A Taste of Honey
Is mead poised for a comeback?
By Nicholas Day
Posted Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008, at 7:02 AM ET



Judging by the prominence of honey these days, you'd think there's a run
on sugar. Local, flavored honeys are now in restaurant kitchens. Foodies
are mail-ordering artisanal raw varieties. At my local farmers market in
Connecticut, the area beekeeper shows up with a table's worth of options
and a glassed-in buzzing hive. This resurgence is in spite of the recent
colony collapse disorder
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_Collapse_Disorder> , which
decimated many beehives. But even more unexpected is the rise of honey
for an ancient use: alcohol, in a drink known as mead.

You might know mead from Beowulf—it's what the characters got soused on.
Mead is so old-school that its advocates claim it as the world's first
alcoholic beverage. (Their line of thinking goes like this: Rain-diluted
honey attracted wild yeasts. The fermented liquid then attracted a
human, who drank it and felt less unhappy.) But the recent interest in
fermented honey has morphed it from an esoteric item that only a few
bearded Dungeons & Dragons players indulged in to a small yet legitimate
commercial enterprise. There are now more than 100 meaderies in the
United States, like Rabbit's Foot Meadery
<http://www.rabbitsfootmeadery.com/> and Mountain Meadows Mead
<http://www.mountainmeadowsmead.com/> . For the ambitious, there are DIY
mead-making books, complete with archaic spellings (see The Compleat
Meadmaker
<http://www.amazon.com/Compleat-Meadm...-winning-Varia
tions/dp/0937381802/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1202503762&sr= 8-
1> ). Is mead, last popular around King Arthur's table, poised for a
comeback?

The home-brewing community is largely responsible for putting mead on
the map. Mead-making culture is a direct descendant of beer geekdom, in
part because Charles Papazian, whose The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
<http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Homeb...source-Book/dp
/0060531053/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1202503785&sr= 1-1> is
the book that launched a thousand brewpub loans, is also a mead
evangelist. In fact, the home-brewing community can be credited with
many significant changes to the American drinking landscape. Without the
nerdy obsessiveness of early hobbyists, we'd all still be crushing
corn-fed lagers against our foreheads. Instead, we're drinking double
IPAs and imperial stouts. The many new mead-makers in America are almost
all lapsed home brewers who smelled the honey.

In some ways, it's not surprising to see mead taking off like this: The
last few decades have given rise to many small-scale, artisan food
products. In the alcoholic arena alone, there are now craft spirits
<http://www.northshoredistillery.com/> , craft sake
<http://www.jotosake.com/index.html> , and craft bitters
<http://www.seriouseats.com/required_...bitter-bitter-
world.html> . Anyone at a farmers market has seen that antique varieties
of melons or apples are in vogue; many small farmers now raise and sell
almost-extinct animal breeds, like Tamworth pigs and Narragansett
turkeys.

For farmers market foodies, mead, as an alcoholic libation, has a
conceptual advantage over beer: Mead possesses what winemakers call
terroir, the French term for how something—wine, cheese, honey—conjures
up the landscape around it. That's because an artisanal mead is still,
at least in part, an agricultural product. With its floral and herbal
aromas, a good mead vividly communicates a sense of place—think a field
of orange blossoms or rosemary bushes—in a way that's impossible for
beer. Wine writer Matt Kramer calls this feeling "somewhereness" and, in
the new hyper-local-food America, it is an attractive selling point.
Don't just "eat your view
<http://pollan.blogs.nytimes.com/2006/05/17/eat-your-view/> "; get
blitzed off it.

Mead-maker David Myers of Colorado's Redstone Meadery
<http://www.redstonemeadery.com/> said, "Mead is something that comes
around like clockwork
<http://www.redstonemeadery.com/store...e-Masses-sp-65.
html> every 2,000 to 3,000 years." But despite its seemingly sudden
upswing, mead isn't likely to reattain its crazy medieval popularity.
Unlike once-forgotten, now-prized goods like heirloom tomatoes, mead
won't even make the foodie mainstream. That's partly because it has a
horrible image problem—currency with the Society for Creative
Anachronism <http://www.sca.org/> is not exactly a signifier of great
commercial promise. Got Mead <http://www.gotmead.com/> 's blogger goes
by the nickname Meadwench
<http://www.gotmead.com/index.php?option=com_jd-wp&Itemid=190> , and the
topics covered on the blog include questions from readers trying to
figure out what the historically correct drinking cup is. Fans like
these won't boost mead into the 21st century. Even mead-makers complain
about Renaissance fairs, where the drink is treated, inevitably, as an
anachronism.

While it's theoretically possible for mead to escape its poor company,
it has a more fundamental problem. Although there seems to be a mead
flavor for every palate—orange blossom, buckwheat honey, blended with
berry purees, infused with juniper berries, champagne-carbonated,
still—they all suffer from the same structural problem: Honey has little
natural acidity. That may sound appealing, but acidity—the spine of a
good wine—is what keeps flavors bright and focused, and what marries
wine with food. Mead-makers recognize this flaw, so to give it an acidic
boost, they add citric acid. That helps, but it's not enough. Most meads
still sit somewhat awkwardly alongside dinner. Unlike the best beer and
wine pairings, they neither sharply highlight foods nor blend with them
into something equally interesting. Ultimately, they make for reluctant
partners at the table.

Strange enough to be intriguing, but too strange to be at home on the
dinner table, mead is a stubborn paradox. I like mead conceptually—the
lore, the eccentricities. I even occasionally like a bottle. But no mead
has ever earned its way into my alcoholic rotation. The other night, I
had a glass of Redstone's Mountain Honey Mead, a widely distributed
brand, and its initial burst of flavor went flat all too soon. It was an
odd fit with what I'd planned for dinner (your basic roast chicken) and
dessert (a black-and-white custard). Of course, the rapturous aroma was
intoxicating, and I spent a few moments inhaling it. But the taste that
followed was neither more nor less than limpid, liquid honey. If
Winnie-the-Pooh ever took to the bottle, this is exactly what he'd want.

Nicholas Day is a freelance writer who covers food and the environment.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2184361/

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