You Don't Have to Be a Viking to Drink Mead
The artificially carbonated swill marketed as mead is nothing like the real stuff, but at least a few mead-makers are still sticking to tradition—using nothing more than honey, water, and a bit of yeast.
Photos by the author.
But it's truly hard to believe there has been a resurgence when, after asking for mead, I am lead by a liquor store clerk to amber bottles filled with an artificially-carbonated mead and beer concoctions, standing like hip pariahs on a display facing coolers full of beer. They don't stand a chance.
Mead, traditionally made, is a fermented mix of water and honey. Most mead-makers add their choice of yeast to control the mead's sweetness and to quicken fermentation. Though it is called honey wine, it is neither a wine, beer, nor spirit. Depending on the tradition, mead can also be infused with a variety of spices and herbs.
I ask for "just mead," and the store clerk's eyes light up, thinking. She knows what a traditional mead is, she just can't remember if the shop stocks any. After searching the vintages room, she comes back with a tall, dusty bottle of something indisputably yellow. The label is in Eastern European gibberish. Cracking it open for a taste, my tongue is hit with a nearly bitter sharpness that quickly rounds to the sickly sweet taste of honey.
Aaron Ardle, of Brothers Drake Meadery in Columbus, Ohio, isn't surprised. "The fact is, if you find a mead out there and you don't like it, the chances are it's not very good," he says. "Quality varies from place to place, so it's just like wine or beer. There's good-quality mead and lower-quality mead."
My car signals off the highway ramp in search of good-quality mead. On my way, some of the streets of Lincoln, Ontario, narrow to gravel paths just wide enough for two-way traffic. The houses get slightly bigger, then wider apart, and finally, they're not there. In their place on the left side, endless rows of vines, some a robust green, others light and small—baby vines—signal our arrival into Canada's wine country, in the fruit belt of the Niagara Peninsula.
It's 24 degrees Celsius and humid. I stop at Rosewood Estates Winery, a family-owned operation with a family legacy of beekeepers that goes back three generations. Today, Rosewood, and its surrounding forests, is home to 300 colonies of healthy and stationary bees.
Following August's wildflower honey harvest, it is the job of Ross Wise, the head winemaker, to make the mead.
Wise is standing beside one of several stainless steel fermentation tanks that tower over him: "So, we add a volume of water in the tank, hot water, about 50 degrees Celsius," he says with an Australian accent. "And then we warm the honey up and pump the honey over the top into the water until we have the sugar level we want … [Then] we add the yeast—and that's pretty much it for additives."
The mead ferments in steel tanks for four to six weeks before it is filtered of the yeast and transferred to oak barrels. The liquid then rests from two months (their driest mead) to three years (their sweetest mead). Wise says that barrel-aging is all about complexity, letting nutty and honey flavours develop more.
By the time I sip the Mead Royale, Rosewood's medium mead, it has been fermented in a steel tank and aged in a French oak barrel in a cool cellar for six months. It's smooth and easy to drink, softly sweet and full of warm and subtle spice.
But after three year's of sales growth, traditional mead is no longer the goal for Rosewood. In the back of the building, Wise opens a fridge to reveal the two prototypes of flavoured meads that Rosewood is testing: sour cherries soaking in a jug of mead for one, and fruit juice with mead in the other.
And Ardle, whose company already ferments imaginative meads infused with ingredients such as coffee beans, says that his mission is to make people aware of mead as a beverage full of possibilities. He started a blog, The Mead Mixologist, where he shares mead cocktail recipes for this purpose.
"There's kind of a lot of historical baggage with mead. We're really trying to create something for people in the 21st century," said Ardle. "We want people to know that [mead] is not a historical novelty. You don't have to be a Viking to drink it."