Tasting Meads

Mead. Considering it’s been around for centuries, it’s surprising that more people don’t know about it. It’s wine made from honey, water and yeast, and and the mead scene is growing in Canada. Apiaries are expanding to include mead as a value added product, and so are a lot of wineries who keep bees in their orchards to help with their fruit pollination. But what constitutes as a good mead?

Basic Mead Terminology

In order to be able to describe mead properly, you’ll need to know the basic terminology of what makes a mead. You’ll find that a lot of the terms used to describe mead is very similar to the vocabulary used for wine.

Let’s start with the level of sweetness, keeping in mind that the levels of sweetness is independent of the strength of the mead.

Dry
Much like a dry wine, there is very little sweetness detected and as well as little residual sugars left in the aftertaste. Can feel like a squeegee went through your tongue.

Semi-Sweet/ Dry
Medium amount of sweet, it’s fairly even-keel in terms of the sweetness.

Sweet
The key flavour is a high level of sweetness, though it should not have a raw honey sweetness to the flavour.

Next, we’ll talk about carbonation. Carbonation can really affect how your mead is perceived. Will the carbonation make the flavours pop, or will it take away from the delicate honey flavours? Here are the levels of carbonation:

Still
Like water, though the slightest of bubbles can be declared as still.

Petillant
Lightly sparkling. Pretty much everything in between water/ flat soda water to champagne.

Sparkling
The bubbles should be effervescent and alive on your tongue. Anything less than this should be declared as petillant.

Lastly, we’ll talk about strength. While it is a wine, it doesn’t always have to be at the wine strength level of mid-teens in terms of ABV. And generally the more honey you use, the higher ABV you’ll get.

Hydromel
Light, sessionable levels. 3.5%—7.5%

Standard
Medium range. 7.5%—14%

Sack
14%—18% (or more)

And with all those different mead characteristics, the most important thing about mead you need to know is balance. There needs to be balance between the sweetness, acidity and tannins, even in your plain old traditionals. If you miss any one of these legs in the tripod of balance, your mead is going to fall flat.

Mead Styles

In order to understand mead a bit better, it’s important to understand the different styles of meads that are available. Much like beer, the different styles dictate different parameters the meads must achieve in order to be a good example of that style.

1. Traditional
This is the most basic of mead styles. Just honey, water and yeast (and potentially some acids and tannins to balance everything else, but you get the gist). This is the category to showcase any cool characteristics that your honey might have. The vanilla, cotton candy notes of the Meadowfoam honey, the cinnamony notes of the Tupelo honey or the dank, horsey, barnyard, caramel notes of the Buckwheat honey.

2. Fruit Mead
If all you’ve got is some wildflower honey/ some honey with unknown sources, fear not, because you can turn that into some lovely fruit mead. Here, mead gets a little specific is naming the styles depending on the fruit you’re making the mead with. Note that the “fruit” refers to culinary fruit in this case. The addition of fruits often bring its own acidity and tannins into the mix, so that’s a great way to naturally add balance to your mead. My favourites are sour cherry meads.

Cyser
Mead made with apples (mead/ cider hybrid)

Pyment
Mead made with grapes (mead/ grape wine hybrid)

Stone Fruit Mead
Mead made with stone fruits like cherries, apricots, peach, mangoes, pretty much any fleshy fruit that has a single pit in the middle. Single fruit or multiple stone fruit varieties used in a mead should be entered here.

Berry Mead
Mead made with berries. Pretty much anything with “berry” in its name is suitable here. Single berry or multiple berries in a mead should be entered here.

Melomel
Mead made with any other fruit that is not listed above (like durian), or if there is a combination of different fruits used, like apple and grape.

3. Spiced Meads (aka Metheglin)
Any mead with any sort of spices, or herbs and vegetables it seems, goes in this category

Fruit and Spiced Mead
Self explanatory, but pretty much a mead with one or more fruit and one or more spice in it.

Spice, Herb or Vegetable Mead
Meads with culinary spices, herbs or vegetable (this is where you would enter a tomato mead). Other ingredients would include flowers, teas (only if for flavours and not for tannins), nuts, coconut, citrus peels, etc.

4. Specialty Mead

Braggot
Mead made with malt (mead/ beer hybrid)

Historical Mead
Mead category I always have to Google when judging. Pretty much any mead style that is from a particular region, like the Polish miód pitny, the Ethiopian tej or the Finnish sima for some examples.

