What Is Mead? How Does Mead Differ From Beer?

by Dane Wilson | Last Updated: September 10, 2021

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What do sea-faring Vikings, classic literature, royalty and ancient Greeks and Romans have in common? Mead! Also known as the drink of the gods, mead has long been a popular drink and is continuing its reign even today. Did you know that there are over 250 meaderies in the USA alone? But what is mead, really? And why do fantasy writers always seem to confuse mead with beer?

Time to find out.

What is Mead?

The definition of mead is “an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and water.” This is a very simple definition, and it tends to ignore the diversity of mead. Not all meads are created equally, which we’ll get into soon.

Real mead combines honey and water. Then you add in some mead yeast for fermentation purposes. Sometimes, there are natural flavorings added into the brew to give the mead more complexity.

What Is Mead How Does Mead Differ From Beer_Sound Brewery

Why is Mead Called Honey Wine?

The main conclusion you can draw from mead and honey wine being interchangeable is that they are exactly the same. However, that’s not always the case. The defining attribute is that mead begins and ends with a high amount of honey.

Honey wine or t’ej (the Ethiopian version), on the other hand, has a different ratio of honey to the other ingredients. By the end of the fermentation process, honey wine may have up to 20% less honey in it than before.

Now to throw a curveball into the mix. The main reason there is confusion surrounding the differences between mead and honey wine has to do with a slight labeling technicality caused by the US Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Back when the TTB set the labeling standards for mead, they called it honey wine instead.

Up until 2016, you couldn’t label mead as mead in the US, which brought about even more consternation. Thankfully, because of the efforts from the American Mead Makers Association, there has been an amendment to the rules. Meaderies can now use either mead or honey wine on the labeling.

Difference Between Mead and Beer

Is mead similar to beer? Yeah, no. Mead has beer properties, but it’s not beer, kind of the same way true mead is kind of a wine but not. Mead is just mead. The main similarity between mead and beer is that both have a broad set up subcategories amid more prevalent styles—think lager, ale, and stout.

Both craft beers and craft mead have incredible versatility. When given into their creativity, brewers can come up with some crazily good flavor combinations for both mead and beer.

And have we mentioned the braggot? It’s a mead that is mixed with hops, beer or malt.

So in the comparison of mead vs beer, we can conclude that they are two separate entities; the only things tying these two together is their diversity and mixability.

The History of Mead

Thousands of years ago, some fortunate soul taste-tested the first batch of mead ever made. Mead is thought to be one of the world’s oldest alcoholic drinks for this reason.

Check out this video that goes into the history of mead:

Though pinpointing the origin of mead is difficult, evidence points to the African continent developing mead. Eventually, mead spread into Europe then the rest of the world. One interesting fact is that, while many associate mead with the vikings, it was also enjoyed by the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Ethiopians, Russians, and Anglo-Saxons.

As regions of the world became more urbanized and bee-keeping was exclusive to royalty, mead transformed into a drink of monarchs.

Oh, and here’s a fun fact to throw out at your next family gathering: the term “honeymoon” came about from newlyweds sipping on mead a month after the nuptials for fertility.

What is Mead’s ABV?

The alcoholic content of mead varies greatly—anywhere from 3% to 20% ABV. Session meads have an alcoholic range of 3% to 7%, standard strength is between 7% and 15% ABV, and sack meads, which are thick and sweet, contain around 14% to 20% alcohol by volume.

How does the ABV of mead compare to beer? Let’s look at it this way. A classic lager or pilsner runs between 4% and 5% ABV. Craft beers often range between 8-12% ABV.

Then there’s mead vs wine ABV. The various styles of wine mean that its alcohol content varies. White wines often have less ABV—around 10%, whereas reds start at 12% and go up. Shochu, sherry, port, and sake usually have around 17-34% ABV per serving.

How is Mead Made?

Meadmakers start with water and use it to dilute the honey, decreasing the sugar content. Fruits and spices can be included after diluting the honey, but some meaderies will replace a small amount of water with fruit juice.

