No era in human history has existed without the search for an altered state of being. Notwithstanding hallucinations from chewing or sipping tea decocted from certain leaves, most of humankind’s sidesteps from reality have come from drink.
Most likely, it started with mead. Mead is made from honey, and it is believed to be the oldest fermented beverage in the world. The ancient Chinese fermented honey and rice to alcoholic potency. Ethiopia is still at it, having enjoyed tej, the country’s honey-based national drink, since the third century. And pre-Middle Ages Europeans pumped up with it in mead halls before and after battle.
Immortalized in early medieval literature, mead has come a long way from its stupor-inducing effects on Norse warriors, as described in the eighth-century epic “Beowulf,” to its status today as an elegant beverage to be sniffed and swirled.
On Saturday night, mead will star as its many varieties and styles are paired with the $120-per-person menu at the Mid-winter Beekeeper’s Feast at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC Davis.
And that’s where the story picks up. Where else to study mead but UC Davis, perhaps the world’s most fermented campus? It’s already got a winery and brewery. It may soon get itself to a meadery.
“There is no research on fermentation related to mead,” said Clare Hasler, Mondavi Institute executive director. To meet the developing needs of mead-makers throughout the world, Amina Harris, director of the institute’s Honey and Pollination Center, last fall hosted the university’s second conference on mead-making.
“The mead-makers were so excited that we were paying attention to them that the first conference sold out within a month,” Harris said. The university’s honey research will now encompass analysis by its enology and viticulture department.
There are more than 200 meaderies in the United States – 10 in California, including one mead made in the Champagne style – and more than 1,000 members in the American Mead Makers Association.
Ken Schramm, author of “The Compleat Meadmaker,” came to the Davis conference from Ferndale, Mich., where he has made mead since 1998 and owns Schramm’s Mead.
“Mead is a little behind the microbrew trend,” Schramm said during a break in the program. Despite the Motley Fool’s prediction last year that mead was poised to become this year’s beer-killer, Schramm doesn’t think mead will grow as fast as the micro-brew industry.
“Mead has to be explained,” Schramm says. “That’s a cross we bear. We’ll get people educated. Once they get it on their lips, the rest is easy.”
The word mead implies honey is present. But outdated terminology is still confusing potential mead lovers.
“Clearly, we understand that beer is from grain, that wine is from grapes, that sake is from rice and hard cider is from apples,” Schramm says. “The fermented beverage from honey is mead. It’s not honey wine; it’s mead. It’s been that for millennia.”
But the U.S. Trade and Tax Bureau says the legal term is honey wine. Schramm says that limits the understanding that mead is a beverage only made with honey and perhaps a small amount of hops. “But if it’s got fruit in it or other adjunct fermentables,” he says, “then it has to be labeled something like raspberry-wine-with-honey-added.”
Mead-makers would like to call it raspberry mead “because that’s the clearest, shortest, most concise way of describing what mead made with raspberries is,” Schramm said.
The mead-makers who came to Davis showed off meads with blackberry, cherry, peach, strawberry and apple. Surprisingly, many were bone dry, with alcohol hovering at around 13 percent. Some were semi-sweet, others sweet. Some were lightly spritzed or foamed up with a beery head. An award-winning mead from Massachusetts was infused with vanilla beans.
They come in many styles, too. The American Meadmakers Association website defines melomel as mead made from honey and any fruit. Metheglin starts with traditional mead but has herbs and/or spices added. Some of the most common metheglins are ginger, tea, orange peel, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, cloves or vanilla.
Tom Newman, of Celtic Spirits Brewery in South Wales, came the farthest to the Davis conference. He says the terms melomel and metheglin are derived from the Welsh language. Ergo, mead must be Celtic. “Mead is a huge part of our mythology and heritage,” he said. “It’s something (the Celts) thought was magical, and mead is all about that.”
The idea with today’s meads is to try many styles. “Customers like everything,” said Mike Faul, owner of the 20-year-old Rabbit’s Foot Meadery in Sunnyvale. At first, Faul marketed his meads only to friends. Now he has figured out how simple it is to sell mead. “I market my products to people who drink.”
Once modern mead reaches the lips, it is bound to have that same ethereal feeling it produced in medieval times.
“It’s just such a phenomenal product,” said Susan Ruud, a mead-maker from Fargo, N.D. “It gives you a sense of euphoria when you drink it. It’s wonderful. You just drink it, and your mind can go anywhere. From the first moment you taste it, you will love it.”
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.