The ancient Greeks drank it. The Norse gods supposedly drank it. Ancient civilisations in Asia, Europe, Africa, and America drank it.
Mead is arguably THE oldest alcoholic beverage in the world, and no matter where you are from, there is a high chance that your ancestors were drinking mead, said Jeff Herbert of Superstition Meadery in the United States.
“From Asia to Europe to Africa, mead is known as the oldest fermented beverage. Mead is intertwined with history, religion and mythology, so one can drink with their ancestors and enjoying mead becomes an experience!” he said in an email interview.
However, although mead has a long, long history, it has fallen far, far behind beer and other beverages in these modern times. But that’s changing though. According to the American Mead Makers Association, there used to be only 30 commercial meaderies in the US, but that has increased to about 300 in 2016.
It’s a boom likened to that of craft beer in the 1990s, and Superstition Meadery is one of the meaderies at the forefront of this growing industry.
All the same, Herbert said that a majority of people have never heard of mead, so a lot of education is still needed to grow the industry. “We usually start by telling new customers that mead is a wine made from honey. This seems to set a point of reference, and this is quite legally accurate,” he says.
Although many have associated meads with the craft beer category, there is actually a difference between a mead and a beer. In fact, mead has more in common with wine than with beer.
“In the US, a winery is only allowed to use fruits, sugars, herbs and spices, with no cereal grains in their products. This is in contrast to a brewery that is required to use cereal grains in their products,” said Herbert. “A winery may not make a beer, but a brewery can make a style of mead known as a braggot, which is a beer or mead where about 20-50% of the fermentable sugars derive from honey, and the rest from malted barley or other grains.”
“The real difference is that most of the alcohol in beer comes from grains and most of the alcohol in mead comes from honey. And we don’t have to heat mead as you do when converting grains to fermentable sugars or boiling wort in brewing.”
For modern mead makers like Herbert, it is more important that mead is recognised as a contemporary craft beverage, one that offers a greater range of flavours and styles, complexity and ingredients of any beverage category.
“Mead can be dry, semi-sweet or sweet, still or sparkling, served fresh or aged in a barrel for years. Sometimes mead is cold, carbonated and hopped like an IPA, sparkling and dry like a champagne, or decadent and sweet like a port. You can ferment or blend mead with wine grapes or cider apples … as long as honey is the primary source of fermentable sugars, it is considered a mead,” he explained.
Because it is made with honey, you would think that mead would taste overpoweringly sweet and honey-like. But Herbert says that this is not the case with all meads. “One of the most common misconceptions about mead is that because it is made from honey, it has to be sweet. If you have ever made wine or beer, you’d know that wort and grape juice is sweet, but that doesn’t mean that beer or wine is sweet,” he said, adding that a traditional mead is made only with honey, water and yeast, and can be fermented or back-sweetened to any level of sweetness.
“A sweet traditional mead will smell and taste like it was made entirely with honey. However, honey can be fermented bone dry. As an example, a lower alcohol by volume (ABV) session mead that is dried out and flavoured significantly with fruit juice may have very little honey character.”
Herbert cited industry research that shows that over half of all mead is a sort of a melomel, which is a mead made with fruit.
“This type of mead will bear the quality of the wine grapes, raspberries, blueberries or whatever fruit the mead is fermented or blended with. Another type of mead is a metheglyn, or mead made with herbs or spices,” he added.
Located at Prescott, Arizona, Superstition Meadery was founded by Herbert and his wife Jennifer, who first started brewing mead in 2012. Herbert reckoned that Superstition has made over 85 different products in its four years of existence, including a barrel-aged dry blackberry cacao mead, a sweet Ironwood honey varietal mead, and even a Belgian dark strong mead aged on red Hatch Valley chilies, coffee and cinnamon.
The fact that they have done so many different styles of mead debunks another common misconception – that mead is one-dimensional and simple.
“Every honey is expressive of the terroir of the land and season just as with wine grapes. The different styles and techniques of the mead maker combined with the vast array of ingredients available make mead very complex. When you take the highest quality ingredients and pair them with proper technique and quite often, barrel-ageing, you can produce a craft beverage of the highest level of distinction,” he said.
“We continue to innovate on a weekly basis with bench trials, small batches and new combinations of ingredients. Our most famous meads are the White Series, which include four different barrel aged meads made with one of four juices and white chocolate.”
While most of their products are currently sold only in the US, Superstition does export limited quantities of their mead to countries like Denmark, Thailand, Japan, and even Singapore. Herbert says that he would love to try bringing his mead into Malaysia as well, adding that he had visited the country before, almost 10 years ago.
For now, however, he is focusing on helping the mead industry to grow and getting more people to give mead a try. “I think that with mead our greatest challenges are also our greatest opportunities. The industry and concept and products are still emerging compared to existing craft beverage categories,” he says.
“In a certain sense no one knows what we do, who we are or what we make. But once they find out the stories behind mead and mead makers, and drink delicious meads, we have made a lifelong customer that wants others to experience what they have.”
Michael Cheang wishes he could get mead in Malaysia, just so he can yell “MORE MEAD!” every time his glass is empty. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page.