William Butler Yeats’ “bee-loud glade” might have been on the lake island of Innisfree in Ireland, but his desire for a simpler life of sustenance from the land rings equally true today in Michigan. And Yeats’ bees are equally valued here: Michigan produces more than 3 million pounds of honey per year, ranking the state ninth in the country.
The state’s abundant and diverse agricultural products make Michigan an ideal place to collect honey. Michigan’s enthusiastic professional and hobbyist beekeepers prize Michigan honey for its varied flavors, from wildflowers to pine nuts to peaches, plums, and cherries. And, thanks to that biodiversity, Michigan mead is a unique and beloved drink that brings with it the taste of summer and fall harvests.
Mead is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world, made from three ingredients: water, honey, and yeast. Celebrated in ancient Greece, lauded in the Norse Eddas, and memorialized in Irish poetry, mead has been around for thousands of years, and its historical origins have led many to believe it’s an antiquated drink. Patrick Jobst is a sommelier and the beverage director at the Book Tower restaurants. He has a personal connection to mead as well: His grandfather spent his life moving his hives of honeybees between Texas and South Dakota, selling his products to mead producers.
One misconception that Jobst encounters is that mead is “this sort of stiff drink that Vikings drank,” thanks in part to the popularity of TV shows about Vikings and fantasy shows like Game of Thrones. Instead, Jobst says, mead is “actually very friendly to someone who is maybe not well versed in the alcoholic world” because it’s made from friendly-sounding ingredients.
“Mead’s sort of built-in marketing with what it’s made of makes it naturally approachable.”
According to Kerri Dahlhofer, co-founder and co-owner of Ferndale’s B. Nektar meadery, another misconception is that “mead is always sweet — but that is not the case. We have dry meads, semidry meads, sweet-tart meads, spicy meads, and, of course, sweet meads. There’s a place for all of them depending on your taste.” And she should know: B. Nektar is the largest meadery in the United States.
Michigan is a haven for mead, with Ferndale-based Schramm’s Mead joining B. Nektar as a top producer. Other Michigan meaderies, like Grand Rapids’ Arktos, which produces mead from wildflower-pollinating bees, cultivate the state’s abundance of meadows and fruit orchards to create locally sourced drinks that are naturally gluten-free.
Jobst believes it’s that very local connection that makes mead so popular with Michigan customers. “Honey is very particular to the place the bees come from, based on where the bees are gathering pollen,” he says.
In wine production, terroir describes the way that the soil composition, climate, and topographic features affect a given wine. For mead, that concept of terroir might factor in the types of plants each honeybee draws pollen from, as well as the time of year the honey was harvested (later harvesting often means a higher sugar concentration).
Mead comes in a wide range of flavor profiles, from sweet and concentrated dessert drinks to tart and fruity cider-mead combos to bone-dry meads with no residual sugar. Its staggering variety allows it to suit anyone’s palate, from hoppy IPA lovers to connoisseurs of alpine wines.
The alcohol content of mead, too, varies widely, from around 3.5 percent all the way up to 20 percent for an extra-honeyed sack mead. It can also incorporate additions, like cherries, raspberries, peppercorns, and other spices. Barrel-aged mead is especially popular at the Michigan Brewers Guild’s Detroit Fall Beer Festival, held each October in Eastern Market.
This year’s is on Saturday, Oct. 28. There, breweries and meaderies offer guests a chance to sample mead aged in barrels that once held rye, bourbon, Chianti, rum, or stout.
As Michigan drinkers become more adventurous in their choices, mead can hold a place in any wine or beer collection. Mead’s local sourcing and flavor profiles highlight the state’s bountiful harvests. Says Jobst, “Michigan just has a lot of great producers that are making some of the best meads — not just in the country, but I think in the world. Similar to how Napa has a great wine culture, we actually have a small but excellent mead culture in Michigan.”
This story is from the October 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.