9/06/2007

I Want Neil Gaiman to Drink my Mead.

It's been with us, humans, since the beginning. It's mentioned in hundreds of myths and legends from around the world. In more modern times it has spawned a cottage industry, been the subject of some legal contention in my state and has even been mentioned in the works of acclaimed urban fantasy author Neil Gaiman. It is, in fact, the root of the word 'honeymoon.'

Mead, the drink of the Norse Gods, the libation of choice for kings and commoners through classical and medieval times. It's delicious. It's intoxicating and, infuriatingly enough, nobody seems to know what it is.

I brew my own mead at home. Most home brewers make beer or wine but I decided, from the moment I took up the hobby, that I was going to make mead, partly because so few other people made it and partly because it was not commercially available in Georgia at the time. In the intervening decade I have produced hundreds of gallons of the stuff that, like most home brews, ranges from the disgusting to the sublime. I have tweaked, experimented, studied, conversed and otherwise just set about making this stuff with the reckless abandon of a child with a new toy. I find it hugely fulfilling and a number of people have come to know me simply as the Mead Guy.

What amazes me is that, despite bringing it to parties, family gatherings, conventions and even a couple of professional mixers, despite mead being mentioned in a handful of major market films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The 13th Warrior, most people don't have the barest understanding of what mead is. "Is it like wine or is it like beer?" They ask.

"Well, it can be like either, depending on how you make it but really, it's its own thing." I always reply before being subjected to a barrage of questions that indicate my interrogator had probably never even heard of mead until I walked up to them and said, "Try this."

This past weekend I had the privilege, quite by accident, of speaking at a Dragon*Con panel on brewing and the chemistry of fermentation. The audience was lively but, despite being full of brewing enthusiasts, seemed to lack a concrete understanding of mead, what it is and how it's made. As a result of that, I promised to post a series about the brewing of my favorite beverage. I start today with a primer on mead, itself. I aim to explain what mead really is, what it isn't and to dispel some myths about it. Here we go.

First, mead is the fermentation of honey. Honey, which because of its high viscosity does not ferment on its own, is blended with some other liquid, usually water or juice, and is then fed to yeast. Over the next few weeks or months, the yeast metabolize the sugar in the honey and the nutrients in the juice. The byproduct is alcohol. Eventually the yeast die off and sink to the bottom. The mead is drained off the sediment, bottled and enjoyed. While this is a vast oversimplification, the actual process can be anywhere from ten to two hundred steps depending on the recipe, all mead making follows approximately this flow.

Mead is not wine and mead is not beer. While there are some grape infused meads, usually called pyment, which would technically be a wine and there are some recipes that call for roasted hops, which might technically be called beer, mead is really its own thing. It's not beer, it's not wine, it's not malt beverage, it is in a separate category of fermentable all its own.

The process of brewing mead most closely resembles that of wine and, like wine, mead has a wide continuum of potential flavors. People often ask, "It's made from honey, so is it sweet?" It can be sweet, very sweet or it can be dryer that the dryest white wine. It can have a sharp, tart flavor, or it can be smooth and easy drinking. Mead is every bit as complex and refined as the most robust wines or beers and is worthy of the same degree of examination and critical enjoyment. Dozens of factors enter into the flavor profile of a batch of mead so any single description of the flavor, texture, color, or experience is pretty much useless.

There is more than one kind of mead, dozens of varieties, in fact. Meads are classified based on the infusing agent into which the honey is mixed before fermentation. True mead, often spelled meade to differentiate it from other kinds, is simply a blend of honey and water. It generally has a delicate, thin flavor akin to a very light white wine. Cyser is made with apple and honey while melomel is made from honey and a sweet fruit like grapes or berries. Metheglin is spiced mead. Sack is mead made with a large quotient of honey, meant to be thick and extremely sweet. It's important to remember that these categories are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. It is very possible to make a cyser-metheglin-sack. There are even sparkling meads that resemble champagne.

Finally, mead is difficult to find commercially. Most honey is produced locally and in fairly small quantities. The quality and character of honeys can very greatly even in the same locale. Honey is extremely heavy, expensive and difficult to harvest and transport. There is a mathematics, a certain predictability in the making of wine or beer that has been easily understood for centuries. Mead, on the other hand, is less deterministic. Potency, time in fermentation, yield loss, sedimentation and a number of other factors vary greatly even between ostensibly identical batches, making the profitability of commercial mead production hugely indeterminate. Additionally, because most people in the US don't even really know what mead is, there's not much of a market for it here so no large enterprise is going to want to take on the risk of producing a complicated, expensive, unpredictable product that might never be sold.

This suits me just fine, of course. I am perfectly happy making it at home, drinking what I make and giving away the rest, knowing that I do something pretty unique that brightens the lives of others.

All that having been said, I will be posting a series about the brewing and enjoyment of mead. If you have any questions, feel free to post a comment or to email me at icarusannolds at hotmail dot com . We will begin in the next few days with an overview of brewing equipment.

Thanks to everyone who came to the panel this weekend and tolerated me pontificating about one of my favorite subjects.

3 comments:

John said...

Dude, this is an awesome post. Let me tell you why.

1. I stumbled on your post by accident on Patrick Hughes site.

2. You love, and brew, mead.

3. When you talk about mead, people often assume you're talking about something Medieval or Monty Python-esque. Hardly.

4. My best friend picked peaches in season, mixed them with fresh honey, and brewed mead for my wedding back in 1998. And while several people enjoyed the textural buzz from it, few appreciated what went into his careful brewing. It was his gift to us and it was glorious. We supped it for our wedding toast, and we've been connected ever since.

So, bless you and your Mead Brewing -- at least now you know there's one soul out here who appreciates the craft and beauty of it.

Keep it up!
Best my may == L Man

Jod{i} said...

This is quite coincidentally great! Being an avid reader of historical fiction..mainly of medieval days...I have often wondered...and in my own writings, stories..and prep for a new script just the other day I wrote a side note to find out more about mead...were you reading my notes?

And to answer your question of a week ago(yep a bit behind I am) some of the artwork is mine...not all.

Rich said...

I just sent you an e-mail, but thought I'd pop in here, too.

I was in the Dragon*Con audience (the guy who knew the origin of the word "Honeymoon"), and tasting your wares got me interested in running some diluted honey through my long-neglected homebrew equipment!

Thanks!

-Rich