Ten workshop participants gathered beneath a white tent in the parking lot of Winston-Salem’s City Beverage to learn how to make mead. Usually made with water, honey and yeast, mead has a long history in many cultures around the world. There are numerous variations depending on what else is added and the type of honey and yeast used.
“[Making it is] a little like wine, a little like beer and a little its own thing,” said Justin Sizemore, the workshop’s leader who’s been making mead for seven years and wine for 10.
Only one participant on June 29 had made mead before, but several had tasted it. I’ve had tej, Ethiopia’s version, at restaurants in Greensboro and Washington, DC. It’s sweet and a little syrupy, but it doesn’t have to be.
As we tasted five different types, Sizemore explained that the amount of sugar added in the brewing process results in more alcohol, just like in winemaking; less sugar equals less alcohol.
Two commercial meads represented this difference; Fox Hill Meadery, based in western North Carolina, produces a traditional, 13 percent alcohol mead that has a rich, woody flavor, while B. Nektar’s Slice of Life — only 5.5 percent — tasted like a doctored 7-Up, with lemon, ginger and light carbonation. True to science, B. Nektar was significantly less sweet than Fox Hill.
Sizemore brought some of his own homebrew for comparison. His spiced apple mead — SAM for short — uses apples, ginger, allspice, cloves and other spices, resulting in “a mulled wine you just have to heat up,” he said.
He’d also brought a bottle of SAM from 2009, which he’d made with orange peel, ginger and allspice. Bottle aging lent it a deeper flavor.
The crowd favorite, though, was his pear and honey mead that he called Peary Night. Another traditional mead, it was sweet like juice thanks to pear concentrate.[pullquote]Visit City Beverage at 915 Burke St. (W-S) and Colony Urban Farm Store at 1100 Reynolda Rd. (W-S) or find them on Facebook.[/pullquote]
Sizemore led the group through the steps to make Peary Night and a simple batch of plain honey mead. Using propane heaters that Spencer Davis of City Beverage utilizes to brew beer, Sizemore boiled two large pots of water and added Holly Honey from Florida to each, with a ratio of two to three pounds of honey per gallon of water.
The type of honey used in mead matters, as “different floral sources give you different flavors,” Sizemore said. He cautioned against honey from Asia, which combines honey sourced from different regions and may contain “horrible” pesticides and corn syrup.
The process for making mead is so simple, it seems like an easier step before trying brewing beer. Once you cool the honey water by adding more water and putting the pot in a bucket of ice water, add yeast and nutrients to help the yeast along. The tricky part is measuring the Brix and specific gravity with a hydrometer to make sure the end product will have the desired alcohol content. Sizemore gave workshop participants a handout listing materials, steps and troubleshooting advice, and City Beverage sells the equipment and ingredients, too.
Later this month, workshop participants will check on the mead to remove sediment and see if more yeast or nutrients need to be added. In August, they’ll try different honeys at the Colony Urban Farm Store in Winston-Salem.
In the end, mead — also called honey wine, ambrosia and nectar of the gods — is like Josh Pietrafeso from Colony described: “It’s different but just as good as grape wine.”