tupelo: This light, golden-amber table honey is prized because it does not crystallize. It has a very high fructose-to-glucose ratio of 44:30. It is made from the nectar of the greenish-white flowers of the Ogeechee lime tupelo trees, which grow only in the swamps of northern Florida and southern Georgia. Tupelo honey is rare and the most expensive in America.
Orange Blossom: This is the most aromatic of all honeys; it smells like an orange grove in full bloom. This honey comes from the citrus groves of southern California and Florida, orange blossom honey is exceptional. Other citrus honeys are often given this same name, though they may have come from a different citrus flower source.
Wild Buckwheat: This is a relatively dark honey, and the flavor is strong. Its flavor is often described as resembling malt, which explains its popularity with brewers. It is usually made from the wild buckwheat of Washington state, not the commercial buckwheat grown in the Northeast.
Clover: This is a light honey. The moisture levels tend to run on the high side, at about 18 percent, making clover honey a candidate for quick use. As with most of the lighter-flavored honeys, the ash content is low, as is the total acid content, which would contribute to a softer flavor profile. It’s a great choice for flavored meads, in which you may want less of the honey flavor and more of the fruit or spice in the upfront profile.
Mesquite: Mesquite honey is produced in the desert areas of Texas during the dry spring and summer months. Mesquite trees are ubiquitous in areas of Texas stretching from Austin southwest toward the Mexican border. The white flowers produce a light honey of delicate flavor.
Wildflower: Wildflower honey can be very unique, with special flavors. This depends mostly on the kind of flower the nectar was collected from. It can be notably different from region to region, because of the different plants and flowers that are indigenous to each area. Plants such as Wild Thyme, Bramble and Hawthorne are often sources of nectar for this honey.
Sage: This is a light-flavored honey with good aromatic qualities. Sage shrubs usually grow along the California coast and in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The color of sage honey is usually white or water-white. Like Tupelo, Sage has a higher fructose-to-glucose ratio and is extremely slow to crystallize. Other types of honey that are well worth it for our mead-making are also Fireweed, Blackberry Blossom and raspberry blossom. The names alone have a strong lure. I have made mead from orange blossom honey and Pumpkin honey (among other types), and highly recommend both of these meads for their aromatics and flavor (especially the orange blossom).
In addition, Batch 1 does not limit our batches to just one kind of honey. Blending several kinds of honey before fermentation can open up a lot of potential and gives us a chance to add color, flavor, aroma, complexity, and structure to a finished mead.
One thing worth noting is that the very best honey will be fresh and right out of the beehive with minimal filtering. Honey with the very least amount of processing will retain more of its flavors and aromatics. That is Batch 1 Brewing’s philosophy.
Variations In Mead
Just as there are variations and different type of honeys, there are different types of meads as well. Mead is pure honey and water fermented to create an alcoholic beverage. When you add other components, either for added sweetness, flavoring or aromatics, the mead takes on a different name. Here’s a guide to the types of mead.
Braggot: Mead with flavoring derived from malted grain.
Capsicumel: Honey with chili pepper.
Cyser: A sweet mead to which apple juice has been added.
Dry: These meads have no added flavoring and use about 2.5 pounds of honey per gallon of mead.
Hippocras: Mead to which grape juice and spices have been added.
Melomel: Also called Mulsum; mead to which fruit juices other than apple or grape have been added.
Metheglin: Mead to which herbs and spices have been added.
Morat: Mead to which mulberries have been added.
Pyment: Mead to which grape juice has been added.
Rhodamel: Mead with rose petals.