Odin, chief of the mythical Norse gods, loved mead. So much did he love it that he stole the world’s first mead—known to ancient lore as the Mead of Poetry—from a giant and brought it home to Asgard to share with his fellow deities. According to Viking legend, the elixir had been brewed from a mixture of honey and the blood of the first mortal, the poet Kvasir, who had been cruelly slain by dwarves. Reputedly, whoever drank of the brew would acquire the gift of poetry and the most beautiful of singing voices.
When made properly, mead—in its original form, a highly intoxicating fermentation of honey, water and yeast—is, to be sure, an inspiring drink. And although its venerable history is surrounded by legend and steeped in folklore, certain facts are unassailable. Mead has been around for thousands of years and reputedly outdates all other forms of spirituous liquors. Some claim mead dates back 40,000 years to ancient Africa, while others insist it was first quaffed by the Bronze and Iron Age forebears of the Vikings. The residue of fermented honey-based liquor has been discovered in Chinese pottery of the eighth century B.C. And an 8,000-year-old cave painting from Valencia, Spain—known to archaeologists as the “Man of Bicorp”—depicts a figure clutching vines or grass ropes, while harvesting honey from a cliff-side hive. The gatherer is plagued by a swarm of oversized bees, as he/she ladles the honey into a bucket. It remains only to add water to the bucket, let the yeast in the honey ferment, and voila: mead.
Traditions associated with mead survive to this day. In medieval Europe, newlyweds traditionally would drink honey wine—or mead—for a full moon cycle after the wedding ceremony, giving rise to the term “honeymoon.” If the universality of mead should ever come into question, one need only consider the broad spectrum of languages and cultures with a history of—and similar name for—the “nectar of the gods,” including Germanic, Danish, Norse, Middle Dutch, Old Frisian, Old and Middle English, Greek, Sanskrit, Irish, Welsh, Breton, Slavonic and Lithuanian. Despite efforts to establish its place of origin, mead is ubiquitous; virtually all cultures made and imbibed it at one point or another.
Mead has enjoyed a national resurgence in the past few years. “Ninety percent of my business is mead, and I make over 70 different styles—dry, sweet, fruit, honey, spice …” says Michael Fairbrother, president of the American Mead Makers Association; founder of Moonlight Meadery of Londonderry, New Hampshire; and a decades-long maker of mead. The meadery’s most popular concoction is Kurt’s Apple Pie, a mead brewed from a recipe long held in secret by a close friend. Fairbrother’s meads regularly take medals at Denver’s annual Mazer Cup International Mead Competition.
Over the past decade, Kentucky has sprouted a fair number of meaderies. Given the long provenance of this ancient, time-tempered drink, why didn’t it happen sooner? According to Dennis Walter, founder of Camp Springs’ StoneBrook Winery, it has everything to do with local tastes. “Awareness and popularity of mead was limited until the last 10 years,” he says. “We have a demographic in Kentucky that enjoys dry wines, and most meads are on the sweet side. We’ve played with different levels of alcohol and hit a good level, but the customers who are drawn to mead seem to like it sweet.”
Dr. Chris Nelson, founder and proprietor of Chrisman Mill Vineyards in Jessamine County, has been making mead for popular consumption for 10 years. “A light, sweet mead is very popular here. We call it Kentucky Honey Mead,” he says. “Truth to tell, although I love honey, I’m not all that crazy about mead. However, diversity is a good thing, and it’s important to give people what they like.”
Distinct from traditional wine and whisky drinkers, true lovers of mead have elevated it to a lofty perch on the scale of intoxicating liquors. For them, it is as much about the experience as the taste, imbued as it is with historical significance. “We have the die-hards who comprise around 75 percent of our mead drinkers, then the people who seem to prefer it to the bitterness they find in beer, and finally the folks who have heard of mead and are seeing it for the first time,” Cameron Finnis, head brewer at Louisville’s Cumberland Brewery, says.
Nelson says devotees’ appreciation for Chrisman Mill’s mead has, at times, led to tension. “There is limited space at our vineyards for the making of our various wines. We only make 100 gallons of mead a year, and inevitably we run out. When we do, some of our die-hard customers actually get angry. I guess you could say we have a small but impassioned following.”
Aside from the basic steps of combining honey and water, and waiting for the fermenting yeast to do its work, there is no “right” way to make mead. It is safe to conjecture that the ancients accented the flavor of their mead with a wide spectrum of ingredients, ranging from sweet to spicy. Given the proper additives, there are few limitations to the mead maker’s imagination and creativity. Virtually all the state’s meaderies create their own variations on the basic theme.
Don Keller, founder of Owensboro’s Misty Meadow Winery, uses the fruits of his land to create a variety of meads. “I raise bees and make local honey and wax products, and rely on the bees to pollinate,” he says. “The results have been phenomenal. I’ve raised strawberries for 35 years, and the first year I had bees, the pistils just stood up over their leaves, as if to say to the bees, ‘Hey, look at me!’ I also raise my own fruit. I decided to make a blackberry mead from my own products.
“Just getting the recipe approved by the state [Department of Agriculture] took a year, because the berries are an agricultural product. My recipe book has a dry and sweet mead, as well as melomel [fruit mead], pyment [grape mead] and metheglin [herb and spice mead]. Other wineries have asked to buy my honey to make their own mead.”
According to Jeff Wiles, proprietor of Cedar Creek Vineyards in Somerset, “We’ve pretty much come up with our own ideas by trial and error over the past 12 years. We know by now when we have it right when it tastes right to us.”
