By Andrew Luberto
I recently organized an Education and Training event featuring Gidon Coll, CEO and cider maker of Original Sin cider. Gidon is extremely passionate about his craft; it’s evident within a few minutes of talking with him. During a Q & A session after his presentation, someone asked him about best practice to make the leap into home cider making with a homebrewer’s background. His initial response: “The first thing you need to do is forget everything you know about making beer.” It was a funny line that garnered a lot of laughs. However, it occurred to me that his observation could apply as advice to someone making the leap into mead judging as well. Judging beer and judging mead is fundamentally the same at its most basic level; however, in certain key aspects it is a different application of knowledge.
Many of the misconceptions in judging mead seem ultimately rooted in either misinformation or simply unfamiliarity with the beverage,which is an understandable result of the commercial availability of wine and beer compared to mead. In an attempt to shed light on the differences and similarities between judging mead and beer, I recently spoke with some of the leading authorities on mead and mead judging for their opinions and judging methods:
Michael Fairbrother, Founder and Meadmaker of Moonlight Meadery
Steve Piatz, BJCP Exam Director and Author of The Complete Guide to Making Mead: The Ingredients, Equipment, Processes, and Recipes for Crafting Honey Wine
Susan Ruud, Founder and Meadmaker of Prairie Rose Meadery
Ken Schramm, Founder and Meadmaker of Schramm’s Mead and Author of The Compleat Meadmaker
Gordon Strong, BJCP President and Author of Brewing Better Beer: Master Lessons for Advanced Homebrewers and Modern Homebrew Recipes: Exploring Styles and Contemporary Techniques
Judging Beer vs. Judging Mead
At its most basic, judging mead and judging beer (or any beverage for that matter) is the same process. As Gordon Strong noted, “The approach of visual examination, followed by aroma then flavor is pretty much the same. Likewise with talking about overall impression…Identify components, quantify their intensity, discuss if they are appropriate or not, then offer suggestions for improvement — that’s all the same.” However, the evaluation and interpretation of those perceptions can be different at times. The fact that mead may often use a greater variety of ingredients is one factor contributing to the differences in judging. Other factors include a lack of availability of commercial examples and the different application of terms like “balance.”
Michael Fairbrother points out that judging mead verse beer is “…fairly similar but significantly different…the mead categories are pretty open. There’s so much variation in even just melomels.”
Ken Schramm reveals that “[judging mead is] similar to beer judging in that you have to have some familiarity of the styles and the ability to set aside your own personal preferences. The biggest difference is familiarizing yourself with a whole different set of ingredients.” He goes on to say, “Beer judges are frequently looking for faults which is different than what I see in the world of mead and the world of wine.” He references the point system in many wine magazines as an illustration, and says “It’s more common in wine and in mead where you see top critics giving 100 point scores but that’s really uncommon in beer.”
Susan Ruud talks about the differences in terms of characteristics, “Beers don’t have the acid/tannin balance. You need a balance between your honey, whatever flavoring, and that acid/tannin balance or your going to get a dull or flabby mead or one painful to drink. You also have to balance the sweetness and balance the alcohol.” She continues “I approach mead as to how do all those components fit together, you can do almost anything with mead as long as you can get all those aspects balanced”.
One of the obstacles in judging mead is the lack of a frame of reference. Unlike beer, where just about everyone has access to commercial examples representing the vast majority of styles in the BJCP guidelines, access to quality commercial meads are few and far between in many places. As a result, judges may find themselves questioning characteristics of ingredients they are not familiar with or labelling fault to things that aren’t necessarily a fault.
As Steve Piatz put it, “The lack of experience a lot of people have in tasting meads makes it hard for them. The lack of vocabulary and the sensory skills that go along with mead judging. Beer being so widely available…has a significant advantage.”
Ken Schramm says, “It’s easy to pick out whether something is too sweet without enough acidity, but it’s not as easy as knowing what a classic pils is and that (a pilsner) is not supposed to have diacetyl or aliphatic esters because it’s out of style. With mead, people are usually trying to create something in their mind’s eye or mind’s tongue if you will (laughs), you don’t know exactly what that is but, you do have that obligation to try to help them understand if something they did is pleasant.”
