September 30, 2023

Is That a Melomel?


Springtime brings the return of one of the great nerd pastimes here in Arizona, The Renaissance Faire. It may be a joke to many, but when the weather is great, it beats sitting in front of the television for entertainment. I’ve actually only been there once, but it was an enjoyable afternoon.

Why am I talking about this in a booze column? Well, I know a few people involved in the faire and it happens to have a large concentration of do-it-yourself types that enjoy old traditional crafts as a hobby. It’s also tends to be a who’s who for the local home brewing scene. Mix the two thoughts together and you get one of, if not the most, traditional fermented drinks ever produced in humanity: mead. It’s a curious beverage to most, and my topic to muse about today.

Mead, for those who are unfamiliar, is the end result of fermenting honey diluted in water. It can range in alcoholic concentration from a low proof beer, up to levels found in a fortified wine if enough sugar is available and the yeast are able to survive the alcoholic extreme. It can be produced as a still beverage, or allowed to carbonate as a beer or Champagne would.

Mead can be dry, somewhat sweet, or sugary to the point of being a dessert drink. It can be produced as just honey and water, or be a blend of fruits, spices, and even blends with other beverages. It can be consumed young as a fresh and light beverage, or aged for extended periods of time as one would premium red wine. And just as a Chardonnay is different from a Pinot Noir, a mead produced from clover honey will give a completely different character than one made from wild desert sage honey. In short, it’s an extremely versatile beverage.

Mead, technically, is strictly the definition for the fermented honey/water mixture. There is a long list of names used to refer to the various seasoned and flavored beverages produced with honey. Here is a short list of some of mead’s other names, along with a definition:

Braggot – a blend of honey and malt (beer) that is then fermented, which can be hopped or unhopped

Cyser – a combination of honey and apple juice (cider) that is then fermented

Melomel – a combination of honey and fruit juice that is then fermented

Metheglin – a mead that has been spiced

Pyment – a combination of honey and grapes (wine) that is then fermented

Rhodomel – a mead produced with rose petals, rose hips, or rose attar

The list of other mead terms available is probably five times longer, but I’ve only got so much space. Poland in particular has several specific mead terms relating to the ratio of water to honey used in the unfermented base product.

Mead was a much revered beverage in antiquity. While its origins are lost in prehistory, it was considered a beverage of choice in the golden age of Greece. Many Germanic and Northern European cultures that were too cold for growing grapes had a long tradition of mead production. The drink even remained popular through Central Europe and Russia well into the 19th century.

A handful of commercial mead producers exist today. Chaucer’s Mead may be the best known commercial product available. Personally, I recommend trying a brand out of Colorado called Redstone Meadery, or one from Northern California named Heidrun Meadery, both of which should be the next easiest commercial products to find in Arizona. Several others are available in Colorado, the Midwest and New York regions in particular, but it is quite a niche product.

The beverage really has been the bastion of creative home brewers for several decades, and the best advice to try top meads is hang out with your local homebrew club, or if you’re one of those do-it-yourselfers, then make your own. Mead may have been reduced to a curiosity over the years, but it’s a noble beverage with a storied history. It’s also one that very much would please the palate of modern America if rediscovered by the average man. So, go out and try a beverage that once held the lofty title “Nectar of the Gods.” Just remember to do it responsibly.

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