Once thought of as the “nectar of the gods” and a favorite of those hard living marauding Vikings circa 1000 A.D., mead dates even further back to China back in 2000 B.C. And now, this drink made of fermented honey often blended with herbs, fruits, berries and spices, is making a comeback.
“Home brewing came in a wave after home wine making, both of which are still very solid,” says Rick Cooper, a wine specialist and beverage consultant, at Lambrechts Liquor Store in St. Joseph, Michigan which sells a wide range of home brewing and wine making equipment and ingredients. “Now you’re seeing these subsets of that process and mead making is one of them.”
Cooper, who has participated in international spirit judging competitions worldwide, notes that Bardic Wells, Michigan’s first meadery—a winery producing only meads, first opened in 2007 in Montague, north of Grand Rapids. Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery has been in business in Chicago for over two decades and considers itself among the most sustainably produced beverages in the world, raising their own bees and using local ingredients. Indiana’s first and so far only meadery is New Day, in the historic Fountain Square neighborhood near downtown Indianapolis. They offer both seasonal meads like Snap Dragon, an apricot and honey wine with coriander, orange peel, Hallertau hops and Belgian wit yeast and year round—Washington’s Folly with hints of cherry and a smooth honey finish and the tangy and sweet Shelby Blue Ribbon—strawberry, rhubarb and honey wine.
“I have made beer over 10 years and wine for eight years” says Pete Gregar, a member of the Duneland Homebrewers Association, a homebrew club founded by craft beer enthusiasts in 1995. “Mead was just a progression to be able to create something that is typically not readily available, maybe more natural progression from wine. The equipment and steps match wine more than beer.”
Gregar has never made just a simple straight honey mead. His are mostly fruit based using raspberry and black berries as well as oaked, vanilla and black walnut.
“I’m going to start a cherry one soon,” he says.
At the recently opened Ironwood Brewing Co. in downtown Valparaiso, owner/brewmaster Barb Kehe is currently working on getting federal approval for her mead recipe, a prerequisite to begin selling it at her brewery. A home and professional brewer who worked at several microbrewers before opening her own, Kehe notes that the flavor of the mead you’re making depends not only on the botanicals and fruits added but also on the honey.
“Mead can be dark or light depending on whether the honey is dark or light,” she says. “And the taste also depends on what flower nectars the bees made their honey from. Adding other ingredients changes the flavor too.”
In pointing out the differences between mead, beer and wine, Kehe says that beer is made with malted barley; wine is technically made with fruit and mead with honey.
“Mead can be carbonated like beer or distilled like wine,” she says. Her mead is made in a beer style because brewing is her background.
Bob and Deb Hyndman, who live just south of Valparaiso, have been members of Duneland Homebrewers Association since it was founded.
“We were just a group that got together and started brewing,” says Deb, now president of the association which has 90 members, 45 of whom are active. The group gets together once a year to spend a day (usually from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.) to mash grains and make the beginnings of a home brew that members can then take home and personalize.
“We’ve never made a mead but we did do a braggot,” says Deb, talking about a combination of mead and beer often flavored with spices and herbs. According to the Beer Advocate, braggots have ancient roots with early references dating back to 12th century Ireland and a mention as well in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s. An example would be Samuel Adams Honey Queen.
Though we might think of meads, because of their base ingredient of wine, as being sweet, says Emma Christensen, author of True Brews: How to Craft Fermented Cider, Beer, Wine, Sake, Soda, Mead, Kefir, and Kombucha at Home (Ten Speed Press 2013; $23) but they can also be, like wine, bone dry. Christensen includes such recipes as one for a Blueberry-Lavender Mead in her book.
At Kennywood Brewing and Wine Making Supply, owners Bob and Deb Heinlein sell equipment and ingredients for making mead. Deb Heinlein also has been experimenting making melomel, a fruit based mead.
“It’s basically just honey, water, yeast and fruit,” she says noting that last year with the abundance of apples, cyser—a mead made with apple juice or cider and yeast that’s fermented, was popular for home brewers and winemakers.
“Even people who had never made it before, we’re trying it because of all the apples,” she says.
Gregar says that making mead at home is much easier then all grain brewing and fresh grape wine making.
“It’s slightly easier then extract beer making,” he says adding that. “Fresh grape juice buckets are the easiest, but mead is close. One of the great things about mead is the readily available local ingredients. The location and type of honey and local fruits in season really allow for unique final products. Similar to wine making, some years are better than others. Mead is also aged, and changes up to when the last bottle is popped.”