If you've had mead before, it was likely at a Renaissance fair, where you learned that in ye old times the drink of choice was a beverage made from fermented honey and water. You also found that being drunk all day wasn't all that it was cracked up to be – especially if you had only this sickly sweet, syrupy stuff to drink. But not all mead is equal. This honey wine can be dry, crisp, and stunningly complex, and a growing number of artisanal mead makers in the U.S. are elevating the drink.
"Over the past 10 years or so, there's been a whole movement in the market toward craft products," says David Myers of Colorado's Redstone Meadery. "We saw it in beer and in spirits and in cider. Now, it's happening in mead."
Great mead is made to be dry. High-tech temperature controls and a precise use of yeast allow modern meadmakers to keep sweetness in check. The addition of fruit such as grapes to blackberries and currants make the mead bold and jammy. Botanicals such as juniper berries or lavender blooms can imbue the drink with flavors reminiscent of gin. A straight, traditional mead best expresses the flavors found in the honey itself, from the fruitiness of orange blossoms to more aromatic wildflowers.
The growth in mead has been relatively recent. Michael Fairbrother opened Moonlight Meadery, now the nation's largest craft maker, in his New Hampshire garage just three years ago. One year in, he expanded to a commercial space that could fit his 50-barrel tanks. Now his meadery sells more than 20,000 cases of mead to 30 states and is bigger than New Hampshire's largest winery. The same goes for the rest of the country; in the past 10 years, nearly 170 meaderies have opened their doors. For Fairbrother, demand has far outstripped the ability to expand operations. His biggest gripe now is that the Renaissance fairs won't buy his mead: "One of the biggest operators in the country told me, 'Your mead tastes too good. The people that come to our fairs are expecting meads that are thick and sweet.' "