Is mead poised for a comeback?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Feb. 27 2008 7:02 AM

A Taste of Honey

Is mead poised for a comeback?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Judging by the prominence of honey these days, you'd think there's a run on sugar. Local, flavored honeys are now in restaurant kitchens. Foodies are mail-ordering artisanal raw varieties. At my local farmers market in Connecticut, the area beekeeper shows up with a table's worth of options and a glassed-in buzzing hive. This resurgence is in spite of the recent colony collapse disorder, which decimated many beehives. But even more unexpected is the rise of honey for an ancient use: alcohol, in a drink known as mead.

You might know mead from Beowulf—it's what the characters got soused on. Mead is so old-school that its advocates claim it as the world's first alcoholic beverage. (Their line of thinking goes like this: Rain-diluted honey attracted wild yeasts. The fermented liquid then attracted a human, who drank it and felt less unhappy.) But the recent interest in fermented honey has morphed it from an esoteric item that only a few bearded Dungeons & Dragons players indulged in to a small yet legitimate commercial enterprise. There are now more than 100 meaderies in the United States, like Rabbit's Foot Meadery and Mountain Meadows Mead. For the ambitious, there are DIY mead-making books, complete with archaic spellings (see The Compleat Meadmaker). Is mead, last popular around King Arthur's table, poised for a comeback?

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The home-brewing community is largely responsible for putting mead on the map. Mead-making culture is a direct descendant of beer geekdom, in part because Charles Papazian, whose The Complete Joy of Homebrewingis the book that launched a thousand brewpub loans, is also a mead evangelist. In fact, the home-brewing community can be credited with many significant changes to the American drinking landscape. Without the nerdy obsessiveness of early hobbyists, we'd all still be crushing corn-fed lagers against our foreheads. Instead, we're drinking double IPAs and imperial stouts. The many new mead-makers in America are almost all lapsed home brewers who smelled the honey.

In some ways, it's not surprising to see mead taking off like this: The last few decades have given rise to many small-scale, artisan food products. In the alcoholic arena alone, there are now craft spirits, craft sake, and craft bitters. Anyone at a farmers market has seen that antique varieties of melons or apples are in vogue; many small farmers now raise and sell almost-extinct animal breeds, like Tamworth pigs and Narragansett turkeys.

For farmers market foodies, mead, as an alcoholic libation, has a conceptual advantage over beer: Mead possesses what winemakers call terroir, the French term for how something—wine, cheese, honey—conjures up the landscape around it. That's because an artisanal mead is still, at least in part, an agricultural product. With its floral and herbal aromas, a good mead vividly communicates a sense of place—think a field of orange blossoms or rosemary bushes—in a way that's impossible for beer. Wine writer Matt Kramer calls this feeling "somewhereness" and, in the new hyper-local-food America, it is an attractive selling point. Don't just "eat your view"; get blitzed off it.

Mead-maker David Myers of Colorado's Redstone Meadery said, "Mead is something that comes around like clockwork every 2,000 to 3,000 years." But despite its seemingly sudden upswing, mead isn't likely to reattain its crazy medieval popularity. Unlike once-forgotten, now-prized goods like heirloom tomatoes, mead won't even make the foodie mainstream. That's partly because it has a horrible image problem—currency with the Society for Creative Anachronism is not exactly a signifier of great commercial promise. Got Mead's blogger goes by the nickname Meadwench, and the topics covered on the blog include questions from readers trying to figure out what the historically correct drinking cup is. Fans like these won't boost mead into the 21st century. Even mead-makers complain about Renaissance fairs, where the drink is treated, inevitably, as an anachronism.

While it's theoretically possible for mead to escape its poor company, it has a more fundamental problem. Although there seems to be a mead flavor for every palate—orange blossom, buckwheat honey, blended with berry purees, infused with juniper berries, champagne-carbonated, still—they all suffer from the same structural problem: Honey has little natural acidity. That may sound appealing, but acidity—the spine of a good wine—is what keeps flavors bright and focused, and what marries wine with food. Mead-makers recognize this flaw, so to give it an acidic boost, they add citric acid. That helps, but it's not enough. Most meads still sit somewhat awkwardly alongside dinner. Unlike the best beer and wine pairings, they neither sharply highlight foods nor blend with them into something equally interesting. Ultimately, they make for reluctant partners at the table.

Strange enough to be intriguing, but too strange to be at home on the dinner table, mead is a stubborn paradox. I like mead conceptually—the lore, the eccentricities. I even occasionally like a bottle. But no mead has ever earned its way into my alcoholic rotation. The other night, I had a glass of Redstone's Mountain Honey Mead, a widely distributed brand, and its initial burst of flavor went flat all too soon. It was an odd fit with what I'd planned for dinner (your basic roast chicken) and dessert (a black-and-white custard). Of course, the rapturous aroma was intoxicating, and I spent a few moments inhaling it. But the taste that followed was neither more nor less than limpid, liquid honey. If Winnie-the-Pooh ever took to the bottle, this is exactly what he'd want.

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