The Northman, Chicago’s CiderhouseJune 19, 2016
When perusing the cider section of your local liquor store, you may have noticed an outsider creeping into the section. Some of the drinks are labeled as meads. Makes one think, “What is the difference between a cider and a mead? Why do they share shelf space and what is the history of these devilish drinks?”
Let’s strip it down to the basics and learn all about meads.
What’s the difference between Cider & Mead?
Cider is a fermented beverage made from unfiltered apple juice. They can take on many styles such as sweet or dry, carbonated or non-carbonated. Meads, on the other hand, are fermented honeys in water that are quite similar to wines. These can be flavored by fruits or hops, making for an interesting and complex flavor profile. When combined with apple flavors, meads can taste very similar to ciders. In fact, there is a particular name for such a combination of apples in a mead. This is called a Cyser. Meads are also higher in alcohol content on average than a cider, ranging anywhere from around 8% to 20%. Meads have also been around for quite some time, just like ciders, and enjoy a rich history.
History of Mead
Often considered the first alcoholic beverage, mead was often believed to come together by accident by the nomadic people in the African region. The honey-making power of the bee, mixed with traces of adaptive, wild yeast from the bee’s journeys pollinating, created the perfect ingredients for fermentation. It just needed one more ingredient, water. The nomadic people would collect honey and, in the same space, collect rainwaters. these waters were filling tree stumps and spaces where bees had their beehives. These folks were unknowingly drinking super honey and yeast infused rainwaters, and they liked the taste.
Word spreads over time, and it spreads fast. Meads were making a global expansion from China to European areas. No one understood the process of fermentation, and, for many cultures like Greece, mead took on a spiritual connotation. Time kept moving, the magic was kept alive. Not until the mid-1800 did they discover the true cause of the “magical effects”, fermentation — but that is a side note. Of course, mead is best known for its connection to sea-faring vikings.
Meads died down as many found grapes to me a cheaper base for an alcoholic beverage than the growingly expensive alternative, honey. However, meads never quit. They were the little engine that could! Where there was money, there were meads being created. Take Great Britain, for example, where some traditions have lasted hundreds of years. Honey extraction was the problem, and devices were created for doing so. These extraction tools, paired with new mead mixtures, kept meads around, even to this very day. You could trace each individual line of meads and their move around the globe, but, in short, mead are one of the most historic and intriguing forms of alcohol beverage that deserve your time.
Process of Making Mead
The way one makes mead, from fermentation to creation, is very similar to the process of making cider. Here are the basic steps mead makers take.
First, the maker would sanitize all the equipment listed below:
- Stainless Steel Stock Pot
- Plastic Fermenter
- Glass Carboy
- Fermentation Lock and Stopper
- Racking Cane and Tubing
You put a gallon of water in the steel pot and boil it for about 10 minutes. Once it boils, remove from heat and add yeast nutrient and energizer and, of course, honey. The mixture is all stirred and the temperature held at 170 degrees for 10 minutes. This is now called “must”. As it blends, it will need to be reduced to 80 degrees and a hydrometer reading taken. If everything is hunky dory, you can add the yeast and stir for 5 minutes.
Once complete, place the mixture in a fermenter with the air lock attached. The beginnings of the fermentation process generally take place in one to two days. After a 3 week sprint, the fermentation process should be complete and the mead will need to be racked into a sanitized container to sit for another month. This process is done again into another sanitized container and sits for another two to three months. From this point, you can start bottling the mead by adding potassium sorbate to stabilize the liquid. To increase flavor, like many other alcohol, you must age the mead in the bottles.
Is Mead Healthy?
Even as the “nectar of the Gods”, mead was not a cure all or the end-all for medicine. It is not a cure for all of your ailments, but it does provide some elements that assist one’s healthy lifestyle. Mead is made with honey, so they are some of the benefits you’d get from honey — a natural anti-inflammatory. It is also rich with probiotics which are important for overall gut health. Now, it is an alcoholic beverage so too much of that aspect and it becomes much less “healthy”.
Is Mead Making a Comeback?
You will find that meaderies and mead are cropping up all over the place, too. I’ve lived in Nashville, TN and Madison, WI and they both have their own meaderies.
Mead is in a resurgence in the last few years. Shows like Game of Thrones may be a big reason for this recent surge. I also find that rules for opening cideries and meaderies have loosened or people are getting savvy with their licensures. The good news is cider and mead are diverse options and a town that supports a brewery, cidery, and meadery make for a destination location for many tourists, ourselves included.