This lack of a frame of reference is something Schramm attributes to potentially over critical judges. He claims,“The need for some beer judges to pick apart every possible flaw isn’t necessarily the best approach… part of that is also inherent in the beer world because there are so many classic examples. If you want to know what a great pale ale is or a great hefeweizen, you can compare an entrant’s beers to those beers and if they have missed their target then that’s appropriate. There aren’t similar stylistic examples in mead, you just have to figure out what they were trying to do and did they do it.”
Get to Know the Ingredients
One way to overcome a lack of reference is to get to know your ingredients. Just as any credible beer judge will familiarize themselves with classic beer examples and ingredients, mead judges have even more of an obligation given the myriad of ingredients used to make mead.
Ruud discusses this point: “You need to know your ingredients. A lot of that is just tasting your ingredients beforehand.” Ruud advises to try cooking different ingredients together to see how the flavors blend. She says, “Occasionally you will get a judge that just doesn’t understand, and if they hate an ingredient, perhaps they should recuse themselves.” She stresses that it’s not about your personal preference. Furthermore, Rudd says,“If you buy just a tiny little jar of honey, what the honey tastes like is going to come through in the mead. So, if you learn what flavors are in those honeys, it makes a big difference when you are judging that particular honey.” Although Susan acknowledges the challenge to knowing all varieties when there are so many different honeys. She admits she still goes to competitions and occasionally comes across varieties she’s never tried before.
Fairbrother: “One year I made over 60 varietal meads just so I can have a rolodex in my head of what the flavor and aroma was supposed to be like. Get a pound of honey and some half growlers and some yeast and off you go.”
Schramm: “In order to be a really good mead judge you need to go out and familiarize yourself with different varietal honeys that are not always cheap to get a hold of.” He adds, “You owe it to the people you’re going to be judging.”
Strong: “Mead often has specialty ingredients added (fruit, spices, others) that beer judges might not often see. So, understanding the true character of the added ingredients is important since some of them might be mistaken for flaws (adding clove, for instance).”
Understanding Honey and How it is Perceived
Perception of honey doesn’t mean perceiving characteristics associated with raw honey. In fact, a distinct unfermented honey character is most likely signs of fermentation issues and is undesirable. In addition, other than in traditional meads, honey character may be a very slight secondary note or act as a supportive character. Judges should be aware that not being able to distinctly identify prominent honey character is not a fault, particularly in some melomels with aggressive fruits. As Schramm points out, “You should be able to tell the difference between a fruit wine and a fruit mead.” Knowing the difference between fermented fruit with table sugar and a melomel should be apparent even if you’re not getting overt honey-like character.
Strong: “I think inexperienced mead judges will often reward a poorly fermented mead just because it is sweeter and tastes more like honey. So being able to differentiate a cleanly fermented,sweet mead from one with a raw honey taste and a rough fermentation character is pretty important. You have similar problem with inexperienced beer judges rewarding high alcohol beers. Judges in general should be less impressed with brash and intense flavors and pay closer attention to the quality of ingredients, cleanliness of fermentation and handling, and overall presentation.” He goes on to say, “Just as you shouldn’t expect wine to taste like grape juice, you shouldn’t expect mead to taste like a honey cocktail.”
Fairbrother: “The way things have worked with judging meads up until the last four years or so is you were just rewarded for getting that raw honey flavor into the beverage. I talked at the BJCP [Judges Reception at the NHC] a few years ago and said, we’re wrong. Judging was wrong; here’s what we should be looking at …it’s that evolution from ‘well, we don’t know what mead is supposed to taste like but it’s got honey so let’s look for that honey character. Well I can make a bone dry black currant mead where you can’t taste the honey but the honey is there underneath it. That’s a winner, because people aren’t trying to find honey they’re trying to find a good quality beverage that can compete against beer and wine.” Fairbrother said he is “not looking for (unfermented) honey flavor; I consider that a pretty significant fault in the finished product. A lot of people think that mead needs to be sweet.” He continues, “Honey in a mead should be there but shouldn’t be the dominant characteristic unless you’re talking about a traditional mead. So in particular thinking about a melomel, you’re trying to showcase how all the elements work together better than if they were there by themselves. When you’re looking at the overall beverage do the ingredients support each other?”
