Guess which alcoholic beverage is the fastest growing in the country, boasting a huge 150 percent leap last year? Not craft beer. Not small-batch whiskey. Not cider. While mead lags behind in popularity, subconsciously linked to “Beowulf” references and Renaissance fairs, it’s actually having quite a moment in this century. The market share’s still quite small (there are only about 240 meaderies in America), but don’t discount the trend: Mead’s breadth of flavors and textures is wonderfully broad, which means there’s much to explore and something for every palate. Here, everything you need to know to get started tasting:
What is it?
In its most basic form, mead is simply fermented honey: The essential ingredients are water, honey and yeast.
What does it taste like?
Just as it’s tough to explain what “beer” tastes like (imagine describing a bourbon-barrel- aged barleywine versus a raspberry sour), it’s equally tough to sum up mead’s incredible array of flavors. The simplest explanation is that they all have honey character. It can be dry and earthy, sweet and sticky, and even when it has bark, chai and lavender in it, honey should still be detectable. The honey varietal will vary the taste significantly, with some being dark and molasseslike, others light and fruity.
How sweet is it?
You might find mead on shelves next to dessert wines, but not all of them are suit- able for the sweet tooth. Dry meads are quite sharp in the finish, though they typical- ly aren’t bone-dry like brut Champagne; just a small amount of residual sweetness from the honey or perceived sweetness from fruit additions make it drinkable but not dessert-like. Semi-sweet meads will have subtle to moderate sweetness; it should be about the intensity of a medium-dry white wine. Sweet meads can stop just a hair short of cloying, but should never taste like syrupy, unfermented honey.
How bubbly is it?
Meads can be dead still, petillant with just a few small bubbles that stick to the glass or sparkling. Sparkling meads wear a very tall head that dissipates quickly; on the tongue it can have Champagnelike effervescence.
What cheese does it pair with?
If you’re sipping a semisweet sparkling mead, pair it with a creamy cheese like brie: The bubbles cut the fat, and the honey flavor’s a lovely complement to the cheese’s buttery notes. Try still sweet mead with a sharp, bright cheese like gouda; the cheese’s bite breaks up the sweetness.
What should I pour it in?
Break out a tulip or large red wine glass to unleash mead’s honey aromas; honey notes should always be present in the nose, even when there are powerful fruit or herb additions. For festive sparkling meads, try a Champagne flute and for a large, sack-strength mead, enjoy a nip in a snifter.
How strong is it?
That depends on the category. Hydromel is 3.5% to 7.5% ABV; Standard is 7.5% to 14% ABV; Sack is 14%+ ABV.
What are the styles?
Traditional mead is as simple as fermented honey, but throw another ingredient into the mix and you’ve got one of these sub-styles:
Melomel: mead brewed with fruit, like mango
Cyser: mead brewed with apples (subset of melomel)
Pyment: mead brewed with grapes (subset of melomel)
Metheglin: mead brewed with flowers (lavender), herbs (mint) or spices (chai)
Braggot: mead brewed with malt; a beer-mead hybrid
Open category mead: mead brewed with other ingredients that can come from two or more categories (i.e., a cyser brewed with apples and cinnamon); other ingredients altogether (molasses, chilies, bark); or those that employ alternative brewing techniques (barrel aging)