Not included in Herz’s list are the indeterminate number of microbreweries and brewpubs that produce a honey-malt hybrid called a braggot.
The General Lafayette Inn, a brewpub in Lafayette Hill in the Philadelphia suburbs, offers a Raspberry Mead-Ale as a regular product. Brewer Chris Leonard uses a blend of two-thirds clover honey and one-third malt, adding just enough hops (about 5 International Bittering Units worth) to satisfy the legal requirements for the beverage to be taxed as a beer. To this he adds fresh raspberries post-fermentation. The mead-ale clocks in at about 10 percent ABV, a typical strength for honey wines. “It doesn’t taste like it’s high octane,” says Leonard, although the brewpub prudently serves it in 10-ounce glasses. For those customers who find it a little overpowering, the General Lafayette Inn offers a mead spritzer, consisting of mead mixed with ginger ale over ice.
Magic Hat Brewing Co. in South Burlington, VT released a braggot, called simply Braggot, as part of its “Humdinger” line of one-off specialty beers. Director of Brewing Operations Todd Haire fermented the brew from a blend of 50 percent each barley and wheat malt, with chamomile flowers added during the boil. Haire actually tends a small apiary of 15 hives behind the brewery, but he had to obtain most of his supply from a larger producer—his recipe called for 600 pounds of honey per 25-barrel batch of beer.
Hopheads, who measure a beverage’s worth by its alpha-acid content, might consider a drink fermented from honey to be one-dimensional, bland and cloyingly sweet. To the contrary, meads encompass a whole spectrum of flavors. “The sky’s the limit,” asserts Herz. “There are more styles of mead than there are grape wines.”
First of all, a mead can be sweet, semi-dry or dry, depending on the ratio of honey to water used. Of course, the yeast’s voracity plays a role, as does the decision of the mead maker to let fermentation run its course or halt it prematurely.
Second, the type of honey influences the character of the drink. A lot depends upon where the bees gathered their nectar. Clover honey is light in color, mild, and neutral in taste. It might be considered the equivalent of the pale malt that forms such an important part of the brewer’s pallet. Buckwheat honey, on the other hand, is brown and much stronger tasting, with a flavor that’s been likened to blackstrap molasses. Orange blossom honey has a floral, citrusy aroma. Mesquite honey is supposed to have a hint of smokiness.
Not all varieties of honey will be suitable for mead making. Gail Puryear remembers experimenting with a local mint honey that had a strong menthol-eucalyptus character. “Listerine you can drink” is how he described the mead he made from it.
Third, the mead maker can add other fermentables and flavorings to the basic honey, water and yeast. On her website, Herz lists a variety of hybrid beverages:
A cyser is fermented from honey and apple juice.
A pyment is made from honey and grapes.
A melomel is a mead incorporating any other kind of fruit.
A metheglin is a spiced mead.
Herz even mentions capsicumel, a mead flavored with hot peppers.
The Bonair Winery actually makes an example of the latter. Remember the Cave Creek Chili Beer that had a serrano pepper jammed into the bottleneck? Bonair’s Chili Mead has a chile de arbol inserted whole into each 750-ml magnum. The pepper’s heat-inducing chemical bleeds into the mead, and after the first month “it’s pretty darned hot,” says Puryear. After a year, the beverage mellows out and acquires a green-pepper flavor. “It sells like crazy,” he adds.
Some meads are hard to pigeonhole. At the Smokehouse Winery, Jon Hallberg makes a Honeysuckle Mead containing blossoms that he gathers by the roadside when the vines bloom during the early summer. He adds them to the mead at the end of the boil and during the primary fermentation: less than a pound per 80-gallon batch. “A little goes a long way,” he says. “I don’t want to overpower it.”
What do you call a marriage of mead and lambic? B. United International, a specialty importer based in Redding, CT, will for the second year in a row release a very limited amount of Mead the Gueuze, a thirty:seventy blend of English mead from the Lurgashall Winery in Petworth, West Sussex, England and Hanssens Gueuze from Belgium. B. United also imports the English mead separately, along with the sweeter Lurgashall Christmas mead and a special reserve mead aged in wooden whiskey barrels.
In addition, meads, like grape wines, can be still or sparkling.
William Bailey, owner of Desi’s Dew Meadery (named for the owner’s cat) in Rougemont, NC, produces several champagne-like carbonated meads, including raspberry and strawberry melomels. And just as wine can be turned into brandy and beer made into schnapps, mead can also be distilled. At the Rabbits Foot Meadery, Michael Faul uses an alembic still to make a 40 percent ABV mead brandy he calls Mead Song. “We’re still trying to get a classification from the ATF,” he notes, adding that he’ll probably wind up calling it an “eau de vie.” Faul also blends some of the Mead Song with his house mead to make a fortified mead analogous to a port or Madeira.