Ancient brew mead makes flavorful comeback

Makers, located in many states, add ingredients that surpass just sweet

Owner Ben Starr mixes up a batch of mead at his company, Starrlight Mead, in Pittsboro, N.C. Mead, the drink of medieval verse, is making a comeback. But it isn't just the honey wine of tales. There are fruit-flavored meads, called melomels, and there are methyglyns made with spices. (Associated Press)Owner Ben Starr mixes up a batch of mead at his company, Starrlight Mead, in Pittsboro, N.C. Mead, the drink of medieval verse, is making a comeback. But it isn’t just the honey wine of tales. There are fruit-flavored meads, called melomels, and there are methyglyns made with spices. (Associated Press)
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PITTSBORO, N.C. | Mead, that drink of Viking saga and medieval verse, is making a comeback. But this ain’t your ancestors’ honey wine.

“It’s not just for the Renaissance fair anymore,” said Becky Starr, co-owner of Starrlight Mead, which recently opened in an old woven label mill in this little North Carolina town.

In fact, this most ancient of alcoholic libations hasn’t been this hot since Beowulf slew Grendel’s dam and Geoffrey Chaucer fell in with the Canterbury pilgrims at the Tabard.

In the past decade, the number of “meaderies” in the United States has tripled to about 150, said Vicky Rowe, owner of Gotmead.com, which describes itself as “the Internet’s premier resource for everything to do with mead.”

“I literally get new notifications of meaderies at least every couple of weeks,” said Ms. Rowe, who runs the website from her home in the woods north of Raleigh. “So they’re just popping up all over. And a lot of those are wineries that have decided to add mead to their mainstream product lines, which is just incredible.”

Bottles of mead are on display at Starrlight Mead. Many consider mead to be the world's oldest alcoholic beverage. (Associated Press)

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Bottles of mead are on display at Starrlight Mead. Many consider mead ... more >

Traditional mead is made with three ingredients — honey, water and yeast. The biggest hurdle has been overcoming that centuries-old misconception that something made from honey has to be sweet. But, as Ms. Rowe is quick to point out, grapes can be pretty sweet, too.

“And just like wine, mead can be as dry as a bone or it can be so sweet it makes your fillings hurt,” she said. “And it depends on how it’s made.”

The honey, water and yeast are just the base. There are fruit-flavored meads, called melomels. There are methyglyns made with herbs and spices. And then there are what Ms. Rowe calls “weirdomels, which is mead made with lots of other things.”

The wine rack in Ms. Rowe’s basement holds bottles from mead makers in nearly every state — from a New Jersey man who makes authentic Tej with Ethiopian gesho, a hopslike bittering agent, to a guy in Anchorage, Alaska, who flavors his meads with everything from locally picked currants to coriander, Indonesian Koryntje cinnamon and hot peppers.

“I had a beet mead that was screaming pink, like, fluorescent pink, and actually was quite tasty,” Ms. Rowe said. “I’ve had mead made with nuts, with exotic honeys you’ve never heard of. You know, pretty much anything you can throw into a liquid and ferment.”

Because it requires no human intervention, many believe mead is the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage. Traces of a meadlike substance were found in a 9,000-year-old Chinese burial chamber.

Until about 1500, mead was the alcoholic beverage of choice, Ms. Rowe said.

“Because cultivated grapes were only for the rich, and at that point in time the poor folks, they couldn’t get it … honey was readily available to anybody,” said Ms. Rowe, who earned the nickname “Mead Wench” after years of wandering Renaissance fairs laden with wineskins full of her own homemade meads.

In “Beowulf,” the Old English epic heroic poem, the great mead hall Heorot is the scene of most of the action. It is where King Hrothgar “with fair courtesy quaffed many a bowl of mead,” and where the “fell monster” Grendel slaughtered 30 men passed out “after the drinking of the mead.”

Chaucer’s 14th-century “Canterbury Tales” contains several references to mead or “methe.” But with the opening of the New World and its sugar plantations, Ms. Rowe said, “mead began a slow decline … and by the 1700s was almost nonexistent.”

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