“There’s something special about mead,” Ed Vendely muses as he peers at the straw-colored liquid pooled in his short goblet. “I think there are some aphrodisiac qualities to it. You can drink a glass of mead, as compared to a glass of wine, and it’s a totally different buzz.”
Mead was once the Scotch whiskey, champagne and Jagermeister of the Western world’s collective liquor cabinet, widely valued as a status symbol, festive beverage and quickest route to drunkenness. When ancient Greek philosophers got together, they drank mead. When ancient Romans hosted their orgiastic banquets, they served mead. And when medieval knights braced for battle, they shared bottles of mead.
It’s the medieval association that’s stuck to the honey wine, with Renaissance Fair-goers among the most enthusiastic consumers of the drink. Mead is still considered an oversized-turkey-leg-level novelty by many civilians, who apparently aren’t attuned to its subtleties. The few commercial producers who’ve waded into the mead business have only underscored the drink’s reputation as an achingly sweet, one-note beverage, notoriously releasing cheap white wines spiked with clover honey as “meades.”
Vendely and his wife Lyne, who live in a squat log cabin just east of Asheville, intend to resuscitate mead. With 25 years of amateur mead-making behind him, Vendely, a truck driver, is on course to open a commercial meadery, making mead from Lyne’s homegrown honey. Far from the typical sickly sweet stuff, the Vendelys’ mead is a puckery, sherry-like drink. The faint scent of honey lingers over it, but is barely perceptible to the tastebuds.
“It’s the kind of thing, you either like it or you don’t,” Ed admits. “It’s not something you want to chug.”
“I like it,” Lyne laughs, swirling the mead in her glass. “The first time I had it, Ed gave me some of his very best stuff, trying to impress me, and I was struck by the viscosity of it. It coats your mouth, so maybe it is a bit of an acquired taste, but I acquired my taste very quickly.”
Their planned Sweet Betty’s Bees’ line of meads and honey vinegars will cement Western North Carolina’s claim to being a bit of a mead hotbed, since Jason and Jennifer Russ launched Fox Hill Meadery—the state’s very first meadery—in Marshall last year. Like the Vendeleys, the Russes have conducted extensive experiments to find the fruits and spices which meld best with their honey wines, releasing a blackberry-infused mead that could be drunk for dessert and a tangy ginger-apricot variety.
“Adding fruits just adds a different taste profile,” Ed explains. “You can use spices or herbs.”
“We’ve made some with pineapple, strawberries, rosehips,” Lyne adds. “The strawberry mead turned this beautiful color. You get this idea of Boone’s Farm, but it was wonderful.”
The Vendelys say their fruit sourcing is what will distinguish their meadery, which should be ready to sell its products by 2011—state and federal bureaucracies willing.
“We want to keep it as natural as possible,” says Ed, who has visions of making an apple-infused mead, a monkish favorite properly called a cyser, with fruit from a friend’s organic orchard in Hendersonville. “With our relationship with Flying Cloud (the organic farm in Fairview where Lyne keeps some of her hives), hopefully we’ll be able to use some of their fruit.”
That commitment to ingredient integrity extends to the honey, which is free of pesticides and antibiotics. Although Lyne grew up on a Virginia farm, she never considered keeping bees until Ed—whom she met on Match.com—encouraged her.
“He thought I should keep bees because he made mead,” Lyne explains. “You don’t want just any honey for your mead. So he brought by a brochure from the extension school and said, ‘Here, you can do this.’”
Lyne started with a dozen hives, a startlingly high number for a brand new beekeeper. Half of the hives are positioned behind the Vendeley’s house, where they function as a sort of fish tank or Zen rock garden: “One of my favorite things is to sip my beer and watch the bees coming and going,” Lyne says. “In addition to a dog, everyone should have a beehive.”
Lyne quickly figured out her own approach to beekeeping, which included rejecting some of her teachers’ less-than-natural suggestions.
“When I went to bee school, they were teaching us to feed the bees corn syrup,” Lyne recalls. “We think that wreaks havoc with their systems.”
But the Vendelys confess even an all-natural, locally made product might still struggle to find a foothold in Asheville, if the product in question is mead. Open-minded drinkers eager to sample the beverage would probably still need some prodding to integrate mead into their daily drinking routines.
“Mead kind of got out of favor once sugar was developed,” Ed says. “Mead started going downhill, and it’s not been till the last 10 years ago or so that it started coming back. You’d be hard-pressed to find four or five meads in local stores. It’s kind of very much the way microbreweries were 15 years ago: People don’t know what it is.”
“I don’t think it will be hard once people try it,” Lyne predicts. “It’s a pretty word, it’s a pretty product and it has a wonderful effect upon people. What’s not to like?”
While Sweet Betty’s mead won’t be available for purchase for at least another year—the beverage must age for months before it’s ready to drink—their honeys are sold at Earth Fare, Greenlife Grocery, Trout Lily, Laurey’s and the Asheville Visitors’ Center. The Venderleys also make scattershot appearances at local tailgate markets.