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I was picked up by someone on another SE site (unrelated) when I used the phrase "Some beers, like mead...(blah blah)" - Apparently a mead isn't a beer. I'm good with that in the pedantic sense that it's correct, but I wasn't intending to be quite so specific, and was merely suggesting that I was not talking about spirits etc. It got me thinking about the definition of what could, or could not be called a beer, and whether a beer is an actual drink at all, or just the name of the group of drinks that we call beers, but which really have more specific names and definitions.

The key phrase for me, in understanding it from a simple taxonomy point of view is that alcoholic drinks are essentially either Beers Wines or Spirits. That's my starting point, which may well be rudimentary at best and wrong at worst

Using this definition, a Mead must clearly be a beer in the most basic definition; it's certainly not a win or spirit? Obviously under beer you then have ales, lagers, ciders, perrys, meads, stouts, bitters and probably a million others, and probably further sublevels (dry cider, sweet cider, sparkling cider....), but is there a second level "beer" also at this level?

Really, is there actually a single specific drink that is a beer that is not further defined as, for example, an IPA, or a Stout?

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IMHO, I would classify ciders, perrys, and meads to be more like wine than beer -- they are made by fermenting fruit or honey without substantial change to the base ingredients. Beer is made from malted grain, which must first be mashed to convert starch into fermentable sugars. Beer must contain 4 essential ingredients: Malt extract (from the grain), hops, water and yeast. It may contain others as well, but if any of these four are missing it is not beer.

I think that your premise of "that alcoholic drinks are essentially either Beers Wines or Spirits." is wrong because it oversimplifies and excludes some beverages. Besides mead and cider, there are also malt-based alcho-pop beverages (Mike's Hard Lemon, Twisted Tea, etc.) that I would not call beer either - they contain 3 of the four ingredients, but lack hops. There are other local indigenous alcoholic beverages around the world that don't fit any of these categories, like Japanese sake.

There are many styles of beer -- so the word "beer" refers to all of them, and there is no style that is called just "beer". Here is a link that describes many styles of beer, mead and cider. Note that this is not a comprehensive list; brewers keep developing new styles all the time to create desirable products. For example, Black IPAs came into vogue a couple of years ago, now I am seeing White IPAs.

BJCP Style Descriptions

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    I've upvoted this answer because I agree with it generally. I disagree that a beverage must contain hops in order to be beer. Beer has been around far longer than hops have been, and even today there are gruit-style spice beers that are made without the assistance of hops. – Xander May 20 '14 at 23:56
  • I realise my animal/vegetable/mineral style classification was poor, and I suppose that mead is more of a wine really, although the fact that they regularly include hops confuses things. It would be interesting to see a chart showing this stuff, I have seen the like for beers, but not for the whole family tree of alcoholic drinks. Thanks! – stuffe May 21 '14 at 8:47
  • Mead regularly includes hops? That's not my experience, though my mead experience is homebrew not commercial and is focused on medieval/renaissance studies. – Monica Cellio May 21 '14 at 14:13
  • I think the addition of herbs and spices like hops to mead is more historic than contemporary. The Dansk Mjod company that brews meads you'll often see in badass stone bottles spices all their meads and claim they base everything off historic 1700's recipes. – Sloloem May 22 '14 at 12:43
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    I lost the ability to edit my comment, but I was going to add that considering the lengthy aging old mead underwent before we understood oxygenation and pitching rates and the less-than-sterile storage, the additional preservatives (like hops) were probably a good idea. As to the question at hand, I draw the line between beer and wine where any conversion had to happen to make sugars available for fermentation. In mead you just take honey, filter out the bee chunks, add water and ferment...so Honey Wine. Sake and barley-based beers require mash conversion, so beer. – Sloloem May 22 '14 at 12:52
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Beer generally refers to the fermented product of malted grains, yeast, water, and hops. An incredible variety of beers are derived from only these key ingredients, though many brewers do add additional ingredients called adjuncts (fruit, spices, herbs, etc).

Mead is the product of fermented honey, sometimes called "honey wine", and is more comparable to the wine family (including cider and fruit wines) than beer in terms of body, alcohol, bitterness, base sugars, and typically effervescence.

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It is quite simple. Beer is made off starch (read: the alcohol) and Wines are made from fruit's sugar (fructose and glucose).

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    Is it not more complex than that though? Gin can be made from starch, but it's not a beer. Isn't it a mix of key ingredients and the process by which the end result is acheived (brewed/distilled etc)? – stuffe May 21 '14 at 9:40
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    Beer is not made from starch - the starch is broken down either during mashing (or malting for crystal malts) - so beer is fermented from mostly simple reducing sugars (mainly maltose), not starch. – mdma May 22 '14 at 0:02
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I think the main difference is that beer is brewed - you have to steep the grain in water. You don't do this for meads or wines.

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