Even the breweries have expanded upon their mead recipes. Finnis created a cranberry mead for the holiday season. “It has some tartness,” he observes, “and a nice rose tint.” In the summer months, when the brewery makes and serves a Belgian-style ale, Finnis fabricates a mead using the Belgian yeast. “It adds a spicy quality and cuts some of the sweetness.”
Although most mead makers—or “mazers,” as they are sometimes called—tend to create their own recipes and develop their own processes, some actually harken back to ancient traditions. “I’m certainly not going to go back to dripping honey into a pool of water, as the ancients did thousands of years ago,” Keller states, “but I do make my mead from captured rain water, which I feel softens it noticeably. I also add tannin for more mouth feel.”
There is a fair amount of debate concerning the true nature of the drink. Is it a wine, a beer, or something entirely separate? “Mead is the ancestor to both wine and beer, and is a brew unto itself,” Fairbrother asserts.
Some mead makers take a different view. Keller says, “Basically, mead is a wine made with honey. We may give it different names based upon different recipes, depending on what fruits, herbs or spices go into it, but it is truly an ancient wine.”
Nelson agrees. “It’s a honey wine. There are lots of deviations, but in its purest form, it’s comprised of fermented yeast, water and honey. At our winery, we try to keep it simple, using only those three original ingredients.”
To Walter, the relative strength of mead doesn’t disqualify it as wine. “Although there may be a percentage of alcohol that separates it from other wine, it is, without doubt, a form of wine,” he says.
If mead is indeed a wine, how, then, is it made in breweries as well as wineries? Finnis addresses the seeming contradiction. “With the modern brewing laws, it’s a bit of both,” he explains. “To conform to the law, a brewery beverage has to be made up of 25 percent malt, which means that our mead can consist of only 75 percent honey. We then carbonate our mead like an ale or beer. We’d love to do it with just the honey … As it is, it’s a pretty sweet brew—doesn’t have the hop bitterness you find in ales. At the wineries, meads are carbonated and made to be poured from a bottle. Theirs can be more easily defined as a form of wine. Ours is sold only as a draft drink.
“As opposed to our other craft beers and ales, we serve our mead only in half-pint measures, for two reasons: For one thing, it has a higher alcohol content than regular beer and ale—7 percent, as opposed to 5 1/2 percent. Also, honey is expensive!”
The amount of alcohol in mead ranges from 7 to around 25 percent but tends to hover between 11 percent and 14 percent. This caps out at 28 proof—double that of most craft beer but considerably less than, say, Scotch or bourbon. But, says Fairbrother, “It’s all about the quantity. The Vikings drank mead by the flagon, whereas I prefer to market it as ‘Romance by the Glass’ and encourage sharing a bottle. It’s clearly a case of ‘Drinker Beware.’ ”
As Finnis pointed out, honey is expensive, so mead is somewhat pricey to make. According to Fairbrother, “It costs 350 percent more to make mead than either beer or wine because of the use of honey, rather than grapes or other fruit, as a sugar source. The production of honey is a highly limited affair. A single bee can produce only a 12th of a teaspoon in its entire lifetime. Consequently, it takes 6,500 bees to visit 1.2 million flowers to make one 750-milliliter bottle of mead.”
Walter points out that the process of making mead is considerably more time-consuming than that of making fruit wines. “Mead is one of our longest fermenting wines, requiring almost 30 days of fermentation. Other fruit wines take only a couple weeks before they’re ready to be stopped, but honey is hard to ferment. The ancient Scots and Vikings probably added a little fruit, spices and grains to their mead, as much to enhance the fermentation process as for flavor.”
Is mead meant to be drunk chilled or at room temperature? Apparently, there is no simple answer. Clearly, the mead served at the breweries is on the cold side.
“You should drink it to reflect your environment,” Fairbrother says. “If you live in, say, Arizona, drink it chilled, whereas if you’re in New Hampshire, serve it warm. Generally, mead’s flavor is more ‘forward’ when served at room temperature.”
Walter has hit upon his own strategy for presenting mead during the cold months. “Although we usually serve it chilled at say, 48-50 degrees, in the winter, we’ll mull it in a Crock-Pot, add cinnamon and spices, and customers can have hot, spiced honey wine. It’s really good on a cold winter day to have hot mead.”
For many consumers, mead is an acquired taste, and commercially it remains a niche market. Still, some Kentucky mead makers have commented that the popularity of the drink is growing, albeit slowly. Some vineyards, such as StoneBrook, have seen an increase in both interest and sales. “We’ve been making it for six or seven years, and although it sells on the low end of our sellers, sales are steadily increasing,” says proprietor Walter. “We looked at new and different kinds of wines, started out with grape wines, and expanded into the other fruit wines. And one of the early ideas was a honey wine. Everyone has heard of mead, and we figured it would be good to offer it. It’s been a fair seller, although it’s a fairly narrow market. Some love it, while others can’t stand it. And while it’s not our top seller, it is new and a little bit different.”
Wiles, who places his products in some 15 Kentucky liquor stores, affirms that “the mead business has grown.” For other makers, it remains more of a specialty item. Finnis of Cumberland Brewery comments, “It’s not a big seller here at the brewery … We like having it in the portfolios of what we offer, but when you walk in the door, you won’t see everyone drinking it.”
Perhaps Misty Meadow’s Keller has taken the most pragmatic approach. When asked how he sees the future of mead sales at his winery, he replies after a moment’s thought, “Time will tell.” And as the Celts, the Hittites, the Vikings and the ancient Greeks could attest, time is one thing mead has always had.