Mead, reputedly the world’s original fermented beverage, finally is generating buzz in the United States, though it’s more murmur than roar.
Mead makers say sales are inching up after a dip in the recession that began in 2008. What’s more, about 800 meads were entered in March’s Mazer Cup International Mead Competition in Colorado. And short courses and symposiums on mead sponsored by the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science on the campus of UC Davis have been quickly booked up.
“We got slammed in 2008, but sales again have been growing the past three years,” says Amy Hasle, who with her husband, John Hasle, owns HoneyRun Winery in Chico. Established in 1992, HoneyRun annually produces about 4,500 cases of various kinds of mead.
Mead may never constitute a large segment of the alcoholic-beverage market in the United States, acknowledge mead makers and industry observers, but its rediscovery fits in with the country’s expanded thirst for boutique wines, craft beers and exotic spirits.
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“Mead has a lot of different facets. You can get dry mead, you can get barrel-aged mead, you can get one high in alcohol or one flavored with raspberries. And it’s a gluten-free alternative,” says Olivia Teutschel in trying to put her finger on what’s driving the quiet rise in the popularity of mead.
She’s the winemaker at Bargetto Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which has been making mead since 1964. Mead and other honey-based wines form just a small segment of their production, but sales are rising, helping prompt Bargetto officials to consider restyling its Chaucer’s label.
Festivals with medieval and Renaissance themes that bloomed in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s could have kick-started interest in mead, but interpretations customarily poured at the gatherings were so simple and sticky they did nothing to broaden perception of the beverage as anything more than sweet swill, say mead makers.
“They were sickly sweet,” says Michael Faul, who with his wife, Maria Faul, owns the Sunnyvale meadery Rabbit’s Foot, founded in 1995 and now turning out up to 45,000 cases of mead annually, making it perhaps the largest producer in the country.
Meads served at Renaissance fairs, says Michael Faul, perpetuated the biggest misconception that continues to hobble public appreciation of mead. “People think that they aren’t going to like it because it’s made from honey and it’s going to be sweet,” he says.
Not all meads are sweet, however. Some are bone dry. Nor do they always taste of honey. As a measure of the wide range of styles in which mead is made, the Mazer Cup competition lists 20 classes. There are meads fermented with malt, meads fermented with apple cider, meads fermented with chili peppers, meads fermented with vinegar and meads made and marketed like varietal wine, such as mead from the honey of macadamia-nut blossoms.
In alcohol content, mead can be as low as 3.5 percent and as high as 18 percent. The range of residual sugar is just as variable, stretching from dry to 18 percent or so.
The diversity of mead was demonstrated vividly at the second annual Mid-Winter Beekeeper’s Feast at UC Davis in January. There, the meads poured included a golden, pungent, lightly sweet and herbal-accented sparkling wine made with the honey of Oregon radish blossoms by Heidrun Meadery of Point Reyes Station; a fragrant, floral, spicy and honeyed orange-blossom mead by Golden Coast Mead of San Diego; a soft and sweet elderberry mead from Hidden Legend Winery of Victor, Mont.; a fruity, briary, balanced and persistent raspberry mead that in a blind wine tasting could pass for zinfandel from Schramm’s Mead in Ferndale, Mich.; and a deeply golden and enduringly sweet dessert version that could be mistaken for sherry in its complexity and nuttiness by Rabbit’s Foot Meadery.
That diversity shows that mead should be able to find a place at the dinner table. During the UC Davis soiree, for example, the elderberry mead was paired with roasted lamb shank, a ragout of mushrooms and tomatoes, and oven-roasted brussels sprouts. Faul of Rabbit’s Foot notes that his meads have found their way onto increasingly competitive restaurant wine lists, including Napa Valley’s highly regarded French Laundry.
Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, a speaker at the Mid-Winter Beekeeper’s Feast, is a fan of mead but doesn’t expect demand to grow significantly, given that so many other dinnertime beverages compete for a place on the American table. However, noted Corti, if meads “are well made, with interesting flavor characteristics,” they could become much more popular. Already, he added, “there are more mead makers in the United States than in Poland, where mead is a national drink.”
Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center, says the United States is home to around 180 mead producers.
Ron Lunder, who closed his Mountain Meadows Mead of Westwood in Lassen County in 2011, has advice for anyone tempted to cash in on the apparent growing consumer interest in honey wine.
“Things got marginal after the crash in 2008,” Lunder recalls. “Our meads had won top awards for 10 years, but they still were a tough sell and we never got decent distribution other than self-distribution, and distribution is the key. People successful at selling mead sell most of their product out the door. Distributors make their money on volume, and they’re not interested in boutique products unless they come from a well-established brand.”
He advises prospective mead makers not to jump into the market without a solid marketing connection, expertise at sales and a favorable retail location, such as a meadery in a region with several wineries that already draw people exploring assorted beverages.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Mead is made in a wide range of styles, each with its own distinct terminology, much of which traces its origins to ancient Greece, the Middle Ages and the age of Vikings. Here’s an introduction to the more popular subgroups of mead:
Braggot: Honey wine also made with malt, thus a beer-like version of mead; sometimes called bracket
Cyser: Mead made with apple cider, apple juice or apples
Melomel: Mead made with various fruits or vegetables, but not grapes
Pyment: Mead made with grapes, grape juice or grape concentrate
Metheglin: Honey wine that includes herbs or spices, such as t’ej, a form of mead popular in Ethiopian restaurants
Hydromel: A weak or watered down version of mead
Sack: The dessert-wine version of mead, thick and sweet
Rhodomel: Mead made with rose petals
Oxymel: Mead made with wine vinegar
Capsicumel: Mead made with chili peppers
Though mead occupies just a small niche of the adult-beverage market, several retailers in Sacramento make room for a surprising variety, including the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Total Wine and More, Nugget Markets, Whole Foods and Corti Brothers.