There's a renaissance brewing, and it has nothing to do with Elizabethan jousting.
Mead, the ancient alcoholic beverage spun from honey, is shedding its medieval reputation and claiming a coveted spot in Northern California's artisanal drinks culture.
Fueled in part by the craft brewing movement, this elixir's resurgence is a bit remarkable: In the past five years, the number of meaderies nationwide has tripled, according to the American Mead Makers Association. Last year, new meaderies opened in Berkeley and San Francisco. And in February, the frenzied interest in mead spurred UC Davis to offer its first mead-makers course. It sold out faster than you can say fermentation.
Mike Faul of Sunnyvale's Rabbit's Foot Meadery believes mead's meteoric rise is also linked to pop culture. He first noticed it in the late 1990s, when he found himself sitting on a plane next to author J.K. Rowling shortly after the first "Harry Potter" book came out.
"When I told her I made mead, she said Hagrid's favorite drink was oak-matured mead," Faul recalls, laughing. "Then the 'Lord of the Rings' movies came out with hobbits drinking honey ale. What was Friar Tuck doing in 'Robin Hood?' Making mead. Then 'Games of Thrones' came out. Then 'Vikings. "Now everybody knows what mead is, and they want to try it."
What does it taste like? There's a wide variety, and they're not all cloyingly sweet. In fact, the new wave of Bay Area mead makers are going for a dry, elegant style that finishes clean and pairs so well with food, it's popping up on some impressively trendy menus, from Bar Tartine and Ichi Sushi in San Francisco to Berkeley's East Bay Spice Company.
It makes sense that mead would soar in Northern California, where the plight of honey bees has increased consumer awareness of honey-derived goodies. But this is also the hub of craft beer, where brewers are co-fermenting with everything from lemon peel to honey. As a result, the average consumer has become more adventurous and is looking for something more, says Gordon Hull, who makes the only known methode Champenoise sparkling mead at Heidrun Meadery in Point Reyes.
"They're tired of the standard pinot noir or IPA," says Hull, who cultivates his own flowering plants and keeps his own bees.
If they want something new, mead is an ironic choice: Archeological evidence puts the first mead at 9,000 years ago, according to Chris Webber, president of the American Mead Makers Association. But as craft brewers did with beer, mead makers are experimenting with the world's oldest fermented beverage by trying different varietal honeys or adding seasonal ingredients.
"What I'm seeing right now is a diversity of mead as far as you can imagine," says Webber, who formed the organization two years ago to address mead's growth. "Unlike wine, which is made from grapes or a single fruit, the trend in mead right now is to add everything from herbs and spices to chile peppers."
At The Mead Kitchen in Berkeley, which opened last year, Dan Cook crafts a brilliant, palate-cleansing orange ginger mead reminiscent of premium sake. He steeps orange rind and smashed, whole ginger root in hot water to extract the flavors before adding honey and fermenting until bone dry. His Simcoe Mead is made from the pinelike hop commonly used to craft pale ales. It has gewurztraminer-like aromatics with a slightly bitter, citrus finish.
"For a long time, the sweeter styles are what people thought of as mead," says Cook, who made mead for 16 years before launching The Mead Kitchen. He sources honey from Vallejo's Bay Area Bee Company as well as the five hives behind his North Berkeley home. "But now that doesn't define mead anymore than German lager defines beer."
Even at Soquel-based Chaucer's Cellars, the oldest meadery in America, recently promoted mead maker Olivia Teutschel says they are setting aside the mulling spices and warmed mugs in favor of a dry, sophisticated, lower-alcohol beverage.
"The market is going to a dryer style for sure," Teutschel says. "I think people who are on the fence, not particularly stuck on beer or wine, are looking for something different. For so long, mead was about 'Medieval Times' and Renaissance fairs, but we're going in the direction of it being an everyday thing."
nor cal meaderies
The Mead Kitchen: 2323 4th St., Suite B (Urbano Cellars), Berkeley; themeadkitchen.com
San Francisco Mead Company: 1180 Shafter Ave., San Francisco; www.sfmead.com
Rabbit's Foot Meadery: 1246 Birchwood Drive, Sunnyvale; www.rabbitsfootmeadery.com
Heidrun Meadery: 11925 State Route 1, Point Reyes Station; www.heidrunmeadery.com
Chaucer's Cellars: 3535 N. Main St., Soquel, and 700-G Cannery Row, Monterey; www.chaucerswine.com
Enat Winery: 910 81st Ave., Suite 18, Oakland; www.enathoneywine.com
HoneyRun Winery: 2309 Park Ave., Chico; www.honeyrunwinery.com
Walton's Mountain Winery & Vineyard: 383 Bald Mountain Road, West Point; www.flojobrew.com
what is mead?
Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by heating honey, diluting it with water and adding yeast and sometimes fruit or spices. After fermentation is complete, it is often racked (like wine) to remove solids and then aged in stainless steel (though some mead makers are starting to experiment with neutral oak) before bottling.
Mead can be as varied as the honey from which it is made, but typically, it is clear with a slight gold tint and 8 to 14 percent alcohol. By varying the proportions of honey and water and the point at which fermentation is stopped, a variety of types can be produced, from very dry and light to sweet and heavy or even sparkling. Unlike wine, most mead has a fast turnaround time, as little as two months.
-- J. Yadegaran