Everyone knows the difference between beer and wine. It’s like comparing night and day, as they are two very distinct beverages. Many of us appreciate both, but there is no question they offer divergent drinking experiences. They belong to two separate families. There is no straddling of the fence. You can’t be both a beer and a wine.
Unless you start talking about mead, that is. Mead is the historic drink made famous by the Vikings. It is, essentially, fermented honey. It is after mead which they named the honeymoon; the legend says after 28 days (a “moon”) of drinking mead a newly married couple will find themselves pregnant with child. Neither beer nor wine can claim that power.
The question that stymies many experts is whether mead is more properly classified as wine or beer. On the surface it seems wine is the obvious answer—a single ingredient, served without carbonation (called “still”). However, it also has much in common with beer. Beer yeast works better with mead than wine yeast. Honey is a common ingredient in beer, and for centuries brewers have created mead-beer hybrids, called braggot. Mead-wine hybrids do not exist.
Further, as it turns out, the wine community has tended to shun mead until recently, while beer people embraced it as one of their own. I know, this does not resolve the debate, and clearly mead deserves its own category. Mead remains an enigmatic, intriguing beverage worthy of further exploration.
Further complicating the beer-wine debate are two Alberta-made meads I sampled recently. Each emphasizes qualities that might put them on opposite sides. First up is Birds & Bees Winery, located near Brosseau, AB (formerly En Santé) which produces a mead called Honey I Have Meads. Packaged as a wine—Birds & Bees is a fruit winery—and running at 11.5 percent, it has all the outward trappings of a wine.
It pours the palest possible yellow with the slightest hint of a frizzante character. The aroma is floral and sweet while the front offers a honey sweetness balanced by an earthy dryness. The middle draws out some clover-like grassiness and the finish brings out a moderate sweetness that reminds me of Sauvignon Blanc. It is clearly reminiscent of a moderately sweet white wine.
The key in this mead is that it offers just enough honey sweetness without tipping into cloying, which can be a common problem with mead. It presents to me as very versatile drink that could fit anywhere a white wine would work.
The next candidate is very different. Fallentimber Meadery from Water Valley produces a long line of traditional meads, including sweet and dry versions, blended with fruit or aged in oak. I picked up their Hopped Mead, which is bittered and flavoured with Chinook and Cascade hops, immediately evoking beer thoughts. Add to that it clocks in at a much more beer-y 7.5-percent alcohol.
This mead is also the palest straw, but offers a noted carbonation. The aroma is faint honey sweetness blending with a woody, earthy note and a perfume character. The front is a sharp honey sweetness that is quickly shifted. The middle dries out and allows a spicy hop character to arrive. The finish is a mix of earthy honey and a piney, soapy, spicy hop. The sip is not bitter, per se, but has an angular character that makes it seem less like a wine and more like an unusual beer.
These two samples prove why mead is so hard to classify. It can easily display characteristics of both beer and wine. Honey is remarkably versatile and can exhibit a variety of qualities. So, I suspect it is best we stop debating to which camp it best belongs and start appreciating it for what it is. V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.