The Buzz on Mead
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.
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.”
Not included in Herz’s list are the indeterminate number of microbreweries and brewpubs that produce a honey-malt hybrid called a braggot.
The General Lafayette Inn, a brewpub in Lafayette Hill in the Philadelphia suburbs, offers a Raspberry Mead-Ale as a regular product. Brewer Chris Leonard uses a blend of two-thirds clover honey and one-third malt, adding just enough hops (about 5 International Bittering Units worth) to satisfy the legal requirements for the beverage to be taxed as a beer. To this he adds fresh raspberries post-fermentation. The mead-ale clocks in at about 10 percent ABV, a typical strength for honey wines. “It doesn’t taste like it’s high octane,” says Leonard, although the brewpub prudently serves it in 10-ounce glasses. For those customers who find it a little overpowering, the General Lafayette Inn offers a mead spritzer, consisting of mead mixed with ginger ale over ice.
Magic Hat Brewing Co. in South Burlington, VT released a braggot, called simply Braggot, as part of its “Humdinger” line of one-off specialty beers. Director of Brewing Operations Todd Haire fermented the brew from a blend of 50 percent each barley and wheat malt, with chamomile flowers added during the boil. Haire actually tends a small apiary of 15 hives behind the brewery, but he had to obtain most of his supply from a larger producer—his recipe called for 600 pounds of honey per 25-barrel batch of beer.
Hopheads, who measure a beverage’s worth by its alpha-acid content, might consider a drink fermented from honey to be one-dimensional, bland and cloyingly sweet. To the contrary, meads encompass a whole spectrum of flavors. “The sky’s the limit,” asserts Herz. “There are more styles of mead than there are grape wines.”
First of all, a mead can be sweet, semi-dry or dry, depending on the ratio of honey to water used. Of course, the yeast’s voracity plays a role, as does the decision of the mead maker to let fermentation run its course or halt it prematurely.
Second, the type of honey influences the character of the drink. A lot depends upon where the bees gathered their nectar. Clover honey is light in color, mild, and neutral in taste. It might be considered the equivalent of the pale malt that forms such an important part of the brewer’s pallet. Buckwheat honey, on the other hand, is brown and much stronger tasting, with a flavor that’s been likened to blackstrap molasses. Orange blossom honey has a floral, citrusy aroma. Mesquite honey is supposed to have a hint of smokiness.
Not all varieties of honey will be suitable for mead making. Gail Puryear remembers experimenting with a local mint honey that had a strong menthol-eucalyptus character. “Listerine you can drink” is how he described the mead he made from it.
Third, the mead maker can add other fermentables and flavorings to the basic honey, water and yeast. On her website, Herz lists a variety of hybrid beverages:
A cyser is fermented from honey and apple juice.
A pyment is made from honey and grapes.
A melomel is a mead incorporating any other kind of fruit.
A metheglin is a spiced mead.
Herz even mentions capsicumel, a mead flavored with hot peppers.
The Bonair Winery actually makes an example of the latter. Remember the Cave Creek Chili Beer that had a serrano pepper jammed into the bottleneck? Bonair’s Chili Mead has a chile de arbol inserted whole into each 750-ml magnum. The pepper’s heat-inducing chemical bleeds into the mead, and after the first month “it’s pretty darned hot,” says Puryear. After a year, the beverage mellows out and acquires a green-pepper flavor. “It sells like crazy,” he adds.
Some meads are hard to pigeonhole. At the Smokehouse Winery, Jon Hallberg makes a Honeysuckle Mead containing blossoms that he gathers by the roadside when the vines bloom during the early summer. He adds them to the mead at the end of the boil and during the primary fermentation: less than a pound per 80-gallon batch. “A little goes a long way,” he says. “I don’t want to overpower it.”
What do you call a marriage of mead and lambic? B. United International, a specialty importer based in Redding, CT, will for the second year in a row release a very limited amount of Mead the Gueuze, a thirty:seventy blend of English mead from the Lurgashall Winery in Petworth, West Sussex, England and Hanssens Gueuze from Belgium. B. United also imports the English mead separately, along with the sweeter Lurgashall Christmas mead and a special reserve mead aged in wooden whiskey barrels.
In addition, meads, like grape wines, can be still or sparkling.
William Bailey, owner of Desi’s Dew Meadery (named for the owner’s cat) in Rougemont, NC, produces several champagne-like carbonated meads, including raspberry and strawberry melomels. And just as wine can be turned into brandy and beer made into schnapps, mead can also be distilled. At the Rabbits Foot Meadery, Michael Faul uses an alembic still to make a 40 percent ABV mead brandy he calls Mead Song. “We’re still trying to get a classification from the ATF,” he notes, adding that he’ll probably wind up calling it an “eau de vie.” Faul also blends some of the Mead Song with his house mead to make a fortified mead analogous to a port or Madeira.
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.”