Mead may be most frequently associated with Renaissance fairs and singing Vikings swinging goblets, but frankly, it can be quite sophisticated. Even though the fermented honey wine is one of the world's oldest alcoholic beverages, modern mead-makers continue to refine their craft, turning out a surprisingly nuanced product. Case in point: what's brewing over at Fox Hill Meadery, a small family-owned operation that Jason Russ and his wife, Jennifer, built on their Marshall property about a year and a half ago.
Like many entrepreneurs, Russ did not exactly plan on doing what he does now for a living. He is, in fact, educated as an engineer. "I never really did any engineering, though," he says. He survived a stint as a telecom worker for four or five years, he says, "but when that bubble burst, I got laid off and decided to start my own business."
Russ dabbled in the world of brewing beer, eventually opening up a home-brew store in Virginia. He quickly decided that he wanted to get more creative with his booze-making and began experimenting with hard cider and various types of wine. "Anything you could ferment, I made it," says Russ. "I even made maple syrup wine — which was terrible."
Russ then discovered and began successfully brewing mead. "From an employment aspect, it just seemed more interesting of a thing to do for the next 30 years, instead of making beer. Lots of people make beer, but no one makes ginger-apricot mead. I wanted to do something unique."
Unique it is — Russ doesn't just focus on traditional style mead alone, choosing to expand his selection with spiced and fruited meads, as well as a Special Reserve which is oak-aged. His concoctions have garnered him three different medals at the Mazer Cup — the largest mead competition in the world.
In order to maintain quality, Russ is constantly experimenting with different types of honey — many of them local — in his stainless-steel, Italian fermenting tanks. "There are hundreds of types of honey, and just like grapes with grape wine, every one makes a different type of mead," Russ says, noting that tulip poplar is a personal favorite. "Partly because it is so prevalent locally, but mainly because it makes a great mead," he explains.
Also, like grapes, different vintages of honey will produce different notes within the mead. "The trees and flowers always blossom a bit differently from year to year," says Russ. "You end up with many different variations in flavor."
It is partially the subtlety of his honey wines that makes Russ so happy to host tastings when he can, and he reports that many are surprised by how balanced, how not sweet the wines actually are. "The response in this area has been really great," Russ says. "I knew that people would be really open to it here, ready to try new things, but it's been even better than I expected."
Indeed, when tasting Fox Hill's products, it is striking how well the honey flavor shines through — without the wine coming across as overbearingly saccharin. Russ' meads have fairly low residual sugar, he explains. "Most commercial meads are far sweeter." Fox Hill Mead tops out at five percent residual sugar, with most hovering somewhere around the two percent range, "whereas most commercial meads are five to ten percent. I prefer them balanced and more drinkable – not cloyingly sweet. I find that most people agree."
Fox Hill's blackberry mead, for example, has a well-balanced and surprisingly subtle flavor, owing to the tart acidity of the fruit. "Meads are often made with fruits and spices because they go so well with the sweetness of the honey," he explains. "It really balances nicely." It is easy to imagine sipping this one on a picnic blanket on a warm day, and Russ agrees. "It's the lightest, fruitiest one — nice for the summer, real easy drinking."
The ginger-apricot is somewhat surprising, with a nearly spicy ginger finish. The ginger meads pair well with spicy seafood dishes and Asian fare, says Russ. "There's no shortage of the ginger in that one," says Russ, pointing to the bottle. "I wanted it to be bold and noticeable, and not just in the background — but balanced enough so that you're not just drinking liquid ginger."
His traditional mead tastes a bit sweeter, he says, "since there is no sharp ginger or tangy blackberry to balance it out." It is still quite balanced, with the most prevalent honey flavor of all of the meads. Russ experiments frequently with different types of honey for his traditional mead, since honey is definitely the star of the show. Fermenting, he points out, tends to enhance the flavors within the honey even further.
Fox Hill also turns out a spiced mead fermented with clove, nutmeg allspice and orange peel, which Russ counts as Fox Hill's best seller — especially in the winter months, rather unsurprisingly; it's easy to imagine sipping the mead at Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner.
Far and away the star of Fox Hill's mead collection, however, is the Special Reserve, made with distinctive buckwheat honey. "It's my personal favorite — it's almost like a port or a sherry. Some people even say it smells like whiskey." It truly does taste like a tawny port, though Russ remarks that this fact means that the wine isn't exactly for everyone. "I love port, and wanted to make a mead that had those flavors."
Fox Hill meads are available in North Carolina and Virginia at various retailers. In the WNC area, it can be found at Green Life, Bruisin' Ales and Earth Fare, just to name a few. For a full list of retailers, visit www.foxhillmead.com.