Experimental Mead
Pretty much anything that doesn’t quite fit the other subcategories. Could include
– Combination of different subcategories (i.e. pyment with cranberries and coconut)
– Additional fermentable sugars (i.e. maple syrup)
– Additional ingredients (i.e. liquor, crab shells, Fruit Loops, hops)
– Alternative processes (i.e. icing)
– Fermentation with non-traditional yeasts (i.e. Brett)

Tasting Mead

Mead tasting is much more similar to wine tasting than beer tasting, without the spitting out part; mead’s too precious to spit out, and more seriously, how the mead goes down your throat is part of the evaluation. Ideally, mead should be served at room temperature or just slightly chilled. Cold mead really does a disservice to the mead by muting the flavours. Here’re the steps I usually take to get the full impact of a mead.

1. The Bouquet
First thing I do is to take a big sniff of the mead, and try to get a quick picture. What jumps out? Do I get any honey characteristics? Any yeast notes? If it’s a mead with any additions, do I get any notes of the additions, and how well does it marry with the honey notes? Then I go back for a few more sniffs to get specific details of the honey, yeast, and additions, if applicable, of the bouquet. Most honey varietals are going to be floral than fruit in nature, so if your only descriptor for floral is “floral”, then I highly recommend hitting up your local florist and get familiar with how the different floral varietals smell. Overall, is the bouquet pleasant?

2. The Appearance
Next, I take a look at the mead. Does the colour seem right? If there are additives, can I see the colours imparted by the additives? What’s the clarity like? Does the carbonation level match the level declared? If it is a higher ABV mead, are there any legs when the mead is swirled?

3. The Flavour
Just because honey is sweet, doesn’t mean that that’s all you’re looking to get out of a mead. There should be a balance in the flavour between sweetness, acidity and tannins, even in traditional meads. Like with the aroma, I take the first sip to get a quick picture of what flavours jump out at me. Are the honey flavours still prominent in the flavour, and if there are additives, how balanced are they in regards to each other. No matter what is added to mead, there should be a harmony of flavours, with no one flavour taking over the other. My consequent sips inform me about the detailed characteristics of the honey and the additives (if applicable), any other flavours, and then the levels of sweetness, acidity and tannins that are present in the mead, and whether they are in balance.

4. The Mouthfeel
The ABV of the mead should impact the body of the mead. If it is a hydromel, the body should be lighter and thinner, whereas for a sack mead, the body should be more viscous and luscious. Of course, additives can affect the body of the mead as well, and should be reflected appropriately. Level of carbonation that is declared should be apparent in the mouthfeel, and sometimes, can be used to enhance the flavours in the mead (with carbonation brings carbonic acid, which can really brighten up a mead with lower acidity). How does the tannin present on your palate? Does it dry your palate out like a squeegee on a wet surface, or does it gentle clear it to make way for another sip of mead?

5. The Bouquet (again)
By the end of tasting the mead, the mead has usually warmed up a little more, so I go back to the bouquet to see if anything has changed since I smelt it in the beginning, and note it down.

How to learn more about meads

Unlike beer, there aren’t a lot of Canadian commercial meads to be begin with, and out of those that are available, the ones that are good examples to styles are few and far between. So here’s how to get better at tasting meads:

1. Try as many honeys as possible
Start a honey tasting journal. You want to try as many single varietal honeys as possible, which can be challenging in Canada. If a honey is declared a particular type of honey, you want to clarify if the honey is from that particular source or flavoured after the fact. For example, a lot of lavender honey is flavoured with lavender after the fact, not honey collected just from lavender flowers. It’s not a big deal, except if you’re making mead with it, the extra unknown-to-you additive might affect your fermentation. If tasting wildflower honey (which is going to be the majority of honey found in Canada), if you can, find out when it was harvested and from which region. Depending on your knowledge of what kind of wildflowers grow the particular region at that particular time, you might be able to narrow down what kind of flavours to expect. A wildflower honey from a bog area might taste more like mushrooms, must, and earthy, whereas a wildflower honey from a meadow in springtime might yield brighter flavours like hay and geraniums.

2.  Talk to follow mead makers
Source out fellow mead makers and talk shop with them. If you can’t find any local homebrewers, reach out to your closes commericial mead maker. I’ve found that most of them are more than happy to talk shop about making mead. There are also a lot of online mead forums, like GotMead?.