Schramm uses what he describes as a “whopping amount of fruit” in his meads as well as a significant amount of honey. However, he has found that there are times when his meads were judged as not having enough honey flavor. He attributes this to judges being untrained in what melomel with lots of fruit in it tastes like, versus a fruit wine that may be just raspberries and table sugar. He points out “if you make a fruit mead, you don’t want to have the fruit compete with the honey. You can make a mead that is distinctively honeyed but doesn’t necessarily have such a honey component that the fruit is detracted from”.
Piatz adds, “There will be some honey note almost always but it probably isn’t going to reach out and grab you as prominent honey with some of the fruits that could have been used. “
Judging Specialty Ingredients in Mead
Judges should be aware that not everything listed by an entrant needs to be individually identifiable or characteristic as it would be in its raw form. Fermented honey does not taste exactly the same as raw honey, however, there are some who still feel the need to detect some raw honey quality in order to be characterized as a successful mead. The same can be attributed to the addition of fruit and spice, a mead with strawberries and rhubarb does not need to have the characteristics of strawberry and rhubarb as distinctly separate identifiable components of equal intensity in order to warrant a high score in a competition. As Strong notes, “I think it’s also a problem in trying to understand fermented flavors from raw flavors. Mead often has additional ingredients, like fruit, that can take on a different flavor when fermented.” Judges should be cognizant that ultimately it is the beverage as a whole which is being evaluated. This is what Michael Fairbrother refers to as the “totality of the beverage”.
Fairbrother explains: “A lot of times when entrants enter into a competition, they list the ingredients that are like 40 miles long and you’re as a judge saying ‘I don’t taste the cranberry’, well maybe you don’t have to. Maybe its a supporting flavor that’s accenting the tartness to balance the sweetness of the honey to work with whatever other ingredients might be in there”. “Sometimes I see judges getting too caught up in ‘I don’t taste the huckleberry’, if the entrant lists 20 spices and you can’t pick them all out that’s probably a good thing. The biggest mistake I see with people making spice meads is they put too much in. What I’m looking for is suggestive.” Fairbrother likens the spice expectations of some to pumpkin spiced beers. “The totality of the beverage is that each aspect is independent but supportive of each other. The way I talk about it in the beer world is, think about most of the pumpkin beers out there, they really go too far with the spicing. If they were to cut it back by 80-90% you’d still have enough flavor to work with the beer and tease the malt and the hops together to be a better beverage”
Piatz adds, “Very few judges have a good concept of how flavors meld. I think a lot of judges when presented with a mead that, for example, says it has three different fruits in it, are going to look for each fruit individually to stand out and that’s probably not what the maker intended and not what happens in nature when you put those three fruits together in a fermentation. They’re going to meld into something different. Hopefully, something better than the individual pieces”.
Fairbrother “The biggest challenge is what is the perception of what you are tasting. If you have a mead that finishes at 1 or two brix but the acidity is high it’s going to present as very tart or very dry. As a judge you need to think about that rather than what’s the viscosity or what’s the finishing gravity.”
Piatz talked about focusing too much on individual aspects in regards to color: “I caution people on really auguring in on color. We don’t have a color guide card for mead, thank god. I’ve noticed too many novice beer judges spending way too much time comparing the beer in their glass (to a color chart) and forgetting the big picture of what the entry tastes like.”
Mead Changes Over Time
Unlike beer which in most examples is at its peak right out of the bottle, meads can continue to develop in the glass over time with exposure to oxygen. Being aware that mead changes over time and keeping samples on the table longer to be referred back to is an easy way to allow some breathing time without messing up the entire process of the competition. Wine competitions do allow for entries to be opened in advance sometimes hours before judging, however, this currently isn’t feasible in most competition settings or optimal for the entry.
Schramm “I feel like I am never able to give meads in a flight their due diligence if I don’t keep them all on the table with me for the entire flight. Even another 15 or 20 minutes.” Schramm continued “in beer it’s almost the exact opposite, most beers will get worse over time on the table if they’re served at the appropriate temperature. They’re going to be their best in the first 5-10 minutes when you get to avail yourself of their characteristics. The same will never be true of meads and wines because they will evolve and, in fact, they may continue to improve over an hour or two and sometimes even over three or four hours.”
