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.' "
Bobby "Honeybee" Slanzi's Ghost Pepper Mead
In New York City meadmaking circles, Bob Slanzi is rapidly becoming a legend. Slanzi's meads begin with local honey, and by local we mean beehives on the roof of his Yonkers house. The bee's forage throughout the New York City area and produce a stellar wildflower honey. Slanzi blends the honey with a wide variety of exotic ingredients for unique flavors. His meads have featured everything from coconut in his Colada mead to a cumin, peach, and black cherry concoction. Slanzi's most famous experiment, though, is his Ghost Pepper Mead in which he tames the notoriously fiery chili and coaxes out its subtle flavor with careful blending. Ghost Pepper took best of show in the 2013 Homebrew Alley VII competition of the New York City Homebrewers Guild, beating out 762 beers, meads, and ciders. It is, bar none, the best mead we have ever tasted.