No one knows when and where primitive man took his first sip of alcohol. But most likely, it was a mead—a fermented honey beverage—that provided that first sensation of warmth and sense of euphoria.
The movement toward traditional, all-natural foods and beverages—the same movement that gave us the microbrewing revolution—has discovered honey wine.
Think about it. Honey bees, Apis mellifera, and related species are abundant worldwide. The honey they manufacture from the nectar of flowers consists mostly of simple sugars. Left in the rain, a forgotten pot of honey would accumulate wild yeasts and ferment rapidly. As the only known sweetener in pre-industrial times, honey was avidly sought, and accidental fermentation probably occurred many times.
Brewing is said to have hastened the development of civilization because people needed permanent settlements and agriculture to have enough grain for both beer and bread. Civilization, on the other hand, put a crimp in mead making. Farmers cut down acres and acres of woodland, driving the bees from their natural habitat. Wine and beer became the beverages of everyday life, while mead became a royal prerogative, a beverage for weddings and other major ceremonies.
In fact, the term “honeymoon” is said to derive from the old custom of giving the newlywed husband and wife mead to drink during their first month of marriage, in the belief that this heady libation would produce a male child.
Mead never disappeared, though it became a kind of a liquid anachronism, consumed mainly at medieval-themed feasts, Renaissance fairs and other historical reenactments. A handful of brands could be found on the market, including Bunratty from Ireland and Chaucer’s from the Bargetto Winery in Soquel, CA (the latter with a pouch of spices attached to the bottle for making a mulled wine).
Now, the movement toward traditional, all-natural foods and beverages—the same movement that gave us the microbrewing revolution—has discovered honey wine. Diverse publications such as Spin magazine, U.S. News and World Report and the Seattle Times all ran articles on mead, or were planning to, while this piece was being written. On November 8-9, the first-ever commercial mead festival in the United States—dubbed “Planet Buzz”—was set to take place in Chicago. Organizer Ray Daniels anticipated 30 to 50 meads, both domestic and imported, along with a smattering of ciders and perries. Check out www.meadfest.com for details.
The Year of Mead
The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) lumps mead in with grape wine for statistical purposes, so no one knows just how much mead is being made, or how many meaderies are out there. The sense is that production is growing.
“I call this the year of mead,” says Julie Herz, vice president of sales and marketing for the Redstone Meadery in Boulder, CO. She estimates there are 40 to 50 producers in the country, many of whom she lists on her website, www.honeywine.com, a superb compendium of mead information, legend and lore. “I hear about a new one every two months on average,” she adds.
Most businesses specializing in mead are of recent vintage, having popped up within the last five to seven years. Redstone Meadery is typical. Founded in 2001, it’s a truly artisanal operation, with an annual capacity of 9,000 liters. Sales are in-state only. “We’d like to be a player, but we don’t want to jump out of the gate too quickly,” says Herz. “We want to grow as the category picks up speed.”
Michael Faul, owner of Rabbits Foot Meadery in Sunnyvale, CA, received his license in 1994, and he might be considered one of the deans of the mead business. “Fourteen years ago I took my wife to a medieval festival at Bunratty Castle near Shannon Airport in Ireland,” he recalls. “She liked the local mead so much that we grabbed a bottle at the duty free. It’s totally different now, but at the time it was a heavy, syrupy dessert wine. Back home, we checked a couple of local liquor stores, but we couldn’t find it. I was a homebrewer, so I decided I could make it for her.”
That first batch turned into a new profession for the computer systems engineer. His main product is Pear Mead (12 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV), made from clover honey along with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and well-ripened fruit.
Like Faul, most of the new generation of mead makers have a brewing, rather than a winemaking, background. Herz and David Myers, president of Redstone, learned mead making as members of Hop Barley and the Alers, a homebrew club in Boulder. Most of their equipment came from a defunct brewpub in Wyoming. Jon Hallberg, who runs the Smokehouse Winery in Sperryville, VA (a meadery with adjacent bed and breakfast inn), used to be head brewer at the Richbrau Brewpub in Richmond, VA.
Herz’s database includes a number of traditional wineries that make a mead on the side. Among these is the Bonair Winery in the Yakima Valley of Washington. “In 1996, we had a big freeze, and there weren’t many grapes to process,” explains owner Gail Puryear. Bonair markets several honey wines, including a cinnamon-clove mead called Winter Solstice, under the tongue-in-cheek slogan: “If it was good enough for ancient Druids, running naked through the woods, drinking strange fermented fluids, it’s good enough for me.”