Mead, thought to be one of the oldest fermented drinks on Earth, dates back to 2800 B.C. and perhaps earlier.
When posed the question, “What is mead, a beer or a wine?” the answer is quite simple. Technically speaking, it is neither, leaving it quite simply in a class by itself.
What are mead and beer?
Mead does share characteristics with beer and wine, which may lead some people to believe it is one or the other of these two fermented beverages. But the similarities between beer and wine do not extend too much further than the fact that all three go through the fermentation process, followed by a subsequent aging period.
Regarding fermentation, both beverages require an aging process to produce their alcohol content. These beverages contain a varying alcohol content that depends on the fermentation. While many compare these beverages, their differing ingredients, fermentation process, alcohol content and flavor set them apart.
A brief history of mead and beer
There is even a difference between mead and beer when considering their histories, with beer originating approximately 10,000 years ago, much later than mead. In comparison, mead has a history dating back 20,000-40,000 years ago, with its origins rooted in Africa.
Long ago, people in Africa gathered honey and fermented honey by accident. According to the stories, beehives in trees filled with water when it rained. The combination of the water and honey with time spurred a natural fermentation process within the hives. After consuming the beverage and noticing its intoxicating effect, those living in the area began traveling and spreading the process of mead-making worldwide.
Beer was initially brewed in China in 7000 BCE. However, the modern way of beer making began with the Sumerians around 3500 BCE. The intention behind creating the first batches of beer is unclear. Some believe it was created accidentally during early bread making. Others believe that beer was intentionally made to be an intoxicating drink.
How are mead and beer made?
Beer is made with water, barley, hops, malt and grain. Beer production is called brewing, involving the fermentation of starches, mainly derived from cereal grains. Mead is made with honey, water and yeast. Mead uses champagne and wine yeasts, not the ale yeasts used in beer.
Beer, in being brewed, goes through a boiling stage. This is not so with mead. Mead’s process is a rather simple one. The honey is mixed with water, any desired flavors or spices and the yeast. From this point, it goes directly to the fermenting stage. In this way, mead is much more similar to wine than beer, as there is no boiling in wine fermentation.
If the right type of yeast is combined with a suitable food source, the yeast will consume that food, creating the alcohol in the beverage as its byproduct. Almost all sugars and starches constitute the main diet for yeast cells.
Differences between mead and beer
One main difference between mead and beer is the creation process. The beer creation process begins with grains (or grains and malt) steeped with water. When whole grains are processed, they are ground and then combined with hot water. This step allows simple sugars to release from the grains, which are important for fermentation.
This step separates the mixture into the mash (grains) and the wort (sugary liquid). The wort is poured into a brew kettle and boiled for about 90 minutes. While boiling, hops are added to create different flavors in the beer. How the beer cools in the process is essential for curating different types of beer. Then, the beer shifts to a fermentation vessel, yeast is added, and it ages for a few days to a few weeks. The final step is pouring the beer into bottles and shipping it to vendors or other distribution centers.
Honey and water are first heated separately to kill off any bacteria to create mead. Then, they are combined, called a “must.” Brewers add various fruit and seasoning to the mixture. Some mead brewers use a small amount of juice in the batch for additional flavor or higher alcohol content. Adding yeast is the final step, and then fermentation begins. Mead ages from a few months to a few years.
Another factor that certainly sets beers and meads apart is the aging process for each product. Most beer is meant to be served in a relatively short period of time, within two to three months typically. Some select beers are ready to be served within days of brewing, and on occasion, the beer drinker will discover that their beer is, in fact, a year or older.
Here again is where mead somewhat parallels wine. Mead’s aging demands dictate that, once the yeast is added and fermentation begins, it is left to age at least one year to mature, grow in complexity and become a consumable beverage. Experts in mead brewing contend that ideally, the mead should age 2-3 years before consumption. Wine, as we all know, is known by the year of its vintage, not by the week or month!
Perhaps a bit more clarity will help further define mead and clarify a bit about why it is sometimes classified as a beer or wine.
There is what’s called braggot, a mead made with the addition of malt, grain and hops. It is defined as a specialty beer by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) as “a mead made with malt.”
Mead is sometimes called honey wine, but this is not true, either. A honey wine is simply a wine sweetened with honey, the honey having nothing to do with the wine’s fermentation. The mead’s main ingredient is honey, the “engine” that gets the whole process started.
One of the most discernible differences is the alcohol content. Very few beers on the market exceed 8 percent alcohol content. Meads can range from 6 to 20 percent, depending on how it was fermented, much more in line with wines and some brandies.
Types of beer and mead
Various beverage types are available, though the classification process changes based on the beverage. For example, beer is classified on style, while mead is differentiated by its ingredients and alcohol content.
Some of the most popular types of beer include:
- Indian Pale Ales (IPAs) – mainly get their flavor from hops and herbals.
- Pale Ales – typically have a lower alcohol content than IPAs.
- Pilsners – a type of lager.
As a comparison, below are a few types of mead:
- Dry mead – features a honey flavor yet little sweetness.
- Semi-sweet mead – has a slightly sweeter honey taste as a finishing note.
- Sweet mead – offers the strongest honey flavor and sweetness.
While there are many types of beers, there are two primary classifications. These classifications are ales versus lagers. The main difference between these classifications is the type of yeast in the process. Ale uses saccharomyces cerevisiae, a yeast that floats to the top. Ales are also typically made in warmer temperatures.
Conversely, saccharomyces pastorianus helps create lager varieties. This specific yeast type settles at the bottom of the fermentation container while processing; hence it is often referred to as a bottom-fermenting yeast.
As mentioned, mead classifications vary due to the ingredients of the beverage. The first mead classification is melomels, a variety of mead made with various fruits, such as apples and pineapples.
The next classification of mead is traditional mead, which uses three ingredients: honey, water and yeast. Most of the flavor derives from the type of honey used in the creation process.
Additionally, mead has varying classifications by alcohol content. As explained below, there are three classifications under this category: hydromel, standard and a sack.
The flavor of beer and mead
Another major difference between mead and ale is the flavor that each offers. Mead leans toward a fruity flavor reminiscent of wine. It features a taste similar to cider, yet it can vary in sweetness between dry and sweet. In comparison, beer has a malty taste described as crisp, malt, hoppy or roasted, depending on the flavor profile.
Both beverages vary in alcohol volume, with mead typically having a much higher ABV. However, the alcohol volume of each fermented drink also varies greatly. Depending on the type of mead produced, the ABV can vary from 3-20%. Session meads have the lowest alcohol volume, ranging from 3-7%. Standard meads have an alcohol range between 7-15%, and sack meads feature a 15-20% alcohol volume.
In comparison, beer typically features a 4-12% ABV, with lagers providing a 4-5% range and craft beers having a higher 8-12% range.
What are the best snacks to accompany beer and mead?
Pairing beer and mead with snacks is less complex than pairing wine with food. However, a few snacks work especially well with these beverages.
For example, beef jerky is an excellent choice when sipping a craft IPA, as the salt pairs well with the flavors and higher alcohol content. There’s a reason that many breweries leave a bowl of beer nuts on the counter; sweet and salty, this is a top snack option for pairing with a barrel-aged stout. Overall, most salty snacks (such as chips) help bring out the flavors in various beers.
Sourcing snacks to accompany mead is slightly trickier, yet not impossible. Fruity meads are the easiest to find pairings, as they work well with spicy foods and desserts. Try enjoying a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of spicy trail mix (or a spicy cracker mix). Dry mead and cheese are a great pairing, with brie as an excellent choice alongside a sip of mead.