Schramm even goes so far to say that judging meads in the way we judge beer may be doing a great disservice to entrants without taking into consideration what he calls “table length.” “The ability to show different characters and to take on oxygen and improve is the sign of a great mead. If you’re judging meads the same way you judge beer which is, make your impression in the first five minutes it’s in front of you and then be done with it, you may be in fact rewarding meads that deteriorate and fall apart over the course of an hour and never giving credit to meads that continue to improve or develop over the course of an hour. Your impressions may be totally inaccurate when you get done with your round.” He goes on to say “a mead that does improve over the course of an hour (in a glass) with be better three years (in the bottle) from now”. Schramm believes in going back to the meads being judged over time and not being completely tied to the first impressions or to overly discuss and reach conclusions immediately with the co-judge(s). “If I’m at a table of really good judges and we all keep all the glasses in front of us and only assign the score when we get to the end of the round you have a much better chance of giving accurate scores to every mead.” He also talked about a way of determining entry awards in an ongoing way, something he attributed to Dan McConnell who he called one of the best mead judges he ever worked with. Keeping all the entries in front of him throughout the judging process, continually going back over each one during the round and re-organizing the glasses from best to worst.
Fairbrother: “When I’ve judged red wines at commercial competitions you really have to beat the snot of them in the glass to let them open up a bit, really roll them around in the glass.” When asked if he thought meads should be allowed to open up, Fairbrother said “That’s not a bad idea with a mead, especially with a spiced mead” “Letting it breathe but not (waiting) too much in that you can get some off aromas up front and you want to catch those. You don’t want to reward someone for making a sulphur bomb.”
As to whether BJCP competitions should allow mead bottles to be opened in advance like wine competitions, though, there seems to be a consensus against at this point.
Ruud: “Wine totally changes in that first half hour in the aroma, you’re losing things in the aroma but getting oxygen in there to get more things in the flavor. But I don’t know if I’d want a mead sitting for a half hour before being served to me though.”
Strong suggests that temperature is more of an issue than time, adding “ In my experience, temperature has been a bigger problem. You might have the “open up” issue with a very well-aged mead, but you don’t see many of those in competition. Just give it a little time to reach its peak before sampling it. You can write about appearance and some other factors while waiting for it to become better, but that’s pretty much true with any higher-alcohol drink including stronger beers.”
Piatz “It’s one of those things it’s difficult to do in a competition setting. If you were going to try and do that you would totally screw up the organizer’s approach and how long it’s going to take to do the judging. The organizer’s will come down on you like a ton of bricks.” He continues, “You don’t know up front if a mead is going to improve with time or not. I think it’d be great if we had the luxury of having the mead sit there and evaluate it over time, but you can’t really do that. I guess that’s just one of those areas where judging mead has to be a little different than your personal enjoyment of the mead…a judging center just doesn’t lend itself to that.”
But Piatz does go on to say that allowing meads to be opened in advance or to breathe for extended periods of time isn’t out of the question for the future. “It would be interesting as an experiment to do a competition with a qualified team of judges, kind of a triangle test scenario where you evaluated the mead in the quick 10-12 minutes, then another time where you did it with time for opening up and then do some comparisons to see if it changed the outcome. You’d have to do it multiple times with the same judges to get the bias out of it. It might be an interesting experiment to see and could perhaps down the road result in the BJCP revising the mead style guidelines. In the future we could do something where the entrant pre-selected and told us ‘this is a mead that I think benefits from a longer term evaluation with time to open’. But I don’t think we have the knowledge or the skill set yet to be able to do that. To be honest, we don’t even have a lot of mead judges yet in the program. There’s only a few hundred who’ve passed the mead exam so far.” Raising an additional point he says, “Evaluating meads that shine fresh out of the bottle against meads that need 15 minutes or more to open up probably isn’t the best scenario either.”
