Updated: Jul 8, 2021
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In December, by sheer happenstance, my husband and I were driving in northwest Texas, about an hour away from Houston, when we stumbled upon a meadery.
A meadery: a place where mead is made.
I admit, I had never heard of this alcoholic beverage, let alone have the slightest knowledge that sugar from honey is fermentable and can be transformed into alcohol.
And that's when I was abuzz....pardon the pun....and my curiosity was sparked to learn more.
What is mead?
Simply put, mead is a fermented beverage made primarily from honey. It is also known to be the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man predating both beer and traditional grape wine by thousands of years. In Asia, pottery vessels containing chemical signatures of a mixture of honey, rice and other fruits along with organic compounds of fermentation dating from 6500-7000 BC were found in Northern China. In Europe, it is first attested in residual samples found in ceramics from 2800-1800 BC. (American Meadmakers Association)
In the words of Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor, author of "The Art of Mead Tasting & Food Pairing",
"The basic recipe for mead is to dilute good honey with good water, add yeast, and ferment. For typical wine-strength meads, the ratio is about three-parts water to one part honey; for sweeter meads that are higher in alcohol one might use equal parts water and honey; for low alcohol session meads, the ratio might be four or even five parts water to one part honey."
Mead also has distinct characteristics such as sweetness-level, carbonation, alcohol strength, honey variety, terroir (the complete natural environment from which a product comes, including such factors as soil, topography, climate, season, and surrounding ecosystem), clarity and ageing. All these affect the taste of mead as I learned from my tasting at the WildFlyer meaderie.
What does Mead taste like?
Here is what the American Meadmakers Association has to say:
"That is a question with many answers. One of the biggest misconceptions about mead is that, because it is made from honey, it “has to be” sweet. That is not necessarily the case. Mead can vary in sweetness ranging from sweet, semi-sweet, and down to dry (not sweet). Flavors in mead can also vary with the addition of fruits, juices, and spices, or even combinations thereof. Also, just as with grape wine, mead can vary in flavor and aroma quite a bit depending on the varietal of honey used. In the end, mead can be whatever you want it to be."
I can attest to that from my experience at WildFlyer Mead where I tasted a sampler of flavors including the bourbon pecan coffee which was nothing short of delicious.
photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi
Here's an interesting fact: Honey 's flavor will never be the same in any two harvests: it is a unique product of place and time, varying with the hive, the season, the land and the flowers. it also varies with the age of the honeycombs, how long the honey has been in the hive, and how long the packaged honey has been stored. Because honey is the dominant ingredient in meadmaking, both the honey's intrinsic flavor, and how the honey is treated in storage and meadmaking, greatly affect the flavor of most finished mead. (Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor- P.15)
photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi
Mead, like other craft beverages, is enjoying a resurgence in the United States. But, I wondered, isn't honey a prized commodity? Not only is it difficult and dangerous to steel from bees but it requires a large foraging area and, I soon learned, the cost basis of mead is greater than the cost basis of either wine or beer: Normalizing for a gallon of 12% alcohol by volume, mead contains an average of $9.00 worth of fermentable sugar while wine contains $3.13 and beer $2.50 (according to a 2014 report by Dr. Jim Lapsey at the University of California at Davis).
Today's surge in popular interest in mead is evidenced by dramatic increases in the number of licensed American meaderies, in the number of backyard beekeepers all over America, and in the number of commercial and homebrew entries in the Mazer Cup International mead competition. (Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor "The Art of Mead Tasting & Food Pairing- P.7)
In fact, mead is the fastest-growing beverage category in the U.S, with sales up 85% from 2014 to 2015; production volume up 40%, and the number of licensed producers up 42% in the same year. In 1997 there were about 30 licensed meaderies in the U.S. In late 2016, there were nearly 300, with an additional 50-60 wineries and breweries that make at least one mead product. (Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor- P.8). Today there are about 450 with about 200 more meaderies in the planning stages to open in the next two years.
The growth of the craft mead industry is part of the larger trend in locally-grown, artisan-produced food and drink. Backyard laying hens and beehives are becoming common again and the growing interest in locally-produced organic fruits & vegetables, in locally-grown, grass-fed, pasture-raised meats is all part of this trend, helping to enhance each other and build each other's markets.
To help me delve deeper into the world of Mead, I turned to Jeff Murray, co-owner of WildFlyer Mead in Sarasota, TX. You can read the interview with Jeff in my separate blog about Mead.
For more information about mead, see the following resources:
American Mead Makers Association- https://mead-makers.org/about-the-american-meadmakers-association/?v=7516fd43adaa
The Mazer Cup International- https://mazercup.org/
The Art of Mead Tasting & Food Pairing- Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor