Mead 101: What you need to know about this popular 'honey wine'
By Dathan Kazsuk and Jennifer Primrose
Do you recall the first time you tried mead? Diane Currier does. The founder of Honeygirl Meadery in Durham remembers it like it was yesterday. Hiking through a field of Alaskan wildflowers with her sister – strolling through a sea of pink. That pink coming from what's known as Fireweed – a plant that grows freely after forest fires in Alaska.
That same evening, Currier recalls visiting Ring of Fire Meadery in Homer, Alaska, and trying its Fireweed Mead. "I'm drinking this mead, and I was just out in that field. It just blew me away. From that point on, I was going to make mead," she claims.
How about you? Was it a renaissance fair, between the jumbo turkey leg and funnel cake kiosks? Maybe it was mentioned by your dungeon master while on some epic quest as Alagorn, your level 12 Paladin. There's a good possibility, if you were paying attention in high school, you learned about mead in your world history class.
Glenn Lavender, co-owner of Silver Hand Meadery in Williamsburg, Virginia, first heard of mead within the pages of fiction writer Stephen Lawhead. "In a lot of his books, he had Celtic warriors who came back from battle and drank mead," he says. "His description of mead just sounded awesome."
Honey wine, as it is sometimes referred to as, has been making a comeback here in the U.S. lately. According to the American Mead Makers Association (AMMA), the number of meaderies is growing at a tremendous rate. In 2016 there were a total of 280 operating meaderies, and that number has climbed to over 520 in 2017.
Here in North Carolina, the number of meaderies is starting to reflect that as well. Ben and Becky Starr of Pittsboro's Starrlight Mead have been crafting honey goodness since 2010, and were one of the first meaderies here in the state. Many mead makers got their start in the world of home brewing, such as Currier, but Ben was one of the anomalies. "Actually, my first batch of homemade alcohol was mead," he says. "Becky bought me a mead-making kit, and I read a book on mead making, and it told you everything you can do to screw it up. That scared the crap out of me, and I set it aside for about a year."
That was until he picked up what is essentially the Bible of mead making – The Compleat Meadmaker: Home Production of Honey Wine from your First Batch to Award-Winning Fruit and Herb Variations, by Ken Schramm. "Reading his book, it started making sense, so we made our first mead, and that was around fourteen-and-a-half years ago," Starr says.
Schramm, who owns Schramm's Mead in Ferndale, Michigan, has almost a cult status with its very fruit-forward meads such as Red Agnes, The Statement and the highly sought after Heart of Darkness. These meads, which are known as Melomels, use a lot of fruits, such as raspberries, cherries and black currants. "That can lead to many of Schramm's meads being crafted with more than 10 pounds of fruit per finished gallon," says Schramm. "Yes, that is very expensive. It makes the style and profile of meads that we enjoy and want to share with the world."
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IT'S ALL ABOUT THE STYLE AND HONEY
With so many different styles of mead, one is sure to find a honey wine that's right up their alley. From Cysers and Metheglins to traditional dry meads and fruit-forwards Melomels. Silver Hand's Lavender doesn't mind getting his hands dirty and diving into any style. "We did a little bit of everything: Cyser, traditional, Methaglyn, Melomel, Bochet, coffee mead. My goal is to just teach people with all the different types of meads out there," he says.
Starr is similar to Lavender in his approach of trying many different styles. "I enjoy the complexity of mead," he says. Take for example the spiced apple mead from Starrlight Mead. Starr explains that it's not just a Melomel, nor Metheglin, or even a Cyser. The meadery also releases a seasonal mead called Kickin' Cranberry Orange, which contains roasted chipotle peppers.
But you can't make any of this happen without honey. Honey to a mead maker is the equivalent of grapes to a wine maker. According to the National Honey Board, there are over 300 different types of honey in the world – from Alfalfa to Tupelo – and all of these have distinct characteristics.
Most of the honey used in Schramm's mead comes from Orange Blossom honey, which he sources through a beekeeper in California, as well as some honey from Michigan. "The meadery also uses Tasmanian Leatherwood as well as Scottish Heather and Michigan wildflower, which adds flavor and aroma," Schramm says.
In Durham, Currier explains that a lot of her honey comes from outside the state. "We can not source all our honey from North Carolina, nor the U.S. About two-thirds of our honey comes from outside the U.S.," she says. Honeygirl Meadery, which produced around 600 cases back in 2017, is currently purchasing around 12,000 pounds of honey per year.
"I use wildflower in a vast majority of our meads, and I also use orange blossom honey," she says. "There are other honey I'd love to work with, such as Sourwood and Tupelo, but the price tag on a bottle can be expensive."
In Williamsburg, Lavender likes using different honey varietals for each of his meads – Orange Blossom, Avocado Blossom and Blueberry Blossom to name a few.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR MEAD?
Mead is such a tricky libation. Beer drinkers love it or hate it. Wine drinkers love it or hate it. Or maybe they just don't seem to know enough about mead. There are a handful of local-area beer forums on Facebook where beer drinkers share photos of their hauls from places such as Schramm's Mead. Other beer drinkers are big fans of yet another Ferndale, Michigan establishment, B. Nektar, who also produces different styles of unique mead.
But Silver Hand's Lavender thinks mead fits in more in the wine world. "Look at the bottles. We're in wine bottles. The gravity is like wine, and we treat it like wine," he says. Lavender sees more of the wine drinkers file into his store to sample his mead. "People are adventurous. People that go to wine festivals like mead, especially if it's sweet wines," Lavender concludes.
Adventurous may be the right word. Whether you enjoy a craft beer or a fine wine, if you are adventurous you'll give mead a try. And that seems to be the case in North Carolina, as there roughly 12 meaderies open or near completion. Starrlight Mead is nearing completion of its new facility in Pittsboro, doubling the size of its current location. And Honeygirl Meadery keeps producing more and more mead every single year.
It appears mead is on the rise. But there is one piece of advice that Schramm would offer to any new or existing mead maker, and that is "If meaderies want to play the game and stay relevant, they must attain a high-level of legitimacy, which means mead makers will have to use the finest ingredients."