Mead is a word you don’t often hear bandied around these days when compared to beer or ale. Although this is changing somewhat in the United States, most often it is associated with medieval dramas or fantasy stories. But what actually is mead, and is there a difference when comparing mead vs ale?
Mead vs Ale: Just Another Craft Beer?
Whilst the terms beer and ale or beer and lager can often be often used interchangeably the same is not necessarily true of lagers and ale. Whilst they both come under the beer umbrella, they are merely two specialty beer styles out of many.
Mead however is not a type of beer and mead production is entirely different to how one would craft beer. In addition, there are just as many people who will conflate mead with wine. This, in many ways is just as incorrect as saying that mead and beer are the same.
In fact the fermentation and brewing process of mead is both incredibly distinct from beer and wine. It’s also much simpler and therefore ideal for a home brewer. However the existence of braggot which is a variant of mead mixed with beer, malt and hops does confuse matters somewhat.
The Difference Between Mead vs Ale
Whilst they may seem similar, mead and beer are completely different beverages. This is true in terms of the process of making them, their level of alcohol content and overall flavor.
One might argue that it might actually be quicker to explain the similarities of beer and mead. However such an explanation would not provide a very satisfying or informative answer.
Brewing and Fermentation Process
The processes for brewing mead and beer differ in terms of complexity, ingredients and the materials involved in the process.
Mead, which is often made in a meadery, uses three ingredients. These are honey, water and yeast. Although certain recipes will swap out honey for a melomel which are fruits such as apples, pineapple and berries.
Brewing mead is actually very simple as well. The most common honey based recipe requires two main steps. First, you to dilute your honey in the water. Then add it and the yeast to an airtight container and allow it to ferment. Following which all you need to do is wait and bottle when it’s ready.
The process for creating beer or ale on the other hand is by comparison to mead much more involved. The basic concept of fermentation is the same. However, beers will use hops and malt extract as their sugar source instead of honey. Many ales contain significantly fewer hops than lagers, or even no hops at all in some cases.
Due to these sources of sugar the method of making beer requires an additional step than mead production. This first step is to boil your hops and malt extract in water which creates a substance called wort. Once the wort has been cooled it is then ready to begin fermentation. This happens in roughly the same manner as with mead.
Another step which is typically taken with beer and occasionally with mead is to carbonate it. This is done by adding a teaspoon of sugar to each bottle before capping. Doing this causes an extra stage of fermentation with remaining yeast cells, during which the carbon dioxide produced will become trapped and settle as bubbles.
When measuring the content of alcohol by volume, mead is often more potent than ale or indeed most other types of beer.
This may be in part due to it being made in a way which is closer to wine than the ale brewing brewing. Additionally, the fact that mead is often made from honey with sugar and berries added during fermentation contributes to this additional potency. This is because sugar is ultimately what yeast reacts with to create ethanol.
Texture and Flavor
Most meads will have a honey taste to them which is where its other name of honey wine comes from. However this is not universally the case as some meads made with berries will have more fruity flavors. Additionally, some can be rather dry or slightly bitter instead of sweet.
Texture wise they can be incredibly varied as well. Some are quite smooth whilst others are slightly more viscous like an ale.
For a mead which has more of a feel of ale, braggot is a good choice since it the method of making this is a hybrid of ale and mead brewing techniques.
Mead vs Wine
Whilst we’ve established that mead and beer aren’t the same thing, another mistake people often make is to compare it to wine. This confusion isn’t helped by the fact that mead is often referred to as honey wine.
However, whilst mead and wine probably share more similarities than mead and bear do, they are still two quite different. Much like wine and cider are different.
The main difference lies in their creation methods. Aside from the case of melomels, mead uses yeast, honey and water. Wine on the other hand often forgoes yeast entirely and is typically made allowing grapes and berries to ferment naturally with sugar and water.
Whilst wines can also be dry or sweet like mead, they typically do not vary as much in texture as mead. Additionally mead tends to have a yellow or brownish colour whilst wine tends to come in white, red or pink.
Mead’s to try If You Like Beer and Wine
Mead can be very varied and come in many different varieties. Due to this and how it shares certain characteristics of both wine and beer,. As a result, certain types of mead may be more appealing to those who enjoy one or both drinks.
For a mead which has more of a feel of ale, braggot is a good choice. The method of making this is a hybrid of ale and mead brewing techniques. Additionally, a drier mead made with citrus fruits may appeal to fans of Indian Pale Ale.
When picking out mead as a wine lover however, you may find that picking a particularly fruity or “jammy” mead is more to your liking. This is because these will be somewhat reminiscent of a sweet red wine.
To Mead or not to Mead
Now we’ve established what mead is and how it differs from ale as well as wine. So the only way you know you’ll like it is to try some. It isn’t necessarily as popular as it once was. However mead is making something of a comeback these days and more varieties are becoming available every day.
On the other hand with how easy it is to make, you might also be tempted to make a homebrew.
Whichever route you choose to go down. Have fun and enjoy this wonderful drink that the ancient Greeks called the nectar of the Gods with enthusiasm and responsibility.