Mead: Back from the Dark Ages
Try this experiment: Ask 10 of your friends what mead is. You are likely to find most do not know that mead is honeywine. Even fewer are likely to have tried mead. They might think that it is some sort of grog that used to be concocted during medieval times using beer or grape wine. They may even believe that mead is no longer produced.
“Our biggest challenge is that nobody really knows what mead is,” says Paul Holm, owner of the Long Island Meadery in Holbrook, NY.
A small, dedicated group of mead brewers want to turn mead into a beverage that is something more than a renaissance festival libation.
Today’s mead makers like to say that it is the beverage of love, but the reality is that the first mead was likely the result of happenstance rather than passion.
Mead at its roots is a simple beverage: honey, water and yeast. The water gets the natural sugars in the honey into a solution. The yeast converts the sugars into alcohol and you have mead. All of these ingredients existed in most places around the world where ancient man first roamed and later settled. It was only a matter of time before they came together and the intoxicating effects were discovered.
Based on pottery found in Asia and Europe, researchers estimate that humans have consumed mead for the last 8,000 to 9,000 years. It’s likely that prehistoric man came across small amounts of mead in the wild even earlier.
In ancient times, mead was a common drink in many cultures. The term “honeymoon” comes from the historic practice of supplying a new bride and groom with enough mead to last a month—honeywine to celebrate for one cycle of the moon.
Mead is still a part of the culture in some areas of Europe and Africa, but much of the rest of the world long ago moved on to beer, wine and spirits. Over the centuries, forests where honey bees lived were cleared to make way for farms and cities, while bees wax became a profitable commodity during the 1600s leading to the destruction of hives. Mead production dropped.
After hundreds of years, we may be seeing a mead revival. Homebrewers of beer have kept mead alive as a sideline, with some of them crossing over to specialize in mead making.
Like beer brewing, while making simple mead may be easy, making mead of consistent quality is not. Mike Sones, the winemaker at Bargetto Winery in Soquel, CA, which makes the Chaucer’s brand, says, “The process is simple, but there is very little nutrient in honey. Honey fermentation can be tricky.”
“Honey fermentation is not rapid; it can take four to five weeks,” Sones says. “The fermentation can get what we call sticky. It just comes to a halt. The problem is honey is 70 to 80 brix [a measurement of dissolved sugar] and you need it to be around 24 brix for the yeast to work. Around 8 brix it can stick and you have to try to re-inoculate the mead to get it through.”
According to the International Mead Association (IMA) in Boulder, CO, to be a mead, a beverage must be fermented from at least 51 percent honey. Meaderies can add fruits, herbs, spices and other flavor adjuncts either during fermentation or after.
Mysteries of Mead
While our early ancestors may have gotten their first buzz thanks to the help of honey bees, most Americans today have not tried mead.
David Myers, whose business card says he is Chairman of the Mead at Redstone Meadery in Boulder, CO, quips that “Mead comes back into vogue every two to three thousand years, just like clockwork.”
Myers makes no bones about the fact that meaderies envy the success of microbrewers and hope to emulate craft beer’s climb from obscurity a generation ago to mainstream prominence. “We want to get to the point that when people travel they ask if anyone makes any good mead in the area,” Myers says. “The rallying cry for our industry is ‘Ask for Mead.’”
The major hurdle for Redstone and other mead producers to overcome is the lack of consumer experience with honeywine. “It’s not that they don’t like mead. They just haven’t tried a mead they like. Meaderies are turning out high quality and highly diverse products,” Myers says. “If they say they don’t like mead because they tried one, I ask them if they ever had a beer or a wine they did not like. As an industry we are working to get past the idea that mead is just a great dessert wine.”
The fact is that just like beer, mead can be many things. The biggest brand in the United States, Chaucer’s, happens to be a sweet mead. “We present our mead as a dessert wine,” says Sones. Chaucer’s is sold with a bag of spices for mulling in the cold weather months. Many of the more popular meads, like Redstone’s Nectar line, are actually melomels or metheglins (See sidebar).
Some, like the Camelot brand made by Oliver Winery in Indiana, are just slightly sweet like some Rieslings or French-American hybrid grape wines. Then there are varieties such as the sparkling meads made by Heidrun Meadery in California that are dry and balanced.
The problem is that most Americans have grown up in a world where mead did not have a presence at celebrations or shelf space at a local store. Creating what the drinks industry calls a “drinking occasion” and a “share of stomach” for mead is a difficult challenge. Mead is no longer the automatic choice of honeymooners—or anyone else.
Now, meaderies are working to suggest mead as an alternative to wine, beer and even cocktails.
According to Julia Herz, who heads the International Mead Association (IMA) and runs the website Honeywine.com, there are 100 commercial meaderies operating in the U.S. today, up from about 30 in 1998. About 50 of these are pure meaderies and the rest are wineries or breweries that make beverages using honey. Most of the industry is made up of “enthusiasts who have gone pro,” Herz says.
