Mead, thought to be one of the oldest fermented drinks on earth, dates back to 2800 B.C., and perhaps earlier.
When posed the question of "What is mead, a beer or a wine?", the answer is quite simple. Technically speaking, it is neither a beer nor a wine, leaving it quite simply in a class by itself.
Mead does share some characteristics with beer and wine, which may lead some people to believe it is one or the other of these two fermented beverages. But the similarities with beer and wine do not extend too much further than the fact that all three go through the fermentation process, followed by a subsequent aging period.
Beer is made with water, barley, hops, malt and grain. Beer production is called brewing, involving the fermentation of starches, mainly derived from the cereal grains. Mead is made with honey, water and yeast. Mead uses champagne and wine yeasts, not the ale yeasts used in beer.
Beer, in being brewed, goes through a boiling stage. This is not so with mead. Mead's process is a rather simple one. The honey is mixed with water, any desired flavors or spices and the yeast. From this point, it goes directly to the fermenting stage. In this way, mead is much more similar to wine than it is to beer, as there is no boiling in wine fermentation either.
If the right type of yeast is combined with a suitable source of food, the yeast will consume that food, creating as its byproduct the alcohol in the beverage. Almost all sugars and starches constitute the main diet for the yeast cells.
Another factor that certainly sets beers and meads apart is the aging process for each product. Most beer is meant to be served in a relatively short period of time, within two to three months typically. Some select beers are ready to be served within days of brewing; and on occasion, the beer drinker will discover that their beer is, in fact, a year or more older.
Here again is where mead somewhat parallels wine. Mead's aging demands dictate that, once the yeast is added and fermentation begins, it be left to age at least one year, to mature, grow in complexity, and become a consumable beverage. Experts in mead brewing contend that ideally the mead should age 2-3 years before consumption. Wine, as we all know, is known by the year of its vintage, not by the week or month!
Perhaps a bit more clarity here will help define mead a bit more, and clarify a bit about why it is sometimes classified as a beer or wine.
There is what's called Braggot, a mead made with the addition of malt, grain, and hops. It is defined as a specialty beer by BJCP, "a mead made with malt."
Mead is sometimes called Honey Wine, but this in fact is not true, either. A honey wine is simply a wine sweetened with honey, the honey having nothing to do with the wine's fermentation. The mead's main ingredient is honey, the "engine" that gets the whole process started.
One of the most discernible differences between beer and mead is the alcohol content. Very few beers on the market exceed 8 percent alcohol content. Meads can range from 6 to 20 percent, depending on how it was fermented, much more in line with wines and some brandies.