The first major decision you need to make in brewing mead:
Which varietal of honey should I use?.
While most people tend to think of honey as a simple thing, it's thick, golden, good in tea and shaped like a teddy bear, there's really much more to it. It comes in many varieties, varies greatly in quality and price and, along with your choice of adjunct, has a huge influence on the character of your final product. We've all eaten honey and we all know that it comes from bees but few people have a concrete understanding of what's really involved.
Honey is the sole item in a beehive's pantry, the store of food that the hive will use to weather the bulk of the year when bee-appropriate food is scarce. Bees consume the sugar-rich nectar of flowering plants, partially metabolize it and combine it with other organic compounds whilst ridding it of most of its water. This reduced sugar substance is produced by a specialized part of the bees' digestive systems and then regurgitated into the cells of the honeycomb for later consumption.
Chemically speaking, honey is a melange of simple and complex sugars, inert lipids - wax, water and a tiny percentage of aromatic compounds leftover from the harvesting of the nectar. It varies greatly in terms of color, viscosity and flavor.
A variety of honey is defined by the flowering plants from which the bees harvest nectar. Varietal honeys, sometimes called monoflorals, are produced from a single flowering plant. Most commercial apiaries are in the business of pollination-for-hire, using their bees to foster the growth of large swaths of domesticated cropland and thus the bees in their hives have access to only one kind of nectar. The honey is usually a byproduct, and extra bonus for the beekeeper. Orange blossom and tupelo honey are common in the southeast, where I live. Clover honey is widely available in Canada. Avocado honey is common in California and evergreen honeys are common in Greece. Cherry and apple blossom honeys are easy to find in the UK.
One common misconception is that, because most honeys are made from flowering plants that humans eat, that the honey somehow resembles the food that shares its name. This is incorrect. Monofloral honey will take some of its properties, mostly aroma and initial sweetness, from the flower from which the nectar was harvested. Only rarely do the flower and the edible parts of the plant share noticeable characteristics. Orange blossom honey tastes like a citrus orchard, not like a citrus fruit. Cherry blossom honey tastes like Washington DC in springtime, not like grenadine. Keep this in mind when both when setting expectations about your finished product as well as when buying honey, else you might shy away from distinctive honeys like buckwheat, fireweed and mesquite.
Note, 'wildflower' is not really a varietal in the same manner as those listed above. Honey is usually labeled wildflower if its constituent nectars have multiple sources or if the feeding area of the bees has not been determined. This is the most common and least expensive form of honey on the US market and for this reason it will probably be what you use for your first brewing experiments. Wildflower honey's main advantage is that, in a given area, it is usually consistent from year to year. Because it is simply a blend of local nectars it can vary greatly from region to region so be aware of where your wildflower honey originates.
Go out and sample several kinds of locally available honey. Taste them as you would taste wine, examining them critically, noting color and thickness. Take a tip of a spoon's worth and notice how it tastes initially and how that taste changes as it sits in your mouth. Examine the aftertaste. Breathe deeply while you do this and pay attention to the aromatics as this is the most noticeable quality that a particular honey will impart to a finished mead. Do this several times, clearing your palate between each. Most of that distinct, sugary, sweetness will ferment away. The more complex sweetness that comes later as well as the wax's bitterness and the semi-burnt ash flavor that resides deeply hidden in many varietals will remain, in varying degrees, in the finished beverage. Also note the color; this will translate into the color of the mead along with your adjuncts.
That having been said, if you're not yet a mead aficionado, you'll probably be fine with your local wildflower blend. It's much less expensive than monoflorals and will still produce a delicious and intoxicating brew. You can probably worry about the finer details in a later batch. Also, be aware of what adjuncts, and how much of them, you plan on using in advance. If you're making a pyment with merlot grapes, the tannins of the finished product may overpower many of the aspects of the honey, in which case varietal is not so important. Contrawise, if you were to make a pyment with pino grigio grapes, the honey's flavor and aroma are going to have a distinctive effect on the mead.
I'll say this a lot; the most important thing is - what do you like? Find the honey that tastes best or is the easiest to work with or the most consistent in your area or even the cheapest as long as it suits your taste.
Join me next time as I discuss where and how to buy honey for brewing. It's not so simple as going to the grocery, as you'll see.