What’s old is new again for the craft beverage industry, which a decade after the resurgence of craft beer is seeing powerful momentum for mead. Thanks in part to complex flavors that range from sweet, and an ABV that can reach 18 percent, the naturally gluten-free drink made up of fermented honey and water is breaking out from its Renaissance Faire and home-brew comfort zone and into the mainstream. Several meaderies open across the country each day and brewers saying restaurants will be seeing customer demand within five years.
History is repeating itself, and it’s time you bellied up to the bar.
“Even though mead technically dates back about 9,000 years, it is new to most people,” says Melovino Meadery owner Sergio Moutela, crediting millennials’ interest in craftsmanship with the uptick in meaderies across the country and making his New Jersey meadery the fastest-growing in the U.S. and the most award-winning in the world. “They don’t want to be told what to like. Instead, they would rather try and discover new things on their own. That is what mead about. It is not just what the Vikings drank or what is poured at Renaissance festivals. Its history is respected and honored, but the future of mead is here now.”
Consumers are also interested in the local appeal of mead, says Michelle Spohnheimer of Buzzed Bee Meadery in Iowa, a meadery that works with local honey producers and farmers. “We find our customers also appreciate our support of keeping business local,” she says.
Meadmaker Bill Cavender of Black Heath Meadery in Richmond, Virginia, says the local aspect is a driving force of his business, as well as consumer awareness of the plight of the honeybee, and pop culture, like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.
That growing interest has Jeff Herbert, owner of Superstition Meadery, the first of its kind in Arizona, calling mead “the smallest, but fastest growing sector of the U.S. alcohol business.” He sees it firsthand. Superstition made 300 gallons/year when it opened in 2012, and it’s on track to produce 20,000 gallons in 2017. “That number will more than double in 2018, and in 2019, we plan to produce 100,000 gallons of mead and hard cider,” he says.
“We have just caught a wave with incredible potential in a fun and sexy industry,” says Herbert. “As a board member of the American Mead Makers Association, I help track the progress of the industry, and over the past 18 months in the U.S., we have counted one new meadery opening every three days.”
Michael Faul of Rabbit’s Foot Meadery in California says that when the company started making mead in 1995, there were a dozen or so wineries making mead on the side. “We were the first true meadery making meads, cysers and braggots, or honey beer,” he says, noting that since then, with the rise in craft beer and cider, “there are more and more people jumping on the bandwagon.”
Bill Wrobel of Dragonmead Microbrewery attributes the opening of dedicated meaderies in Michigan with customers being able to get a taste of what mead is all about, and drive business to the brewery he opened with his father-in-law and best man in 1997. Dragonmead’s pub pulled in $2,000/year in sales when it opened 11 years ago, Wrobel says. Today, annual sales have reached $90,000.
Moutela says the mead industry is currently at the point the craft beer industry was about 12 to 15 years ago, “just at the cusp of beginning to turn some heads.”
Another member of the AMMA board of directors, Moutela has also tracked the growth of the industry. In 2016, he says, the number of meaderies in the U.S. grew to approximately 280 meaderies from around 30-40 or so 7 years prior. Today, that number is already over 520.
“With the rate of growth we have seen just within the last three years, I would expect there would be enough meaderies in this country 10 years from now that, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will surely know of and/or have already tasted mead,” he says. “It will become a normal part of the conversation and included in the same sentences as beer, wine and cider.”
Herbert says that while no one knows the full potential of mead, he is confident it is here to stay. “At Superstition Meadery, our mission is to reintroduce the world’s oldest fermented beverage to mankind, and everything we do is in service to that mission. We are not alone in this effort, and both domestically and internationally mead is finding its way into the best festivals, craft beer bars, bottle shops and onto menus at great restaurants,” he says. “In five years, I bet that every craft beer drinker will at least tried a mead.”
Wrobel agrees, saying that customer education through tastings and organized competitions could get the industry to the point in the next five years where guests are looking for mead selections on restaurant menus.