The diluted honey is called “must.” Heat is applied to the must to kill off bacteria that could produce foul flavors, but this step is considered optional. Some meaderies skip heating the must, because they feel that it also kills off natural flavors. Instead, they rely on the antibacterial properties of honey to work.

Meadmakers then mix in yeast to begin fermentation. Unlike beer and wine, meaderies also need nutrient blends and oxygen to get the process started; honey alone doesn’t have enough nutrients to feed the yeast.

Now, the flavors and alcohol level of mead depends on a few things:

  • the diluted honey
  • type of yeast used
  • fermentation temperature

Once fermentation begins, mead ages anywhere from a couple months to a couple years before getting bottled and sent to market.

Did you know that Europe protects the production of mead? By law, producers cannot sell anything that isn’t mead and call it mead. Meanwhile, in the UK, producers may use wine as a base or other alcohols or use a back-sweetening process that adds honey or honey flavorings. If you want to try mead, go for something that is 100% real mead.

What Does Mead Taste Like?

Does mead taste like beer? Wine? Or is it entirely different?

As we’ve said before, mead is diverse. Dry, still, sweet, sparkling—you might think we’re describing wine, but it includes mead too. The type of honey, the fruit juices, spices, and herbs incorporated all influence how mead tastes.

For example, a high quality honey will lend floral notes to the mead, while adding blueberries will give it a berry quality.

Best Mead on the Market

Looking for some mead to try? Here are some recommended meaderies, mead, and honey wines that will give you new insights on the versatility of this alcoholic beverage:

  • Viking Blod (Danish) – labeled as Nordic honey wine (Dansk mjod), this is a rather traditional mead recipe includes dried hibiscus and a floral aftertaste. 19% ABV.
  • Heidrun Meadery (US) – producing effervescent, champagne-style mead that makes for a sweet sip. If you want something similar to beer, try the Carrot Blossom, which comes across like a Belgian Saison.
  • Lancashire Mead Company (UK) – selling a variety of mead from their online store, this meadery uses both traditional recipes and more contemporary ones. Their brews are free from gluten and suitable for vegetarians.
  • Four Fires Meadery (US) – a brand that has transformed melomels into art. The mead is refreshing, fruity, punchy, and unique. Try out the Banana French Toasty mead for a boozy breakfast.
  • Lindisfarne Spiced Mead (UK) – here’s a mead that contains wine (written as fermented grape juice) and herbs.

Or you can simply learn how to make your own! This video demystifies the whole process:

Final Thoughts

More mead! You’re going to start seeing mead everywhere you go, now that it’s more popular than ever. From juicy craft mead to more traditional brews, mead is diverse and flavorful. You are bound to find one style (or several) that you love. Or you can try brewing up some mead of your own!

Frequently Asked Questions

Is mead a beer or wine?

Mead is neither beer nor wine. Yes, it’s fermented for a period of time, but it doesn’t taste like beer or wine. Mead is honey wine, but it’s also not. Mead has properties of all these things, but it’s a unique beverage blended from fermented honey, water, yeast, and the combination of fruits, herbs, spices, and more.

What does mead taste like?

Mead can come across a fruity wine, a white wine, or a hard cider, depending on the quality of honey used and the other flavorings. For example, a melomel—a mead made with berries—could taste like blackberries or raspberries. A rhodomel has a rosy quality; acerglyn has maple notes; and a braggot, which is mead blended with beer, will give you hints of barley and hops.

Is mead a wine or a spirit?

Mead is commonly referred to as honey wine, not as a spirit. However, it also shares commonalities with beer and cider. For this reason, mead has its own category. Depending on where you live, you might find mead stocked near unusual wines or next to craft beers.

Is mead illegal?

No, mead is not illegal. Mead doesn’t require any distillation, which is illegal. If you plan on making mead at home, it is perfectly legal to do so, so long as you don’t sell or trade it.