It’s hard to find something better than a lovely glass of well-made mead or honey wine, one of life’s pleasures! Fortunately, it’s becoming easier and easier to find one these days. Mead, (often also called honey wine) production is presently undergoing a huge resurgence in interest and producers are jumping on the mead train and this is a great thing!
What is mead? How is it made? Let’s find out and learn to appreciate one of the wonders of the fermentation world…
The history of mead and honey wine
Evidence suggests that bees were producing honey 50 million years ago and that the human collection of the fruit of their labor goes way back to the dawn of history. Historical traces then suggest a transition from hunting for the honey to keeping the bees in handmade hives. From there, fermented drinks obtained from honey, known as mead, hydromel or honey wine, became what is recognized as being the first fermented beverage. Literature and archeological documentation of its presence date 3000 years.
It appears that the mead debut originated from the collection of unripe honey; this honey, containing a high proportion of water, would have started fermenting under the action of wild yeasts during its storage time. Subsequently, mead played an important role in Celts, Anglo-Saxon and Viking rituals, beliefs and mythology, being associated with immortality, knowledge, strength, virility and fertility. Aristotle, Virgil and Homer are amongst the multiple classical writers to reference and glorify it.
In southern European countries, the popularity of mead was slowly replaced by wine, as the economical advantages and ease of grape cultivation were revealed. It remained popular for a longer period of time in the Northern countries where access to fruit was limited, until slowly being replaced by beer.
Mead is made by diluting honey with water and fermenting the resulting must. Ratio of dilution varies and plays a crucial role in the final product; 1:0.5 (honey:water), 1:1, 1:2, 1:3. A higher honey to water ratio translates to higher flavor concentration, higher alcohol content as well as chances of higher residual sugar, due to the presence of unfermented sugars. In fact, the low nitrogen content of honey as well as the high osmotic pressure of the must make for difficult fermentation conditions.
The word mead originates from the old English meodu, which itself originate from the Indo-European word médhu (honey or the alcoholic beverage made from honey). Throughout the years of its making, mead took different forms, names and flavor profiles;
– Mead or hydromel: Fermented mixture of honey and water
– Sack mead: Fermented mixture of honey with less water
– Metheglin: Fermented mixture of honey, water and spices
– Mulsum (or vinum-mulsum): Wine sweetened with honey, or mixed mead and grape juice or co-fermented honey and grape juice.
– Melomel: Fermented mixture of honey with fruit juices (except from apples and grapes)
– Cyser: Fermented mixture of honey with apples or apple juice
– Braggot: Mead made with hopped or un-hopped barley wort
Making Mead (honey wine)
Honey appearance, flavors and aromas differ greatly and are characterized by multiple factors, including the botanical species pollinated by the bees. Once fermented, those varietal characteristics are transferred to the finish mead, settling its organoleptic profile.
Mead Making. After the honey has been diluted in water, the mead is now ready to be inoculated. A microbial load reduction can also be conducted at this stage, using metabisulphite or pasteurization. The inoculation can be done through the use of wild yeast or dehydrated, commercial yeast. The pH and the acidity of the must should be known at this stage and adjusted if necessary. Throughout the fermentation, the yeast will require a supportive nutrient program based on the mead’s available nitrogen as well as on the yeast’s nutritional requirements. The temperature should be kept low, within the recommended yeast range, to allow a slow and steady fermentation rate, ensuring a better transformation and conservation of the aroma.
Where to get some mead
Who is making mead now? Over the last year, we had the chance to help and consult for three wonderful Canadian meaderies; Prairie Bee Meadery in Saskatchewan, Broken Tine Orchards in Alberta and Island Honey Wine Company in PEI.
The first, a family business located in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, is lead by Vickie Derksen and her daughter Crystal Milburn. It all began with the family launch of a u-pick farm in 2012. It quickly became evident that bees were needed on the farm to improve their production of raspberries, sour cherries, strawberries, haskap and melons. They then began a small batch production and went on to receive their cottage winery license in 2016 and have since been selling mead locally.
Visiting the farm on a hot summer day and smelling the delicious aromas of the wildflowers and fruit makes one understand the flavor of their particular honey and, in turn, their mead. Indeed, I believe that the presence of melon on the farm always give an interesting tropical twist to traditional mead. Amongst other flavors, always created from their estate grown fruit, they produce a sour cherry mead, a melon mead and a blueberry mead. Every one of them offers expressive, complementary and distinct aromas of their honey and fruit.
Broken Tine Orchards is situated south west of Beaverlodge, Alberta, Canada, along the Rocky Mountain foothills. Current cultivated land is approximately 2400 acres, with the main farm crops canola, wheat and barley. In 2011, they planted a Haskap orchard to start into diversification and help in the succession of this proud farm.
They are a 4th generation farm that started as a family homestead in 1926, with the Haskap orchard located on the original homestead cleared land.
Broken Tine Orchard is dedicated to supplying haskap and mead of very high quality and practice locally grown food and sustainable agricultural practices. They have 19,000 of the best quality trees that are watered by the latest drip irrigation technology and of course the bees to pollinate all of this and make excellent honey for their mead production.
Island Honey Wine Company, located at the other end of the country, on Prince Edward Island, is owned and lead by Laura and Charles Lipnicki. Travelling through the Maritimes in 2011, Laura and Charles fell in love with the island and decided to move away from their city and career-oriented pace and created La Serena farm.
The organic farm hosts fields of lavender, haskap, lilac, heritage apple and pear trees, chickens, sheep and many other wonders. Their honey is dark and flavourful, reminiscent of buckwheat honey with generous undertones of lavender. Their meads, all wonderful and evocative of their honey flavours, are split into five varieties; traditional mead, haskap mead, lavender mead, cyser and a desert mead. When visiting, expect to be enchanted by the location, the owners and their mead!
Contact us if you’d like to improve or embark on a wonderful mead making adventure!