Given how uncommon it can be to find commercial meads (or honeywines) available, you may be wondering “will I like mead?”. It is definitely a rational concern before going through all the trouble of tracking down a local store that sells it, or even picking up some equipment to make your own. But have no fear, barring some alcohol allergy, it is very likely that you will find a variety of this honeywine that you enjoy.
If you’re not all that into sweet drinks, that’s not necessarily a deal breaker, either. Just because it’s made of honey, doesn’t necessarily mean that the drink is going to be sweet. Both beer and wine are fermented sugars as well, but they’re not necessarily always sweet, either. Although, I will disclaim that most commercial meads available are likely to be on the sweeter side door to this popular notion. But mead can be made to fall anywhere in the spectrum from bone dry to sickly sweet. And I have found a few commercial ones that don’t focus on having candy like level of sugar.
When it comes down to it. At the basest level, mead is going to taste like honey, but in a more liquid form. Even a dry traditional (just honey) will taste like the honey used to make it, just without the sweetness. Honey comes in a whole plethora of types. Just think for a moment about every kind of flowering plant in the world. These will have unique flavors that transfer into any honey made from their nectar. That’s a lot of variety right there without even getting into the additives.
The interesting thing about mead is that it provides a good base for a wide array of other flavors. Beers tend to have a smaller variety of flavor profiles that are either noticeable or complementary to it’s base. And wines are also limited by having their fruit flavor in the mix. The honey varietals’ characteristics can range from the very strong, to nearly nonexistent -essentially just sugar. This in turn allows a ton of flexibility for the mead makers to customize their brew. Fruits, berries, spices, herbs, even some vegetables or grains, or nuts can be used as flavoring to create a unique palette unachievable in the other drink categories. With all these different possibilities, there’s bound to be some combinations you would enjoy.
That’s so many choices
Don’t be overwhelmed by all the variety. I’ll try to separate things into categories that help give a sense of what they taste like and who would like them. Unfortunately, unlike wine which has specific names for certain flavor varieties that also come with a general sweet/dry ranking and a flat/carbonated expectation, Mead has a much less rigid categorization method. In fact, meads categories really only define what types of ingredients we’re used. A melomel, or a fruit or berry flavored mead can be sweet and flat, dry and bubbly or any mix of the two. So commercial meads’ names may not describe everything about them.
Wine drinkers will feel most at home with mead in comparison to others who prefer other types of drinks. Most meads are very wine-like. Especially the traditional (just honey). They are most similar to white wines, in both flavor and appearance. Next is the melomels. While possible to make these dry, they will still have that sense of sweet fruitiness even without the sugar content. A dry melomel will tend to have a considerably fainter fruit flavor, and likely to rely on tannin to give it more body and mouthfeel. These will most resemble a red wine. Semi-sweet and sweet meads have the sugar to enhance the fruit flavor and also give it some character. So those will be most similar to a blush or white wine. Of special interest to you wine drinkers may be the pyment. This is a subcategory of melomels, but is specifically using grapes as its fruit flavoring. Depending upon the type of grape and whether the skins are used or not will mimic their likeness to the red-white spectrum.
The different tastes of mead
Cyser (apple mead), while technically another subcategory of melomels, deserves special mention. These often can turn out very similar to hard ciders. But instead of being fully apple flavored, there will be that honey base behind it. Also, due to the higher sugar content of honey versus the corresponding volume of apple juice it is displacing, an apple mead is likely to be higher in alcohol content than pure cider. Depending on the yeast used in their creation, cysers can also fall into the white wine-esque category. The yeast that eat malic acid produce these, as malic acid gives apples, and also pears, their slightly sour/tart flavor. Without that crisp bite, an apple mead is a very smooth.
Metheglins are an odd one. Meads flavored with either herbs or spices can span all the flavors of the different spices available to us. Cinnamon, vanilla, and cloves are very commonly added to melomels, as well. So these naming categories aren’t even rigid, as you can have fruits, spices, grains, and honey all in one batch. But I think the best comparison we’re going to get for a metheglin is a mulled wine. When making your own, be careful, as it can be easy to overdo spices or herbs. Fresh versus dried, and whole or cut versus ground will have a huge impact on the speed and strength of the flavor imparted. Making tinctures is a common practice to help combat this. Soaking the spices or herbs in a high proof, relatively flavorless alcohol like vodka can get you a standard measurable strength of flavor. Adding a little bit of the tincture at a time until you find the sweet spot gives a much greater amount of control over the end result.
What if I’m not a big wine drinker?
Fear not, beer drinkers. Braggots are a mead that also makes use of grains, malt, and hops to make it much closer to what you are used to. In olden times these were actually made by mixing two different beverages together. Modern brewers tend to mix the ingredients together prior to fermentation, however. To be a true braggot, it still needs to be over 50% honey as the fermentable sugar. Otherwise it is just a beer with honey, which tastes mostly like beer.
Also I have found, oddly enough, capiscamel (pepper mead) can have a beer like character to them. With some added heat.
Next, we have the bochet. It is a beast all on its own. I’m not really sure what it can really be compared to. A bochet is a mead where the honey is first cooked or caramelized before adding it to the must. This will give it a nice toffee or butterscotch flavor. The longer it is cooked, the more pronounced these flavors get. This is the one is for those wanting that super sweet candy flavor.
Note: If you attempt to make one of these be very careful. Honey expands a lot when heated. And a boiling super sticky liquid is not unlike napalm in its difficulty to remove.
Similar to the bochet, is the acerglyn. This is a maple syrup mead. What could go better with a sweet viscous liquid than another sweet viscous liquid? Another one for the sweet tooth. You are unlikely to find any dry versions of this one, as maple syrup without the sweetness tastes very much like wood.
Hopefully this guide has given you an idea of what mead tastes like, and where you should begin your adventure. This drink is uniquely customizable to pretty much any palette imaginable. As this niche in the home/craft brewing scene grows, we are bound to see more of these interesting combinations become available commercially. As it stands, even a traditional mead is a rarity in stores. But the explosion in craft brews had helped kickstart the rebirth of this drink as well. And seeing how others are experimenting with their brews will only inspire that creativity in others. Enjoy!