Balance Doesn’t Mean Equal Parts
When some think of balance they picture even distribution like a balanced scale, however, this clearly isn’t what is meant by ‘balance’ in judging mead. It’s even different than what’s meant for balance in judging beer. Balance in beer is generally based on bitter verse sweet, where in mead, balance is dependent on a host of components working together to elevate each other. As Schramm pointed out “It doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced, it has to be pleasantly balanced”
Strong sums up balance as “…a term related to how the various components interact to produce an overall pleasant experience.” He continues, “The biggest aspect to balance is how acidity and tannin balance against the sweetness and honey flavor in mead. It’s similar to bitterness in beer, in that a beer needs to have sufficient bitterness to help balance the malt sweetness present. Mostly I’m asking myself, “Does this mead have sufficient acidity and/or tannin to balance the amount of sweetness present?”
Piatz: “Balance, there’s a tough one. That’s an area where mead or cider are very different than beer. I think Michael Wilcox did a good job in the last couple of BJCP newsletters talking about balance in cider and a lot of the same stuff applies in mead. In beer, balance is relatively simplistic… Mead is much more complicated, you’re trying to get the right amount of alcohol, the right amount of sweetness, the right amount of acid, the right amount of tannin, the right amount of honey, all in there to get the balance level you want. It’s very hard to tell someone exactly how to balance a mead, it’s all about what you perceive as best. It’s easier for the judge or the drinker of the mead to say “I don’t like this balance” where it’s hard for judges sometimes to tell you how to adjust the balance or perhaps their sense of balance is just off, ‘it’s a sweet mead so therefore it should be slap me in the face cloyingly sweet’ or ‘it’s a dry mead I expect it to be dry’, but what about the other aspects of balance? So explaining how to do that is hard”
Ruud “Balance doesn’t mean the same parts here and there, they just have to blend well together. You’re going to have some meads that are relatively acidic but if they’re fairly sweet and tannic that all kind of balances out and it really blends well together. If you had a traditional mead that was just as sweet as a mead that needed to balance black currants, it would be so cloyingly sweet you couldn’t drink it.”
Fairbrother “For the most part, most entrants really over shoot the sweetness and overlook the balance of the mead.” He goes on to say “Think about acidity and sweetness as two separate scales, you can ratchet up your acidity level and that’ll balance out your sweetness scale and actually make a semi-sweet to sweet mead be perceived as dry.”
Strong: “Balance-related problems often are hard to diagnose for some judges. A judge might say that an overly alcoholic mead needs more honey sweetness but in reality it needs less alcohol. You can fix some problems by taking away not just by adding. Beer judges tend to have less of an understanding of the roles of acidity and tannin in mead, especially as how the source ingredients provide those characteristics. I always let the drinkability be the deciding factor. Whatever is produced must be pleasant to drink or it won’t get a high score from me.”
Fairbrother adds, “The ultimately goal of judging is to reward people that can make something that can be enjoyed and consumed”
Judging Traditional Mead
One of the most subjective parts of the BJCP mead scoresheet is “complexity.” What exactly makes something more complex than others? Schram describes complexity as “a density of aromatic and flavor components…that appeal to both your tongue and mind at the same time”. However, this is clearly not equal to all honey varieties. That being said experienced judges like Ruud finds complexity in subtleness too, “When I read complexity, does the honey have some nuances to it. For instance, people seem to really hate clover honey which I love. Really good clover honey has a nice little spiciness to it, it has hints of little esters behind.” She adds, “Complexity is tough, but it is learned over time, how does it all fit together?”
However Rudd acknowledges that traditional meads pose a challenge in this regard, “they’re not going to be super complex, it’s going to be the honey, the alcohol, it’s going to be how the acid, tannins, all balance out and how the sweetness all comes in with it. Because with a traditional mead you don’t cover up anything in there, it’s just the honey that is showcased.” But she says complexity doesn’t always equate to being the best, “If it’s bright and refreshing and it’s the one you’re going to go back to drink a ton of it, it’s probably the best mead there.”
