We've Been Meading To Tell You About The Fermentation of Alcohol: Mead Specifically
Updated: Nov 12, 2022
Do you see what I did there? If you have never tried mead you are missing out. I do highly encourage you to give it a try if you are of age! But before you go try this ambrosia, learn a little bit about this delightful beverage. First off, mead is made by the fermentation of alcohol, but what does that mean? Well, we can define fermentation as is the process in which a substance breaks down into a simpler substance. In the process of making alcohol, it is breaking down glucose or sugar into CO2 and the alcohol (more specifically ethanol).
Like truffles, this brilliant beverage was worshiped as fit for the gods! And like wine, the geographical location and kind of yeast can affect the flavor profile, making this a very dynamic drink. It has an air of prestige but a simplicity for the common man and even homebrewers. Mead is well suited for many occasions and gives us not only a glimpse into ancient times but innovative ideas for future beverages.
Many yeasts belong to our friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and the same strains used in white wine are good for producing this ancient beverage. We will definitely do a whole post (maybe multiple) on the wonderful microbe Saccharomyces cerevisiae (stay tuned).
Our human history is littered with accounts of mead. It was used in so many cultures throughout the time it's hard to determine when and where it was first created. However, it is thought mead can be traced back more than 3,000 years to Africa. And this simple yet satisfying beverage might just be the first alcohol any human has ever tasted! How different our history would be without it!
If you are descended from the Celts or Vikings, it's very likely this beverage is a part of your ancestry. These groups believed the mead was magical, enhancing knowledge and fertility while bestowing immortality on an individual. I’m sure you heard of the word “honeymoon” Do you know where it comes from?
That’s right, your excuse for an exotic vacation after a marriage ceremony is also attributed to the wonderful world of microbes. This drink was supplied and consumed during the wedding celebration, after which, the happy couple was gifted with a supply of mead to last one lunar cycle, a tradition dating back to the 5th century in many cultures.
Thus honey was the mead and moon was the length of which the beverage lasted. It’s also thought that this drink was an aphrodisiac and made the bride fruitful, so if a baby would pop out in 9 months then it was all due to the mead. Yay yeast!
How To Make Mead
So what exactly is this baby-making, godly drink which enhances your knowledge and bestows upon you immortality? It's actually quite a simple drink:
Water + Honey + Yeast + Time = Mead
The yeast will swim through the water and eat the contents of the honey (mostly glucose [sugar]) while pooping out our favorite chemical, ethanol. Over time, the sugar content goes down while the alcohol [ethanol] and carbon dioxide content rises.
It can take anywhere from weeks to months to ferment the honey and alcohol content can range anywhere from 8-18% depending on the strain. Because honey has such a naturally high sugar content the beverage itself is still quite sweet.
As rich and decadent as honey is, the low pH, high osmotic, and low concentration of essential nutrient and mineral content make it hard for the yeast to thrive, so many brewers will add additional yeast nutrients, like a nitrogen source such as urea or yeast hulls, to their mix to keep their yeast healthy and hungry.
Another problem brewers face is the unpredictability of working with live species. Various conditions can cause the yeast to slow down or die which could delay fermentation.
The other issue is taste, finding the perfect flavors takes time to understand both your own palette and the rate of fermentation of the honey. The longer you ferment, the less sweet it will be and the more alcoholic the mead becomes.
Flavoring Your Mead
Mead can get a little complicated, and looking forward I have no doubt it will continue to grow in complexity. To add a bit of a flavor punch, you can add spices or herbs such as cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg; this type of mead is called metheglin. For some sweeter and more summery flavors fruit juices (raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, etc.) are an excellent addition (melomel). “Braggot” mead is created with the addition of malted barley giving it a hearty flavor. For more of a wine vibe, add some grape juice and create for yourself a “pyment”. In Senegal they add palm wine to their honey creating a special mead known as “Bessoudioury”.
The ratio of honey and water can also affect the flavor and sweetness of the mead. If there is a superior concentration of honey in the mixture this is known as sack mead and has a higher alcohol percentage.
Like beer, you can also ‘sour’ mead using lactic acid yeast or bacteria like Kombucha. These microbes can be tricky though and can cause an unfavorable flavor and aroma.
Bottom line, mead can be easily made, easily bought, and taste delicious. We encourage anyone to go out and give it a try.
For more, see our interview with James, a home mead brewer!
you can also check out our interview with Jotham, an employee of a homebrew shop and armature mead maker.
Iglesias, A. et al. Developments in the fermentation process and quality improvement strategies for mead production. Molecules 19, 12577–12590 (2014)