Over the past few months, I’ve decided that my tea total ways needed some loosening. It is downright embarrassing to be out with a bunch of friends and have no idea what to order other than college standbys like rum and Coke. So I’ve been on a mission to explore alcohol, primarily wines and scotches. This mission also led me to stock up on an assortment of meads for circle. Because what is more stereotypically pagan than mead in your ritual cup?
Well those explorations have taught me that I dearly love mead. It also exposed me to a ton of rather confusing new vocabulary. So I thought I’d share my learnings a) so I can archive my own notes in case I forget in the future and b) to shorten the learning curve of anyone else interested in drinking more mead.
If you’re in the pagan world, you’ve probably already heard about mead and probably know that it is a wine-like alcoholic beverage made from honey. And you may have even tried some before. But if you have tried one mead…you have tried one mead. The various brewers make all sorts of styles ranging from the intensely sweet, intensely fruity varieties to styles so dry and metallic, you might think you’ve licked a cast iron pan. The world of mead is far more like the world of craft beer: it is one that thrives on exploration, for there is so much variety that there truly is a mead for every taste.
Part of the variety is due to honey varietals. Just like pinot noir grapes make a very different wine than merlot grapes, so too does orange blossom honey make a different mead than clover. Or blueberry. Or goldenrod. Or buckwheat. Or fill in your favorite plant here. If you ever have a chance to visit an apiary, they will probably have dozens of varietals for you to try, and you’ll very quickly see that the taste of the flower has a huge impact on the taste of the honey. (By the way, if you ever have a chance to try goldenrod honey, jump on it. That is phenomenal stuff.) Another part of the variety is the alcohol and carbonation levels. In general, still meads (no carbonation) drink more like a wine. They tend to be a little drier and much more alcoholic (12% or more). Session meads (some carbonation), on the other hand, drink more like a beer. They are usually a little lighter tasting due to the carbonation, and they are sweeter and smoother due to the lower alcohol concentration (generally 6 percent or higher). Rules of course can be broken, and it is possible to find low-alcohol stills and high alcohol sessions.
Meads also have other categories beyond still and session. Some of these categories tell a bit about the proportions of the three major ingredients in mead: honey, water, and yeast. Traditional or show meads typically use between 3 and 4 pounds of honey for every gallon of water. Great mead or sack mead has a higher ratio of honey, typically 5 pounds or more per gallon, and yields a sweet, dessert wine. Great meads are designed to be aged for several years, as a whisky or wine might be. Hydromels, in contrast, are ‘fast drinkers’ and can use as little as 1 pound of honey per gallon of water, though they will frequently be between 2-3 pounds. All of these can be made with honey alone, and therefore their unique tastes will be due to the honey. If using a unique ‘single varietal’ honey, sticking with a plain traditional, great, or hydromel would be the best choice.
However, meads are frequently flavored with other things, and additional vocabulary tells you what the flavorings are. Melomels add fruit to the traditional mix. A blueberry melomel made with blueberries will definitely taste like the blueberries you eat, but a blueberry traditional will actually be made from blueberry honey and will therefore have the anise and ginger notes of that honey rather than the berry notes of the fruit. There are certain sub-categories of melomels, the two most important being pyments, which use wine grapes and are therefore sort of a cross between a standard wine and a mead, and cysers, which use fresh-pressed apple or pear cider and are therefore sort of a cross between a hard cider and a mead.
Methegens, in contrast, rely on spices or herbs to bring additional flavor to the standard honey/water/yeast blend. If you wanted a traditional mead to have cinnamon notes, you would have to use a honey like star thistle that has some of these notes present, and even then they would be subtle. If you wanted the cinnamon to be prominent, you would add it as a methegen flavoring. As with melomels, methegens have some subcategories, but the most important one is the blossomel, which will use dried flowers to further flavor the mead. Lavender and jasmine can be especially delicious, and hops have become very popular as of late. Rose has been used since the time of the Romans and even has its own special name, rhodomel.
Finally, there’s a collection of names for meads that get additional sugars from non-fruit sources. The most common world wide is the braggot, where grain is infused into water as in the first steps of making a beer. The grain sugars can give braggots a malty taste. In North America, the most natural pairing is maple syrup with the honey to make an acerglyn or acer. The honey could even be heated and the Maillard reactions of caramelizing the sugars would form the complex, sweet flavor compounds that characterize the bochet.
There are plenty of other ‘mead words’, particularly for meads made in non-Anglophone countries. But if you’re a mead drinker in North America, this is most of the terminology you’re likely to encounter at your local meadery.