As Schramm notes, some of the lack of complexity in traditionals can be attributed to just the nature of honey itself: “Charles [McGonegal of ÆppelTreow Winery] was the first person to point out to me that in a really good wine, there could be 6-8x times the amount of flavor and aroma compounds that there are in your garden variety apple juice. Cabernet Sauvignon can have about 800-1000 flavor compounds just in that one grape so when you ferment it into wine it really is complex…beer can have as many hundreds (of flavor compounds) as well. “In mead, honey’s are in the 100-200 flavor compound range so unless you blend honey’s together or use other ingredients, attaining complexity is going to be really difficult. There are few varietal honey’s that can approach even what a low complexity wine grape can do.” He adds: “That’s where mead makers are challenged in comparison with brewers who will use two or three different malt varieties or hops in a single beer… the same is not true with traditional meads…it’s just not going to deliver the same level of complexity. As a mead maker you are challenged to come up with other things you can add.” When asked if he thinks the expectations of judges should be lower for the traditional category, he was quick to respond “yes, absolutely” but adds that mead makers should get some consideration and be rewarded for going out and finding a honey that possesses significant flavor and aroma compounds.
All this being said, judges shouldn’t look at traditional meads as somehow inferior to those with other ingredients added, as Ruud points out “Traditional meads are a hard one, they have to be almost perfect to win”.
Strong puts it this way “some simple meads (traditional meads entered as wildflower or with no varietal honey specified) or drier meads will generally benefit from restraint not complexity. However, for complexity in any mead, I’m looking for something to hold my interest.”
Mead being closer to wine than beer raises the question of what temp should entries be served at during competitions. Many commercial wines are stored, sold, and served non chilled, however, does that mean competitions should follow suit? I asked the interviewees their preferred serving temperatures for competitions.
Ruud: “The commercial competition I’ve judges at for wine always serve entries at room temperature, they don’t serve them cold. I actually think that makes it a little more easier to judge than when you get them coming out ice cold.” When asked if she preferred mead in comps at room temp “I think it is better in terms of getting all the flavors to come out smoothly, room temperature or very little chilled”.
Fairbrother: “We run mead free or die at cellar temp. That tasting range I find is the best for the meads, if you chill them down lower the honey flavor tends to get cut back so you might have a harder time figuring out how all the pieces are integrated ”
Piatz: “if they’re too cold for judging you can always warm it by holding the glass in both hands, it doesn’t take very long to warm the sample that way. Ask the stewards to pull a couple bottle ahead if that’s what you need.” He goes on to say, “Judging mead does require a little more warmth to get all the nuances. Taking an infrared thermometer reading of the outside of the bottle is going to get you a little closer. A mead in the 50s should be fine and, quite frankly, works for most beer styles as well.”
Strong: “I think everything should be served at optimal serving temperatures, but that it will vary with mead just as with beer. In general, mead should be served warmer than beer (except perhaps the largest of beers). However, there are some lighter styles of mead that would benefit from a cooler presentation. I normally check the temperature of the first bottle of mead presented; if it is at walk-in cooler temperature (i.e., near freezing), I’ll ask that the stewards pull all the entries. If individual entries seem to be a little cold, I’ll ask them to pull two at a time so we always have one warming up at the table while judging the previous one. But that’s simple flight management skills that can be used with beer as well.”
Why a Separate Mead Certification?
The necessity for a separate mead designation seems obvious given the differences in beer verse mead, however, I have heard at least one judge question the need for a mead designation. When asked about why the program was started Strong replied, “Because we needed one and people were demanding it. Some people wanted to judge mead but didn’t want to become a beer judge to do it. Competitions wanted to know if people were qualified to judge mead. Judges who liked mead wanted to be able to demonstrate to others that they had achieved a certain level of competence. So we started the program.”
I think the mead judging certification has met its goals; it has allowed people to take the exam and become judges, it has helped competitions, and it has given some judges a reason to study a new topic.”
Become a Mead Judge! Mead is an exciting fermented beverage with unique flavor possibilities. Being a mead judge often results in being exposed to a wider variety of entries at competitions and the growing popularity of mead only competitions create further judging opportunities for those with certification. Upcoming mead exams can be found on the BJCP Exam Calendar, along with organizer contact information to inquire about mead exam preparation classes. If you’re still on the fence about why you should become mead certified, Susan Ruud expressed it best, “Mead is heaven, everybody should be drinking mead.”