I’ve needed to get this off my chest for awhile. A bee in my bonnet, so to speak.
Mead is at long last becoming a popular thing in the US, growing in the same way cider has been growing, particularly at brewpubs and among craft brewers in regions otherwise known for prowess in the fermenting arts. The trouble–as with cider, only worse because mead hasn’t had Strongbow and Woodchuck holding it up commercially for the last ten years–is that nobody knows a damn thing about it. Including, it seems to me, a lot of the people brewing it.
Mead is, or should be, a wonderful thing, sublime I dare say, magical even. Mead can be complex with rich mouthfeel like a port, but lighter-bodied and prettier. It can smell delicate and amazing, like all the flowers in the honey it was made from. It can send both palate and pate into flights of hyperbolic fantasy unknown since the age of bards and heroes.
Or it can be sickly-sweet, cough-syrupy, overpowered and unbalanced with ridiculous, unnecessary additives by well-intentioned brewers who as best I can understand don’t actually know what mead is supposed to taste like.
What’s it supposed to taste like?
Years ago I gave Scott some bottles of my homebrewed mead made from raw Western MA wildflower honey. He aged them and shared them with friends. These friends, a group of Southern wine-loving ladies as I recall, unanimously proclaimed it “liquid sunshine”. Now, by sheer coincidence, a local MA meadery, Green River Ambrosia, happened to have started making mead the same year I made mine, using supplies from the same apiarist, Warm Colors Apiary in Deerfield. Guess what name they marketed it under? Liquid Sunshine.
That, to me, is a better argument for the greatness of what the current sad state of the commercial mead industry obliges me to refer to as “traditional” mead than any I could articulate using fancy wine adjectives or even the lost vocabularies of harpists and dragonslayers. Its sublimity is language-independent. Two people from opposite sides of the earth, unable to communicate a word to each other, could taste the same bottle of mead and the same thought would go off like a celestial fusion reaction in their brains.
Not enough people have had that experience. I haven’t had it nearly enough myself. And at this rate, before long, nobody will. Because nobody seems interested in making traditional mead anymore. The new brewpub that just appeared in my town offers mead in blueberry, cherry, apple pie, limoncello and piña colada flavors. Seriously, they do. As if mead were indistinguishable from 25-cent off-brand soda, gummy bears, wine coolers or tropical-flavored chewing gum. I can’t believe anyone who’d actually tasted real mead would want to do that, so I must assume they have not.
I’m no brewing purist. Yarrow, lavender, sage, cacao nibs, chile peppers, peaches–I leave a lot on the table. I want to bring stuff back to the table that’s been left out in the yard for the deer for the past 500 years. But I also don’t want to let anything die out. Particularly not mead! Nobody’s going to stop brewing pale, crisp yellow lagers in the grand Central European tradition just because a bunch of hipster microbrewers suddenly want to make nothing but black pepper and persimmon flavored spelt and quinoa grand cru. But just try to procure a complex, delicious, delicate, traditional mead anywhere outside of Boulder, Colorado or the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts. For the most part, you can’t, for love or money. And that is a tragedy.
I’m saying it’s time to draw the line. We need a new Rheinheitsgebot: a mead purity law.
Look, I get it. Good honey is expensive and hard to come by. Mediocre-to-bad honey and even corn syrup masquerading as honey are everywhere, as I’ve come to realize now that Warm Colors Apiary is no longer down the street from my house. And if you’ve got bad honey, and you think you can make some money selling mead, the easiest thing to do to mask that flavor is sweeten it to the hilt, then add a bunch of overpowering fruit until it looks and tastes like slightly watery, flavored cough syrup.
All the more reason mead needs people in its corner.
Think of the bees, won’t you? The poor, downtrodden bees, dying off by the hundreds of thousands, forced to slave over endless, uniform fields of pesticide-bombed alfalfa and GMO white clover as far as the eye can see. Colony Collapse Disorder is still some big mystery according to your friendly neighborhood agribehoemoth oversight organization, but ask your local apiarist and she’ll lay it out flat: If you let bees live in small colonies on one plot of land with a reasonably diverse group of pesticide-free plants to feed from, and you don’t go exposing them to disease and constant stress by shipping them around from factory farm to factory farm in the back of a semi, they don’t get CCD.
Don’t you see? We can save the bees through mead! If everybody learned to appreciate real mead and therefore good honey, there would suddenly be a demand for good honey, motivating more small, organic growers to keep bees and sell honey, motivating more stores to carry good honey, motivating more homebrewers to make good mead, motivating more people to drink more mead!
Below, a set of simple rules for producing and appreciating traditional mead.
- Mead is made from honey, yeast, water, and time. I’m not saying nobody should ever put spices or fruit in mead again, but for the bees’ sake, make it a few times in its pure form first, so you can be sure you’ve got it right and know what you’re making, before you go screwing around with ginger and maple syrup. Hopefully once you do, you’ll realize that adding anything else is just gilding the lily.
- Use good honey. Buy a bunch of different kinds of honey and taste them. You’ll be amazed at how much variety there is, believe me. Clover honey, what comes in cheap motel breakfast condiment packets and plastic bears at the supermarket, is the least nuanced, least delicious form of honey there is, not least because it is often made with 50% or more corn syrup. Try local varietal honeys such as goldenrod, apple blossom, orange blossom, raspberry blossom, southernwood, mesquite, buckwheat. Try your local wildflower honey–it’s probably the best honey you’ve ever tasted. Then use it to make mead.
- Do as little to the honey as possible. The more you agitate honey, the more fragile complex aromatics and unique flavor phenols it loses. A must made from good honey doesn’t want or need to be boiled like beer wort–it’s already got antibiotic properties, it doesn’t need to have water cooked out of it, it’s already in a state where the yeast can get at the sugars. When I make mine I barely heat it to 140 degrees F.
- Mead needs to age. Be patient. The less you do to it, the better it will age (see #3 above), but at the very least, mead is going to spend 3 months fermenting and 6 months maturing. It’s better after 2 years and even better after 3. If you drink it before then, or worse, try to sell it, it won’t be ready. People won’t like it. And then you’ll think you need to add a bunch of sugar and fruit flavors to make it palatable. You don’t. Don’t.
What I’m saying here isn’t new or crazy or deluded. It’s as old as the hills–or at least the people buried under them. I know of what I speak. I have done these things and they have made people happy. Try them. They’ll make you happy too.
To prove I’m not just talking, I have researched and ferreted out my local apiary here in my new home in Southeastern Michigan. It’s this: Whitfield Apiaries in Ortonville. Come summer I’m going to go buy fifty pounds of wildflower honey, brew ten gallons of mead, sit on it for two years until it’s delicious, and then, by Beowulf, I am going out to preach the word!