Everything in Moderation: Honey-based alcohol goes mainstream

BEYOND BEER: Jason Russ of Fox Hill Meadery started out making beer at home in the mid-1990s, but eventually decided he wanted to do something different. “Then I discovered mead,” he says. “And I was like, 'This is more interesting; I like the history of it.'” Photo courtesy of Russ

One of the most ancient alcoholic beverages known to humankind, mead is the stuff of romance and legend. As Charlie Papazian wrote in his essential The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing, “the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Scandinavians and Assyrian people procured this legendary drink as a vehicle for saturnalian revelry unmatched today.” Papazian notes that both the Aztecs and Incas also held a reverential attitude toward the honey-based drink.

And mead is inextricably entwined with the origins of a worldwide cultural tradition. A brief essay (“Mead and the Honeymoon”) on meadist.com explains: “Mead was often consumed during the wedding celebration as a toast to the bride and groom. After the wedding the couple was given enough mead to continue the toasting for … one cycle of the moon — hence the term ‘honeymoon.’”

But mead’s appeal extends beyond the first month of wedded bliss. Still, while the do-it-yourself nature of most every form of spirit evolved into a commercial industry, mead-making is among the last to go mainstream. In some ways, that’s surprising, because mead is among the simplest of all alcoholic beverages. At its most basic, mead contains a mere three ingredients: honey, water and yeast.

As recently as a decade ago, finding a commercial meadery in Western North Carolina would have been exceedingly difficult. But right along with the growth of interest in beer and craft cocktails, mead-making has gained a foothold in the region; today, there are more than a dozen meaderies in the state. And things have changed greatly since 1984, when  Papazian asserted, “If you can find commercially made mead, it’s likely to be sweet, old and stale, smelling like wet cardboard or old garbage.”

The craft mazers (mead-makers) at the select meaderies in or near Asheville would certainly take issue with that dated assessment. Today’s mead is made with great care, producing a drink that offers spectacular subtlety.

If you’ve never tried mead, consider this: It tastes like honey without the sweetness (if you can imagine such a thing). “Though there is a lot of bad mead, apparently, being given out at Renaissance fairs,” says David Bowman of Black Mountain Cider & Mead.

His wife, Jessica Bowman, is the resident mazer, and she agrees that mead has to overcome some preconceived notions: “People who come in either love mead, or they’re like, ‘I had a bad mead once. I’m not sure about this.’”

Mead typically has about 6% or 7% ABV — just a bit higher than lager beers. As a result, in the British Isles, mead developed a somewhat dodgy reputation. “It got the connotation that when people drink it, they fight,” Jessica says with a chuckle. (A typical porter or stout has roughly the same ABV as mead; wines are higher still.)

Because they’re served on tap, Black Mountain’s meads have a slight effervescence. Aged for about three months, they remain intentionally simple concoctions. “We don’t filter or clarify or anything, and we don’t pasteurize,” says David. “Sometimes meads are like children. Some are going to take care of themselves; others need more attention.”

Jason Russ of Fox Hill Meadery started out making beer at home in the mid-1990s and considered opening a brewery. Becoming bored with what he describes as “the 10 millionth IPA,” he decided he wanted to do something different. “Then I discovered mead,” he says. “And I was like, ‘This is more interesting; I like the history of it.’”

Russ takes a high-end approach to mead-making. His small facility is 20 minutes’ drive outside Asheville, beyond Leicester, and it’s very nearly a one-person operation.

Whenever possible, WNC mazers source their honey locally. But it’s not always practical. “When you’re buying 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of honey at a time, not everybody can supply you,” Russ says.

For his meads, he prefers darker honeys. “I like the caramel, earthy flavor,” he says. The Bowmans select from a wider range, depending on the type of mead they want. “Wildflower and clover honeys are our two go-to’s,” says Jessica. “But we sometimes use sourwood because that’s special to this area.”

While a simple, straightforward mead is delightful, mazers often apply their creativity in developing flavored varieties. Fox Hill offers blackberry, ginger-apricot and peach flavors, along with a special reserve made with buckwheat honey that has a character “very reminiscent of port or sherry,” Russ says. Fox Hill’s meads are available in 750-milliliter bottles, sold in many local wine shops.

The Black Mountain mead makers explore a wider palate; among the most notable are Viking Blood (clover blossom honey and cherry, aged in oak) and The Privateer (blueberry mojito-flavored). And while it’s currently unavailable, the Bowmans say their patrons rave about a pistachio mead. “As far as I can tell,” David says, “Jessica invented the idea of a nut mead.” Their varieties are made in comparatively small quantities — typically 15-31 gallons — so any given flavor might run out within days of being made available.

Black Mountain Cider & Mead hasn’t yet moved into the retail world; its meads are currently available only on tap. But that will soon change. “We just got a little canning machine,” Jessica says, “so we’re going to can both cider and mead.”

But the Bowmans still face a serious challenge. “We’re still working out which meads should be in the cans,” Jessica says. “There are so many.”

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About Audrey and Bill Kopp
Self-described “liquor nerds” Audrey and Bill Kopp enjoy a good cocktail now and then (and then, and then) but always imbibe responsibly. Everyday Americans with upscale tastes, they're always on the lookout for the best values in spirits, clever-yet-legal DIY strategies, and adventurous cocktail recipes. Find them also at http://fb.me.liquornerds/ Follow me @liquornerds

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