It’s already on its way, particularly thanks to its ease in pairing with food. Rabbit’s Foot Meadery’s mead was the first to be served at a three-star Michelin restaurant, the French Laundry in California. Melovino’s off-dry strawberry Solo Fragola mead recently made history at the James Beard House in New York City to when it was the first mead to appear on a menu as it accompanied a dish of guinea hen roulade over creamy polenta.
“Mead is super versatile, even if there is sweetness,” Moutela notes. “As long as it is balanced sweetness, with natural acidity and tannins, even a sweet mead can pair incredibly well with food. A perfect example is that most of us, at one point in our lives, have had pizza with soda. … Even some of the sweetest meads only contain about half of the sugar of any can of soda in the market. If you think pizza and soda go great together, trust me, mead and food go great.”
Faul says it’s this pairing quality that makes mead a fit for any restaurant menu. “Mead is a great fit for many dishes,” he says. “It makes a great mixer in any cocktail bar.”
Or even a cocktail substitute itself, Wrobel says: “Mead is a drink that can taste like a cocktail, without the effort. Just open the bottle and experience unique flavor combinations.”
Dragonmead’s pub pulled in $2,000/year in sales when it opened 11 years ago, Wrobel says. Today, annual sales have reached $90,000.
One of the most popular spiced meads at Dragonmead is the Old Guy, a brew made using a medieval recipe of botanicals. “This gives the mead a medium sweet, very earthy nature that pairs well with many different foods, such as pastas with meat sauce and steak dinners.”
And, as Wrobel points out, restaurants can take advantage of the price point: “Mead is more expensive to make with varietal honeys, since its composition is just honey, water and yeast. Restaurants and bars can charge a premium for the product and deliver with great taste.”
Herbert says that as mead becomes more popular, restaurants who stock it will stand out among competitors. “It will make a statement that they are a progressive establishment that is ahead of trends,” he says. “Mead makes some of the delicious cocktails I have ever had, and there is a style of mead that pairs perfectly with any food item. Most importantly, with a bit of staff training, mead sells.”
The fact that mead has since evolved from its sweet roots to include dry, and even sparkling versions, makes it an easy sell to a customer looking for something different.
Though traditionally a drink made up of just honey and water, Moutela points out that more so than beer or wine, mead can take on the taste of other ingredients, like mixed berries or even espresso beans, that can make the final product dry, off-dry, semi-sweet or sweet.
And brewers certainly have fun experimenting. Some of Melovino’s more creative meads include the Nice As Pie, made by fermenting honey with freshly pressed local apple cider and aging with Vietnamese cinnamon and fresh Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans, and the PBJ Sammich, a peanut butter and jelly mead made with freshly roasted peanuts, honey and juice from strawberries and raspberries.
Superstition also makes a Peanut Butter Jelly Crime mead, a jammy drink with a smooth finish that Herbert recommends pairing with everything from bananas foster to chicken and waffles.
Buzzed Bee Meadery makes a jalapeno mead called Sweet Heat that Spohnheimer compares to pepper jelly. “The sweet honey pairs with the fresh jalapeno, creating an enjoyable unique drink,” she says. “We love working with unusual flavor combinations such as blackberry and ginger, and chocolate and coffee. Every batch is a small batch, so it allows us to be creative and try new ideas.”
Cavender infuses Black Heath’s Valhalla mead with elderberry and elderflower, and a collaboration with the Veil Brewing Co. allows them to make a mead with bourbon barrel-aged honey infused with vanilla bean.
With so many different styles and tastes, brewers say there’s surely a mead for everyone.
“There is plenty of amazing mead out there,” Moutela says. “Don’t give up. You are sure to find a whole new world of flavors you’ve never had before.”
Herbert points out that the etymology of the word “amazing” actually finds its roots in being drunk on mead, which was once served in a vessel called a mazer. It’s a fact he says reflects the excitement around the beverage.
“Mead is growing because it is amazing,” he says. “Mead is delicious, and the range of style traverses from dry to sweet, still to sparkling, from quaffable to the most complex beverage that will ever pass your lips.”
Herbert says there is no day like the present to give mead a try.
“If you don’t take some time to check out what the mead industry is up to, you will missing out,” he says. “If you are new to mead, Aug. 5 is National Mead Day, so begin a new journey. Who knows what you will discover?”