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.