What Is Mead? | Wine Enthusiast
Wine bottle illustration Displaying 0 results for
Suggested Searches
Articles & Content

What Is Mead? A Guide to the World’s Oldest Alcoholic Beverage

When Austin Corrigan was in a severe car accident seven years ago, he started making alcohol.

“I had a lot of downtime and started experimenting with fermentation,” he says. Corrigan went on to start High Seas Mead in 2020 in Santa Barbara, California.

Although mead may seem like a newcomer to the alcohol scene, it has ancient roots and even predates wine. In ancient times, it was said to provide immortality. Sure, these days we know that drinking mead won’t help you live forever, but the longevity of the beverage’s popularity is undeniable.

A Short History of Mead

Mead is the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man and has been around as long as honeybees have been making honey,” says Jeri Carter, owner of Queen’s Reward Meadery in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Carter suggests that mead was making itself before people got involved: In nature, it doesn’t need humans to ferment. When bees abandon a hive, the sun’s heat slowly melts the wax, sealing the ingredients inside. Rainwater and yeast complete the necessary trifecta to produce mead.

“Scientists have found traces of mead in archeological digs on every inhabited continent on the globe,” adds Carter.

The oldest known evidence of mead was discovered in the Henan Province of Northern China and is estimated to be around 9000 years old. Mead also appears in Norse mythology, and was a staple in Scandinavia during the Viking Age (775 A.D.E.–1050). Referred to as the “nectar of the gods” by the ancient Greeks, it also gained popularity during the Middle Ages (476 A.D.E.–1300) when it was abundantly produced throughout Europe.

“It seemed a lot of households were making their own mead at home,” says Roo Kline, who has been making small-batch mead since 2018 and founded Ravenwood Meadery in 2021 in Huntsville, Alabama. She also notes that people in the Middle Ages incorporated ingredients in their mead ranging from buttered toast to raw eggs.

These days, people associate mead with Renaissance fairs and vikings. However, Kline—who wrote Wellcome Mead, which features over 100 mead recipes from the 17th and 18th centuries—also attributes mead’s rise in popularity to HBO’s Game of Thrones, which featured the drink prominently.

What Is Mead?

“Sunlight shines, plants and trees create nectar in flowers, bees collect that nectar and transform it into honey,” says Eric Bossick, the founder and mead maker at Wicked Way Mead in Tokyo. From there, three ingredients are needed.

“Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermentation of honey, water and yeast,” adds John Talkington, owner of Brimming Horn Meadery in Milton, Delaware. You’ll notice, too, what’s not in mead: Any grains.

“Mead is an amazing alternative alcoholic beverage choice that is gluten-free,” says Corrigan.

Concerning the alcohol content, there’s also a range to suit your tastes. Kline says that the alcohol by volume (ABV) can range from 6% up to 20%, but on average, mead’s ABV is 12% to 16%.

How Is Mead Made?

Beyond sometimes naturally occurring in nature—and good luck on stumbling upon some accidental mead!—humans have refined conventional methods of producing it.

A traditional mead is made simply with honey and water. While unfiltered, raw honey contains natural yeasts and can therefore start fermentation on their own, this isn’t most producers’ preferred route.

“Although this can be both interesting and fun, it can give unpredictable results,” says Kline. Uniformity is vital when selling mead, he notes. Instead, today’s makers add commercial yeast to the honey.

What Does Mead Taste Like?

The addition of honey doesn’t always equal an overly sweet drink. Talkington stresses that mead, which can be sparkling or still, ranges in flavor from extremely dry to dessert sweet. “Mead has many variations in recipe and styles,” notes Bossick.

Makers can also include additional ingredients—spices, flowers, bark, roots, fruits or vegetables—to enhance the color and flavor of their brews. These extras are usually added before the batch starts to ferment and are typically removed after steeping for two weeks.

These additives can also increase production time, which means it’ll take much longer before the mead is ready for consumption.

“Think of it as a stew that tastes so much better after sitting for a few days to let the flavors meld and develop,” explains Kline. She lets these meads age for about a year before they are ready for bottling.

Great Meads to Look For

Maxwell Wines
Photo Courtesy of Maxwell Wines

Maxwell Wines (McLaren Vale, South Australia)

If there’s one person who knows mead well, it’s Mark Maxwell, owner of Maxwell Wines in South Australia. He’s been making mead since 1966. Ken Maxwell, his father, had a passion for reading about history and first introduced the younger Maxwell to the beverage.

“My father started experimenting with different honeys and yeasts until he perfected the recipe,” says Maxwell, who opened his business in 1979. Although he also makes wine, Maxwell is delighted to see that mead is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, particularly in Australia.

Maxwell Wines offers an original Honey Mead, a Spiced Mead and Liqueur Mead.

Queens Reward
Photo Courtesy of Queens Reward

Queen’s Reward Meadery (Tupelo, Mississippi)

Before Carter’s meadery career, the owner of Queen’s Reward Meadery was a teacher. “I was teaching kindergarten and first grade, so I started making alcohol at home,” she recalls.

Carter first experimented with wine kits and switched to mead in 2012 when she stumbled on a recipe. “Mississippi may not have great wine grapes, but we have fabulous honey, and that is where our journey into mead-making began,” says Carter, who sources all her honey from within the state of Mississippi.

Queen’s Reward Meadery opened in 2018. It crafts traditional meads and options like Chocolate Covered Cherry and Honey Habanero.

Wicked Way Mead
Photo Courtesy of Wicked Way Mead

Wicked Way Mead (Tokyo, Japan)

Eric Bossick’s love for mead began when he helped his grandfather keep bees. He later stumbled upon the drink when he traveled to the Czech Republic, but the beverage wasn’t available in Japan, where he lived.

“I returned to Japan and longed for the romance of mead,” says Bossick. He started experimenting with mead production in 2010 and opened Wicked Way Mead in 2018.

Bossick also relies on local suppliers and purchases his honey directly from the beekeepers. Wicked Way currently only ships in Japan, but we recommend dropping in if you’re in the neighborhood.

Brimming Horn Meadery
Photo Courtesy of Brimming Horn Meadery

Brimming Horn Meadery (Milton, Delaware)

Talkington began experimenting with producing alcohol at home in 1996—when he was underage and still in high school. Legality aside, Talkington saw mead as a window into world history. “I became interested in making mead from reading books about ancient cultures,” he says.

In addition to enjoying the drink’s deep history and lore, he also appreciates the beverage for its flavor, complexity and versatility. “It can be anything you want it to be,” says Talkington. He continued experimenting with making mead and opened Brimming Horn Meadery in 2017.

Today, Brimming Horn Meadery sells over 15 varieties of mead, including Golden Tears, which won a gold medal in the 2020 Mazer Cup International Mead Competition.

Inspired to dive into the world of mead? With selections like these, you’ll never be bored.