- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 29, 2010

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.”

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.”

That began to change in the 1960s, when the hippie culture rediscovered the joys of mead. Then, with the spread of Renaissance fairs and re-enactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the growth of the craft beer industry, this musty old drink was suddenly seen as “new and interesting and potentially wonderful,” said Ms. Rowe.

Picking up where Chaucer left off, J.K. Rowling has introduced a whole new generation of readers to the honey wine. Devotees will no doubt recall how Ron Weasley was nearly done in by a poisoned bottle of Madame Rosmerta’s oak-matured mead in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

Wine and beer makers are aiming for a slightly older demographic.

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware markets a meadlike ale called the Midas Touch. Based on the residue from drinking vessels discovered inside the golden king’s 2,700-year-old tomb, the concoction is described as “biscuity” and “succulent,” with hints of honey, saffron, papaya and melon.

Mead producers are riding the craft-beer wave and taking advantage of the “locovore” craze. Jon Hamilton’s White Winter Winery in Iron River, Wis., did a bourbon barrel-aged cyser, but that’s about as exotic as it gets.

“You won’t see an orange-blossom mead coming out of our shop, because we don’t grow oranges up here,” said Mr. Hamilton, a former psychotherapist who runs the business with his wife, Kim, a former teacher. “We use black currants. We use strawberries. We use raspberries. We use blueberries. We use apples and apple cider — all those kinds of things that are found here in our neck of the woods.”

No one keeps tabs on how much mead is made or sold. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s wine statistical releases do not list honey wine as a separate product.

But Mike Faul, founder of Rabbit’s Foot Meadery outside San Francisco, said his production is growing about 30 percent a year. He distributed 6,000 cases last year to customers as far away as Japan and Ireland.

“In fact, in this bad economy, this year may turn out to be my best year ever,” he said. “In good times or bad, people drink. But in bad, they seem to drink even more.”

North Carolina couple Ben and Becky Starr got into mead a few years ago after tasting it at — where else? — a Renaissance fair. After about two years of experimentation and rave reviews from friends, the Starrs decided to take it to the next level.

In 2006, they traveled to Boulder, Colo., and entered their spiced cyser (mead made with apples) in the International Mead Festival’s home mead-maker competition. They brought home the wooden mazer (goblet) for best in show.

“And that was the point where we realized we were doing something pretty good — that it wasn’t just that we had friends that liked free booze,” said Mr. Starr, who sports a ponytail that reaches halfway down his back.

On Labor Day weekend, Starrlight Mead opened up shop in a little cinder-block office building in back of the former Chatham Mills label factory.

During a recent wine-tasting tour, Mallory Radcliffe and her family stopped by Starrlight. The Fuquay-Varina, N.C., woman had tried mead before, but she was surprised by the range of the Starrs’ offerings — from the almost clear semisweet to a deep-red blackberry. A golden peach was the clear favorite.

“When they add the fruit, you have a different vibe,” she said. “Real light. Real enjoyable. Real easy to drink.”

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