3. Try as many meads as possible
If you ever get a chance, apply to judge at a mead only competition. There was one in Okotoks, AB this year called Horde at the Hive Hobby Mead Competition, and one coming up next year in January in Vancouver, BC called Mellarius Cup, but the mead only competitions are fairly new here. The more established mead competitions can be found in the US, such as the Mazer Cup in Colorado and the Michigan Mead Cup.

This is a fantastic way to be able to try a lot of different meads in a short amount of time, with a lot of the meads being excellent examples of the styles they’re being entered into. Of course, most mead competitions do require you to have some sort of mead judge endorsement (either through the BJCP program or a wine judging program), but don’t hesitate to reach out to competition directors anyways with an interest in judging, even if you don’t have any judge experience. Most competitions are happy to train new judges if they have enough experienced judges to pair them up with.

Alternatively, if judging at a mead-only competition is out of reach due to logistics, here’s a list of meads recommended by mead makers and lovers in Canada.

James Clark
Kelowna, BC
BJCP Mead Judge

Recommends: Meadow Vista Honey Wines in Kelowna, BC

1. Bliss Cherry (Melomel, Stone Fruit Mead) – When opened, it has subtle notes of honey sweetness and cherry. As it warms, the fullness of the fruit comes forward with an added dark fruit character. The flavor is semi-dry with an excellent balance of acidity. The honey flavor is traditional wildflower. The finish is smooth with a slight lingering tartness.

2. Mabon (Metheglin) – This spicy mead has a beautiful pale golden color. The cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove all showcase in the aroma but don’t overpower a gentle honey note in the background. The spices blend well in the flavor and mix with the honey sweetness to carry through to a peppery finish. Well executed mead.

3. Ruby’s (Melomel, Berry Mead) – The dark purple color of this mead makes you think of juicy blackberries even before you have the aroma in your nose.  Hints of butter mix with the fruit to give it a jam-like aroma.  An excellent blend of honey and fruit give this mead a clean flavor; a crisp acidity carries this mead through a slightly sweet finish; the fruit lingers on the tongue.

Ivan Kozoletov
Prince Albert, SK
Multiple Mazer Cup award winning homebrewer, most recently Gold in Stone Fruit Mead and Spice, Herb or Vegetable (Dry) Mead in 2018

Recommends: Black & Blue mead from Chinook Arch Meadery in Okotoks, AB, and the Meadjito and Hopped Mead from Fallentimber Meadery in Water Valley, AB.

“I really like Chinook’s Black & Blue mead as well as Bodacious Black Currant. They are fruity, in a semi-sweet range, not too dry or cloyingly sweet, with distinct rich berry flavours, so they go very well on camping trips in the Rocky Mountains at evening by the fire.

Another meadery from AB is Fallentimber Meadery and I[‘ve] tried all of their meads. The honey they collect from bees in foothills from wildflowers is very floral, almost transparent with the slight yellow hue in colour, and remarkably delicate in taste. Fallentimbers’ Meadjito and Hopped Mead are great session offerings which you can quaff by pints on a hot summer day. Fallentimber’s Hopped Mead is what inspired me to make a batch of my own hopped mead with some tweaking, dry hopping with Amarillo, experimenting with the residual sweetness level and force carbonating to get bubbly like effervescence. Mak[ing] good mead takes a few tries until you happy with what you got.”

Stephen Snudden
Kingston, ON
Creator of experimeads.com, award winning homebrew mead maker, and BJCP Mead Judge

Recommends: The dry traditional and black currant meads from Munro Honey and Meadery, based out of Alvinston, ON.

From their website:

Dry Mead: This mead surprises many with its dryness. Subtle honey flavours carry this refreshing mead to a clean, crisp finish. Silver Medal at 2004 International Mead Festival.

Black Currant Melomel: Gold Medal at 2012 Mazer Cup International This melomel is a smooth blend of tart and sweet that will tickle your tastebuds. A complex berry aroma, with the taste of juicy black currants and a subtle note of black cherry. 

Eric Bélanger Laflamme
Pointe-Fortune, QC
Moderator of Hydromel Québec

Recommends: Meads from Miel Nature, Intermiel and Miel d’Anicet

“I have a big crush on [Miel Natures’s] honey whiskey! Their mead called Signature is very good as well. Their honey whiskey is a treat and Signature could compare to a good wine that would go well with a main meal.”

Other Resources

Kathy Yan Li is a director of the Canadian Homebrewers Association. She’s the first Canadian to get her BJCP Mead judge certification, and has run tasting exams in Canada to certify more mead judges. She is also a hoarder of honeys and has at least 12 different single varieties in her collection.

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