"I don't like mead it's too sweet" is something we hear our customers say at every mead event we go to.
And yes, mead can be sweet, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, we would argue that most of the time, mead isn't any where near as sweet as people think it is.
We say "our customers" because despite coming to our stall with this belief, people often buy a bottle and are surprised by how dry we can make a mead or how delicious they find our sweet meads.
So, why do people think mead is sweet?
Well, mead is made from honey and honey is, as we all know, very sweet. In fact, honey contains around 80% natural sugar in the form of glucose, fructose or sucrose. The other 20% is comprised of water, pollen, wax, propolis, and possibly the odd bit of bee if you're buying good quality honey, straight from the bee keeper.
As a child of the 80s, I missed out on the 70's mead revival but I hear anecdotes from many customers who lived through it and spent many an hour drinking mead from wooden mazers in medieval style banquet halls eating chicken in a basket or other meat and broth combinations.
These customers are split into 2 camps. Some look back with a haze of fondness for such times and others try to forget their pounding hangovers or overly sweet, cloying, sticky beverages. The former camp is always a delight to welcome to our stall as they reminisce about happy times spent quaffing mead with friends and lament the decline of mead halls and the pure escapism of a medieval mead banquet.
The latter camp can be split again into those whose experiences were so haunting that they will never try mead again and those who are pleasantly surprised that our meads are not at all what they remember from the 1970s.
How can mead be dry when it's made from honey?
If you put sugar into the bowl when making a cake mix, the cake comes out sweet, so how can we make a dry mead when honey contains 80% natural sugars and all we do is mix it with water?
As mead makers, we are essentially farmers. We are the benevolent guardians of millions of livestock, not in the form of cattle or goats but in the form of tiny organisms called yeast. Our sole purpose is to keep these organisms happy, feed them lots of delicious sugar, make sure they aren't too hot, nor too cold, and keep the pH just how they like it. But, as we all know, a balanced diet is important. We also have to ensure that our livestock gets enough vitamins and minerals to keep them healthy, otherwise they can start to get sick, and sick yeast cells, just like sick cattle or goats, give off bad smells which can make our mead taste really bad.
Now, assuming we are good farmers and we keep our livestock happy, they will slowly consume all the natural sugars from our honey and convert them into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Anyone who has had a go at making homebrew will be familiar with the soporific blop.....blop.....blop, blop, blop of an airlock indicating that the fermentation is under way and the carbon dioxide is escaping one blop at a time, leaving the honey flavour and alcohol behind. As we can no longer put our fermenters on the kitchen window sill due to their size, we have a smart "blop" monitor which uploads data to the cloud so we can reassure ourselves from anywhere in the world that carbon dioxide is being produced and our yeast is alive.
If you love a crisp dry white wine, you may be surprised to know we can make something similar using honey instead of grape. The process is almost identical and those subtle green apple, peachy, green bell pepper flavours that make a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc can be brought into a mead through the careful selection of honey, yeast, nutrients, fermentation temperature and pH.
All of the above can be achieved in a traditional mead, that is to say, a mead that is made from just honey and water. However, mead is the most versatile alcoholic drink. It is the oldest alcoholic drink in the world and as such, it has had literally millennia to evolve with the steady guiding hand of all the ancient civilisations on our planet. Wine is but a younger cousin of the noble drink of the gods and as such, over the years, wine has been shaped by mead.
Supermarket wine has been shaped by mead
Yes, the wine you love today has, at some point in its evolution, been influenced by mead. How is this possible?
Grapes used to have a much lower sugar content than the commercial strains that humans have developed. This meant that ancient wine probably had an alcohol content below 10%. This would have been problematic for the successful storage and ageing of wine and so honey would have been blended with the grape juice prior to fermentation to increase the fermentable sugar content which would have allowed a beverage with a higher alcohol content to be produced. This harmony of mead and grape is called a pyment. It's use was so prevalent in ancient cultures that we also have a subcategory of this subcategory of mead called a hippocras.
A hippocras takes its name from Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. He stored his medicinal herbs and spices in a pyment as a handy form of preservation and administration. If only the NHS saw the value in such remedies today, going to the doctor would be a much more enjoyable experience.
Anyway, we digress, back to why mead doesn't have to be sweet.
What do you love about wine and how is it made?
We often describe wines as fresh, fruity, juicy, sharp, tannic, or floral, and all these tastes or characteristics are intentional developments by the winemaker so of course, they can be created in a mead as well.
Fresh, juicy, sharp wines usually have a high acidity which causes our mouth to feel juicy; our saliva glands go into overdrive and make our mouths water. Whether a mead is dry or sweet, we can increase the acidity of our meads which gives the same sensations as in a wine. In this way, we could take one of those sweet, cloying, sticky meads from the 1970s and add some malic acid which would decrease the pH and make our mouths water, despite the high residual natural sugar content from the honey. A cloying mead is thus transformed from an endurance that leaves drinkers reaching for their toothbrush, into a pleasant beverage which glides down with ease and leaves us with impressions of freshness, juicy green apples, and a pleasant honey tastes that make us want more.
A well developed mead should easily demonstrate the versatility of the drink and overcome the perception of mead as an ancient, sweet, sickly drink that sticks to our teeth and makes us feel guilty for consuming so much sugar.
Another good example is that of Coca Cola. Coke has a sugar content of approximately 35g per 330ml can. This equates to around 7 teaspoons of sugar. Would you put 7 teaspoons of sugar in your tea and think it acceptable to drink? We'd wager not but then how do so many people drink a can of coke without finding it too sweet? Coke has a pH of around 2.6 - 2.7 which, just like the example above with mead, cuts through the sugar and gives us the illusions of a juicy, fresh beverage.
Now, maybe mead just isn't for you. You might not like honey. However, if you have tried mead before and you didn't like it, please don't write off the entire range of meads out there. We're sure you will be able to find a style of mead that you enjoy. Keep sampling, keep tasting, and keep drinking mead!
If you are still unsure, we'll leave you with the following short guide to some of the mead styles. This is by no means exhaustive and there are many more types of mead you could make and hopefully enjoy drinking. All of these could come in dry, medium or sweet varieties.
Traditional mead: honey + water
Metheglin: honey + water + herbs/spices (sometimes with fruit)
Pyment: honey + water + grape
Hippocras: honey + water + grape + herbs/spices
Cyser: honey + water + apple
Stonefruit Mead: honey + water + fruit with a stone (plum, cherry etc..)
Berry Mead: honey + water + berrys (strawberries, blueberries etc..)
Melomel: honey + water + fruit (mixture of any/all of the above types of fruit)
Hopped Mead: honey + water + hops
Acerglyn: honey + water + maple syrup
Capsicumel: honey + water + chilli