What is mead? What varieties are there, and how does it differ from beer?

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Mead, fairly simply, is a beverage made from fermented honey. Mead is one of the oldest known alcoholic drinks, by virtue of the facts that it ferments readily, and tends to be resistant to spoilage. If you've ever thought about making mead, stop by the Culver City Home Brewing Supply Company on Saturday, August 2nd. We'll be celebrating the American Homebrewers Association Second Annual National Mead Day. In honor of the occasion, our resident Meadmaster Brian Ignatin will be brewing up a batch and providing a running commentary along the way.

Meads come in a variety of types. However, meads share some common characteristics. All have a fairly high alcohol level, starting from 7.5% and ranging all the way up to 15%. Hence, the starting gravity is at least 1.070 and can range over 1.120. Since mead is a pale colored material, most examples have a light color. Exceptions to this occur when dark-colored ingredients are added. Meads are not hopped, with the exception of Braggot. Meads may be dry or sweet, and can be still or carbonated, depending on your personal preference.

Meads should feature the flavor and aroma of honey. If blended, the flavor of the blending material should be apparent, and balanced with the honey. Alcoholic warmth is typically evident. Esters should be restrained, and phenolics, generated at high fermentation temperatures, should be avoided. The key to a great mead is a harmonious balance of all the flavor components.

The BJCP guidelines describe eight different types of mead, based mostly on the special ingredients that go into the recipe. Here is a rundown of the various types, along with their BJCP category number:
25A. Traditional Mead. This is the basic mead recipe, where the source of honey is typically blended.
25B. Varietal Honey Mead. This version is made from one type of honey, typically when the honey has its own distinctive flavor.
25C. Cyser. This is a mead blended with apples. Traditionally, honey is added to apple juice to get the desired starting gravity.
25D. Pyment. This is a grape beverage, which may be blended with honey either before or after fermentation.
25E. Other Fruit Melomel. A mead flavored with fruit other than apples or grapes.
25F. Metheglin. A blend of mead with spices.
25G. Braggot. A mead which includes malt, or a blend of mead and ale. This is the only variety that includes hops in the formulation.
25H. Mixed Category Mead. If you don't have enough options from the list above, you can blend two or more types together.