The alchemy of mead

By Website Administrator | Nov 3, 2006

Dr. Diana Phillips is using Chemistry to unravel the mysteries of mead.

"Mead - often called honey wine - is the world's oldest fermented beverage," according to Dr. Diana Phillips, associate professor and program director for Chemistry at Kettering University.

It's place in history is well documented in song, myth and legend, but what gives each mead an individual quality has gone largely unstudied. Phillips and her fellow mead makers in the International Mead Association (IMA) have set out to change all that.

Phillips is part of the Research Committee of the IMA, working on understanding how the variables integral to making mead affect the outcome of the mead produced. "There are a lot of variables that determine the characteristics of mead, but these variables haven't been studied as much as the variables that affect wine," Phillips said.

"We are looking at how a variety of factors including the honey used, different strains of yeast, the timing of adding ingredients during the fermentation process and temperature affect the final taste and quality of mead," she said. Even the containers used to ferment the mead and conditions of storage during fermentation are being examined.

The Research Committee includes other professional scientists and many long-time mead makers including Dr. Garth Cambray, a microbiologist from South Africa, and Ken Schramm, author of "The Complete Mead Maker" from Michigan, and six others besides Phillips.

The committee is also working on how best to judge mead by developing criteria that characterize high quality mead. Their criteria will be introduced at the IMA meeting in February in Denver, Colorado, where home-brewed and commercially brewed meads will be judged and awarded prizes much like wines are judged.

She calls Boulder, Colorado the hub of the International Mead Association. Boulder has become a progressive location for independent beer and mead brewers, according to Phillips.

There are a limitless variety of meads, according to Phillips. She currently brews five different kinds of mead:
traditional - the basic recipe consisting of water, honey and yeast;
apple cider and pumpkin spice added to the traditional recipe;
Jabanero peppers added to traditional recipe; and
white grapes added to the traditional recipe.

Interestingly, she doesn't brew one of her personal favorites, a green tea herb-infused mead.

To be considered mead, 50 percent of the fermentable sugars have to come from honey. Mead brewing equipment is similar to that used in brewing beer - the current licensing for brewing mead classifies it as a wine.

According to Phillips, mead can be made almost as dark as red wine or very light and almost clear. To alter flavor, brewers add fruit, lemonade, hops and barley, or use containers designed to enhance flavor such as oak casks.

It takes between six months and two years to brew mead (although some Polish meads are older). "During the fermentation process mead goes through a number of stages including one where it tastes like Listerine," said Phillips. Further chemical reactions during fermentation improve the flavor however, she said.

Mead is not necessarily sweet, it can be made very sweet or very dry, still (not bubbly) or be made sparkling (bubbly). As meads age they achieve a dryness, according to Phillips. "If they become too dry you can always add honey after the yeast is finished fermenting," she said.

Phillips said she can produce about six gallons of mead at a time in carboys, giant-sized glass jugs. Private mead makers can legally brew up to 200 gallons a year for personal use, she said.

Phillips has been making mead for about a year and half. "I've been learning a lot about the process and about the chemistry involved," she said.

Although many meads that are commercially available are mostly sweet, there are mead brewers who hope to change that. "Most mead sellers are also microbreweries or wineries. There are only a handful of meaderies that only produce mead," Phillips said. "Hopefully that will change now that the IMA is formally organized."

In addition to unraveling the variables that affect flavor and developing criteria for judging meads, the IMA Research Committee is also collaborating to identify how to pair various meads with food.

"Mead is so versatile," Phillips said, "we're trying to determine what types of foods to recommend pairing with mead. My Jabanero mead is great with barbeque," she said, "while the apple cider and pumpkin spice mead I brew is more a dessert mead."

Phillips first became interested in mead after attending a feast in a castle during a trip to Great Britain. She came up with an idea for marketing mead in an untapped market demographic and thought it would be fun to play with different recipes. "It's all about the chemistry," she said, "no chemist should go through life and not get involved in brewing something."

Passing that idea on to the next generation of chemists, Phillips introduced Rachel Charron '06, an environmental chemist for General Motors, to mead making during her senior year at Kettering University. Charron had expressed an interest in one day having a micro-brewery and Phillips suggested she try mead making.

Charron did her senior thesis project using a varietal honey derived from raspberry pollen. Her mead followed the traditional recipe of honey, yeast and water. Charron's thesis examined the effect of the surface area of the container and content of the container material on the speed of fermentation.

She found that the speed of fermentation was dependant on the surface reaction between the mead and the container in which it was housed and that light container material caused the mead to ferment faster than dark container materials.

Charron's mead probably won't be ready for the IMA judging in February, but she is intrigued by the mead making culture and thinks she may have found a life-long hobby. Phillips, on the other hand, is preparing one of her specialty blends for the competition. "I'm hoping to win at the competition with my apple cider and pumpkin spice mead," she admitted.

Prior to that however, she wants to visit South Africa to visit Dr. Garth Cambray's meadery sometime in December to talk (and drink) mead.

Written by Dawn Hibbard
(810) 762-9865
dhibbard@kettering.edu