I first learned of mead in high school, but then it was only by reputation: The mead hall in “Beowulf” where Danish king Hrothgar and his people quaffed cups to achieve “mead joy”—until Grendel showed up and ruined the party.
Others may have recently caught wind of it via Game of Thrones. But textual mentions of this honey wine date back to ancient Greece, and even earlier to 1500 B.C. in India, while 9,000-year-old pottery artifacts in China show evidence of fermented honey.
“At its most basic, mead is honey mixed with water and yeast,” said mead maker Jon Hamilton of White Winter Winery in Iron River, Wisconsin. For Hamilton, commercial honey has been in the family for generations.
“My dad had a hive in the backyard in Minneapolis, but he never had bees in it for fear of getting sued,” he said. But his uncles would stop by with trucks full of five-gallon tins of honey. “I grew up chewing on honeycomb, and even did a research paper on honey in eighth grade.” (He still has it!)
Just after college, Hamilton started homebrewing beer and a couple years later moved on to mead. He had access to abundant honey but sought to add value to the work of the bees. “‘Why not mead?’ I thought. ‘Nobody else seems to be doing it.’”
A Growing Movement
In the mid-1990s, Jon and his wife Kim set out on road trips from one end of the country to the other, seeking out meaderies to see how they were making a business out of it. “There were only about 22 in the whole United States at the time,” he said.
The couple opened White Winter Winery in northern Wisconsin in 1996, but even seven years later there were still only 30 meaderies nationwide. But in the last few years, that’s grown quickly.
According to Vicky Rowe, executive director of the American Mead Makers Association and founder of GotMead.com, over 400 meaderies are now in operation, while another 170 of them are in the process of getting the required permits and licenses.
Rowe credits the sudden interest, in part, to movie mentions, but “the biggest drive we’ve seen is the under-40 set, which is getting into mead in a big way. They’re not just drinking it; they’re starting their own meaderies.”
It’s a gluten-free alternative to beer, and, as Rowe points out, it’s also a greener craft beverage: It doesn’t use the massive amounts of water that are required for grapes, and the increased demand for honey supports beekeepers and, in turn, the bee population.
The World of Mead
Mead has always been produced in a broad range of styles and strengths, but its resurgence in the 21st century is much like the craft beer scene: mead makers are exploring the limits.
Traditionally, mead is a sweet drink, but there are also dry and semi-sweet options. The common alcohol content is similar to most wine, somewhere around 12–15 percent.
Stronger meads surpass 20 percent, while the latest trend takes a cue from the craft beer industry: session meads. With alcohol content of under eight percent, these mellowed meads can be consumed in larger quantities in one sitting. Rowe likes to call it “beach mead,” as you can pick up a six-pack and take it to the beach or on a picnic.
“We like to keep ours a bit more traditional, at least for the wine styles,” said Hamilton. But this hasn’t stopped him from exploring. He fortified his black currant mead with an eau de vie—a distillate of his own making—and aged the blend on oak chips, to create a more potent sipping mead that compares to port in terms of potency, deliciousness, and complexity. He also makes a cyser, a blend of local apple cider and honey.
Other mead variations include melomel, mead fermented with fruits; metheglin, a spiced or medicinal mead; and pyment, a blend of mead and grapes. Ethiopian restaurants often offer traditional tej, sometimes made in house, a honey wine with a bitter ingredient, the leaves and twigs of gesho, a species of buckthorn.
Some modern mead makers also add varieties of hops, the sort one finds in beer. This may sound like a groundbreaking crossover, but mead’s relationship with beer goes back centuries: see brackett, or braggot, “a mead and ale hybrid made with both honey and malted barley,” said Hamilton. “We were one of the first in the United States to make brackett,” he said; White Winter’s version won a silver medal at the World Beer Cup in 2002, in the Specialty Honey Lagers or Ales category.
You can even find meads with carbonation—a sort of mead cooler, if you will. Heidrun Meadery in California produces a range of brut dry, naturally sparkling varietal meads, and Michigan’s B. Nektar offers a Bubbly Strawberry Pyment, made with Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer grapes, strawberries, and star thistle honey.
Superstition Meadery in Arizona has taken to aging meads in new oak barrels and repurposed bourbon barrels. Their mead and cider creations number over 200 to date. Peanut Butter Jelly Crime mead, flavored exactly as the name suggests, sells out as soon as it’s released, while others top the ratings at RateBeer.com and Untappd.
For Hamilton, mead-making is about subtlety; he doesn’t want any one flavor to stand out. “We look for balance,” he said, and he prefers “letting the flavors play with each other, getting people to think about what they’re drinking and tasting.” Still, he acknowledges the occasional mood to taste something boldly different: “There’s a place for everything,” he added with a laugh.
Compared to the popularity of craft beer, mead itself is still “something different” for many. But with nine thousand years of history behind it and a passionate modern artisanal movement on board, now might be a good time to head on down to your local mead hall, Beowulf.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com