The ancient elixir, mead, is enjoying a renaissance as a heady libation for holiday revelry.
Local makers of the traditional beverage believe winter celebrations are an apt time to hoist the celebrated drink of Odin, Beowulf, Viking chieftains, and Celtic warriors.
Mead’s origins are in orchards, fields, and gardens, where bees create an alchemy that transforms honey and yeast into the world’s oldest source of wine. Today, it’s shedding its image as wine’s rustic country cousin, with scholars dipping into its seductive past to tell of a time primordial, when an anonymous beekeeper neglected a diluted pot of honey where yeast settled, creating culinary magic — much to civilization’s delight.
Poets have claimed that mead stimulates verse. In medieval times, drinking mead involved an elaborate ritual of toasts from goblets, horns, mazer bowls, and mether cups, to celebrate victories, cement alliances, and mark deaths. Gauls consumed it before battle for martial ardor, and Vikings felled in combat guzzled it before going to Valhalla. In the Celtic afterlife, a luscious river of honey wine flowed through paradise. Mead was believed to sharpen eyesight and promote longevity, strength, and endurance. It was also renowned as an aphrodisiac, and betrothed couples consumed honey and mead for the lunar month spanning the wedding, hence honeymoon.
Heady stuff that mead, but it takes mere mortals to create the ambrosia, as sisters Heather Price and Holly Balanzag can confirm. “At Sandhill Crane Vineyards [in Jackson], we made our first honey wine in 2004, and it was so well received that we expanded our selection to Miel Amour Spiced Asian Pear, Raspberry, and Apple Mead,” Price says. Last autumn, Balanzag, the vineyard’s winemaker, pressed Vignoles grapes to create Pyment, honey fermented with grape juice. “Since honey is not dependent on the small, frenzied window of harvest,” she says, “we can make mead in the winter when the vineyard is quieter.”
Balanzag says that, unlike some commercial operations, Sandhill always uses local honey, not sugar syrup.
Roger Banga, who heads the Cascade Winery in Grand Rapids, says confusion surrounds what the classical Greeks regarded as the nectar of the gods. “In Grand Rapids, mead can be a tough sell because some people expect the taste of fruit or grape wines,” Banga says. His two semi-sweet varieties — Orange Spice and Traditional Mead — sell best in metro Detroit, perhaps because of the city’s culinary scene and its Polish heritage.
As honey wine faded into obscurity in the mid-19th century, Poland, along with rural England and distant Ethiopia, remained historical bastions of appreciation. Though many are put off by the cloying sweetness of some imports, mead can be as diverse as wine — sparkling or still, sweet or dry, fermented with fruit juices, hops, or spices, and served hot or chilled. Unlike temperamental viniferous grapes, bees and meaderies thrive even in more extreme climes, and floral varieties also influence the flavor of honey wine; heavy clover requires aging to mellow, while lighter, fragrant wildflower versions can be consumed very young. Price says Sandhill Crane Vineyards experiments “with single-variety buckwheat and clover honeys from our neighbor’s apiary, as well as versions of lavender and jalapeño.”
In addition to such commercial ventures, mead making has attracted a cult following among amateurs who dabble in domestic kitchens and cellars. Home brewers follow a longstanding tradition of mead making or braggart (Welsh honey beer). Richard Wiseke, of the Royal Oak-based Green Toe Gardens (greentoegardens.com), is among them. “I began as a home mead maker, but on reaching the 100-gallon mark, I needed cheaper sources of honey and became a beekeeper instead,” Wiseke says. These days, maintaining more than 60 hives and mentoring nascent beekeepers occupies his time.
Dyanne Tracy, a professor of education at Oakland University and fellow beekeeper, also is furthering the mead renaissance. She has trained 20 schoolteachers as novice apiarists. “From there, they can teach their K-12 graders beekeeping while integrating it into core subjects at school,” she says. Tracy also has been making mead for five years. “I affectionately call it ‘chemistry for adults only.’ ”
She emphasizes adults, because mead is higher in alcohol than wine and its extreme complexity is best savored in smaller portions, like fortified wines or liqueurs.
“It usually evokes a toast to the amazing honeybee and/or friendship,” Tracy says, because home-brewed meads are “personal gifts made with care and love.”
In Ferndale, Brad Dahlhofer sees mead as a commercial opportunity. He founded B. Nektar, which specializes in honey-wine retailing, with his wife, Kerri, and partner, Paul Zimmerman. “My homemade honey wine won a silver medal at a national judging, and Rex Halfpenny, publisher of the Michigan Beer Guide, has often invited me to speak at tastings he hosted,” Brad says. When Kerri lost her job and the couple found themselves discussing their future over a glass of Brad’s mead, “Kerri realized we held the future right in our hands,” he says. The result of that was the August 2006 creation of B. Nektar (bnektar.com).
“We thought we had stocked a year’s supply,” Brad says. “But the store sold out in two months, and even the projected 15,000 gallons of annual production won’t meet demand.”
Brad says B. Nektar’s biggest fans are beer aficionados. But he also makes what they call “gateway meads,” to attract wine drinkers.
Ken Schramm, the Troy-based author of The Compleat Meadmaker, says the wine industry can benefit from mead. “It’s not only a bridge to the past,” Schramm says, “but a bridge for budding oenophiles.”
Though the weighty Oxford Companion to Wine tersely dismisses mead as “an impure glucose solution,” Schramm insists that “Honey wine is building its own vocabulary and place in the culinary repertoire of restaurateurs and publicans.” Schramm, who has lectured on mead from Massachusetts to Alaska, is now working with B. Nektar to create a 100-bottle release called Heart of Darkness. “In every gallon, 8 pounds of tart cherries, black currants, and red raspberries pair with local honey, creating a dense, firm melomel or fruit mead,” Schramm says. He says its balance of acidity and sweetness “will allow this mead to be either consumed young or left to age.” Look for its release this Christmas, just in time to follow ancient tradition and toast a hearty wassail.