In its manufacture, mead resembles wine in some ways and beer in others. Honey, like wine grapes, is a rich source of sugar, and no mashing is needed to break down complex starches. “Think of brewing with extracts,” says Herz.
In contrast to wine making, the raw material (called “must” instead of “wort”) has to be heated in a vessel equivalent to the brew kettle. Honey is a viscous liquid with roughly the consistency of motor oil, and if poured directly into a fermenter, will form an inert layer at the bottom.
Whether to boil the honey is a matter of debate among mead makers. Boiling will cause a white scum, consisting of proteins and other impurities, to rise to the surface of the liquid. Skimming off this film will result in a more crystal-clear beverage. Many mead makers, however, believe that boiling drives off volatiles that give the mead its delicacy of flavor. Also, if you raise the temperature too high, the sugars may caramelize, giving the mead an unwanted burnt taste.
Redstone’s mead makers heat the water to 180 degrees F before adding the honey, then drop the temperature to 160 degrees F for 30 minutes. They find this sufficient to dissolve the honey and destroy any harmful microorganisms that might sour the mead.
Meaderies use a variety of wine and champagne yeasts. Fermentation lasts anywhere from nine days to six months or more. Commercial meads typically range between 8 percent and 14 percent ABV. The latter figure is a legal limit, not a physical one. Meads over 14 percent are considered “dessert wines” and the government slaps them with a 67 cents per gallon tax instead of the 17 cents per gallon normally levied on small wineries.
Like barley wines and other strong beers, mead benefits greatly from aging. The raw, hot alcohol taste fades, and the flavors become better integrated, more rounded. At the Rabbits Foot Meadery, Michael Faul ages his meads a minimum of six months in oak barrels, allowing them to acquire nuances of wood, spice and vanilla. Herz mentions a Polish product called Jawiga, advertised as “the queen of meads,” which the maker claims is aged at least 25 years before bottling.
Tears of the Gods
Mead is an international beverage, with a pedigree older than civilization itself. Herz cites the existence of cave paintings from 5,000 BC, “where figures appear to be drinking from trees where hives have set up shop, and rainwater collected in the hives.”
The ancient Egyptians enjoyed mead, considering it a divine gift. Honey, they believed, formed from the tears of the god Re as they fell to earth. They were also discriminating connoisseurs. According to David Titus of Bee Folks (a Baltimore, MD-based honey merchant), the Egyptians would place hives on a barge and float them down the Nile to an area where the wildflowers would produce a better quality of honey.
The Romans and Greeks of classical times also had a taste for honey. In an early example of biological warfare, a rebellious tribe called the Heptacometal defeated three of the Roman general Pompey’s squadrons by placing cups of honey along the road where they marched. The honey came from rhododendrons, a poisonous plant, and induced convulsions and fever in the troops who drank it.
The medieval Russians were also enthusiastic mead drinkers. In his book, Beverages Past and Present (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1908), Edward R. Emerson writes that 120,000 pounds of honey were consumed at one great feast that took place in Novgorod in 989. The Russians made a white mead from honey and white bread, as well as a red mead containing cranberries and a variety of spices.
Certain Russian tribes, such as the Bashkirs, based their whole economy on harvesting honey from wild or cultivated hives. Their great enemy was the bear, which was capable of scaling the tallest trees to satisfy its sweet tooth. To keep their hives from being ransacked, beekeepers would drive sharp spikes into the tree trunks or rig a device to drop a block of wood on the bear’s head. Either method could produce an injured, angry animal. A safer way to subdue the bear was to spike the honey with intoxicating liquor. The bear would drink itself into insensibility and the hunters could turn the snoozing bruin into a rug at their leisure.
Mead is part of the Anglo-Saxon tradition as well. In the 10th-century epic, Beowulf, the hero journeys to a great mead hall called Heorot, where warriors, between battles, wine and dine themselves along great wooden tables. According to Herz, “mead was the national drink of England until the 1600s.” She speculates that the demand for beeswax for candles led to a decline in honey production. But the transition from honey- to grain-based fermentables was a gradual one, she adds. Alewives mixed honey with malt until the newer, bitter hopped beers supplanted the sweet, spiced ales of yesteryear.
The Mead Market
Who is drinking mead nowadays? Redstone Meadery, admits Herz, is aggressively courting the microbrew drinker. Redstone manned a booth at the most recent Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the first time in that event’s 21-year history that a meadery was represented. Redstone’s product line includes Black Raspberry Nectar and Boysenberry Nectar, two moderate-strength (8 percent ABV) melomels, which are carbonated, kegged and served at area bars and brewpubs. Herz believes they are the only draft meads available anywhere in the country.
Herz sells the Nectar brands in cobalt-blue bottles with swing tops instead of the customary corks.
The mead industry is too young and too small for anyone to have done an in-depth demographic survey. However, Herz comments of the guests who frequent Redstone’s tasting room, “They’re all different kinds of people from all walks of life.”