A good example is Bill Bailey, who founded Desi’s Dew Meadery in Rougemont, NC, in 2000. The software developer was a homebrewer who named the meadery after a beloved cat. Desi’s Dew turns out four still and two sparkling meads. Bailey says mead from tupelo honey is so similar to some grape wines that it can fool many consumers.
“It’s an awareness and public education battle. It’s an uphill battle, but part of my job is to educate consumers about mead,” Bailey says. He believes that public awareness of mead is about “10 times what it was in 2000,” but needs to grow by a similar factor again for the industry to prosper. “Mead makers have to make sure the consumer’s first experience with mead is a good one. There are so many ways to ingest alcohol, that we have to get it right the first time,” Bailey says.
According to the IMA, commercial mead making in the U.S. is a $20 million business. Some argue this number is inflated. All predict that whatever the base number is, there is growth happening in the field—some say the mead category could easily double in the U.S. during the next five years.
“Mead is not just a dessert drink, just like beer is not just for football games,” Herz says. “Mead is an international beverage. It is enjoyed as different recipes, at different times and in different ways around the world.” She believes that getting more consumers to try mead will lead to mead becoming more a part of the everyday variety of available drinks.
Mead—Not Just One Beverage
A look at the meads being made in the U.S. and imported to this country clearly shows a wide range of products, from sweet to dry and still to sparkling meads. The use of different varieties of honey and the introduction of various flavorings give meadery brewmasters an incredible palette from which to work to entice the palates of consumers.
One of the best examples of the range of styles of mead and the fact that it transcends the range of drinking occasions is sparkling mead from Heidrun Meadery in Arcadia, CA. Heidrun started selling mead in 1998 and focuses on natural sparkling meads.
Heidrun owner Gordon Hull uses varietal honeys such as orange blossom, eucalyptus and avocado that tend to produce a dryer mead. “When you remove sugar, you taste more of the varietal honey,” Hull says. “And the sparkling aspect helps make up for the lack of acidity.”
During nine years of commercial mead making, Hull has used 15 different varieties of honey. “There’s a limitless amount of honey varieties on the Earth,” Hull says. “We’ve used only 15 at Heidrun, so we have a ways to go.”
“There’s not one type of demographic associated with mead. Different people use it for different occasions,” Herz said. That may help mead’s growth and it might also hurt. Just like Champagne has New Year’s Eve and turkey has Thanksgiving, mead could benefit from a holiday observance to call its own.
Apparently recognizing this fact, the industry’s annual big event is held on the weekend right before Valentine’s Day. The fifth Mead Festival is set for Feb. 9-10, 2007, in Denver. The IMA expects 100 commercial meads to be available for tasting and about 1,000 people to turn out for the fest. By contrast, 41,000 people turned out for this year’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver and organizers could have sold many more tickets if they were available. The Mead Festival also hosts a home mead making competition, which last year attracted more than 200 entries. (You can get more information at www.meadfest.com)
“The microbrewery explosion has opened minds,” says Long Island’s Holm. “It’s made getting people to try mead a whole lot easier.”
Finding a New Audience
Reaching out to beer drinkers might be the next big step by mead producers, which would actually be a throwback to mead’s roots. Braggot is a style of mead that includes a malt barley beer in its base. Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware makes Midas Touch Golden Elixir, which has barley, white muscat grapes, honey and saffron as its primary ingredients. At the recent Great American Beer Festival a number of beers flavored with honey were entered.
Mike Faul, owner of Rabbit’s Foot Meadery in Sunnyvale, CA, believes the route to expanding mead’s presence in the U.S. market is through braggots and cysers, which are apple cider and mead mixtures. Started in 1994, Rabbit’s Foot has two braggots just released to the market, an 8 percent alcohol by volume Belgian strong ale style and a 4 percent Kölsch style. Under the Red Branch Cider label Rabbit’s Foot sells four different cysers.
“At the moment the biggest potential for most meaderies to grow in the mead segment is to go after the cases that Bargetto [Winery] is doing with Chaucer’s,” Faul says. “Braggots open up the beer market and cysers create opportunities in the cider category. It’s difficult for new meaderies to survive if they only do straight mead.”
Rabbit’s Foot markets its braggot in 22-ounce bottles for $5.99 and a cyser in a 500 milliliter bottle for $5.99.
So how are meaderies planning to attract consumers? For Redstone’s Myers the answer is simple: “Give it away, give it away and give it away,” he says. “Seven out of 10 people who try our mead will buy our mead.”
Heidrun’s Hull puts it succinctly in describing what meaderies must do to grow the market. “Making good mead needs to be our first priority,” he says. “Marketing can come later.”
Rick Lyke is a drinks journalist based in Charlotte, NC.