The drink of kings makes a comeback

Ben Alexander and mead Ben Alexander is one of the leaders of the resurgent commercial mead industry in the US

Long relegated to the dusty corners of history, mead - the drink of kings and Vikings - is making a comeback in the US.

But what's brewing in this new crop of commercial meaderies - as they are known - is lot more refined from the drink that once decorated tables across medieval Europe.

"Do we have any mead makers or home brewers in the group?" asks Ben Alexander, eying a crowd of a dozen or so people who have come to his Maine Meade Works, in Portland, on a rainy Friday for a tour.

When no-one raises their hand, Mr Alexander launches into the full spiel.

"If you guys want to come around, I'll show you how this thing works," he says, gesturing to two ceiling-high columns of stainless steel filled with something resembling a mushy golden porridge.

Mead mush This is the first stage of the fermentation process for mead, which is made with yeast, honey and water

"We mix up honey and water over there and we pump it through a hot water bath at 160 degrees [71C] in a stainless steel coil here. Each one produces about 50 to 75 gallons [227-340 litres] of mead a day," explains Mr Alexander.

It's fair to say he is obsessed with mead.

"It's the quintessential local beverage - you can go anywhere in the world and find honey to make mead, and I think that's unique among alcoholic beverages," he gushes.

After being introduced to the drink by a home brewer, Mr Alexander thought there were profits to be had in a commercial meadery. He founded Maine Mead Works in 2008, pouring his savings and money from friends and family into the business.

His business has since grown, along with the popularity of mead in the US.

It's now a seven-person operation that manufactures more than 7,500 cases a year, shipping them as far away as China.

Bottles on table Maine Mead Works produces 7,500 cases of mead a year, in flavours like blueberry and apple
'Everything old is new again'

Mr Alexander is not the only one to have caught on to the commercial potential of mead.

Vicky Rowe, the owner of mead information website GotMead, says interest in the product in the US has exploded in the past decade.

"We went from 30-40 meaderies making mead to somewhere in the vicinity of 250 in the last 10 years," she says.

"I like to say that everything old is new again - people come back to what was good once."

Containers filled with mead It takes six to eight weeks from "honey to bottle" as Mr Alexander says

Even visitors to Mr Alexander's meadery agree.

Tour participant Dirk Heseman admitted that while Maine Mead Works was the first meadery he'd actually visited, he has noticed that mead "is becoming more and more available - similar to cider".

Just this year, commercial meaderies in the US have banded together to form an industry group, the American Mead Makers Association, to better share information and encourage growth in the industry.

A brief history of mead

Scene from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
  • Mead is the oldest known alcoholic beverage; at its most basic level, it is a combination of honey, water and yeast that has been allowed to ferment
  • The earliest archaeological evidence for mead comes from 9000BC in northern China; in Europe, the first traces date to 2800-1800BC
  • Mead has a long history in literature - memorialised in the mead-halls of the epic poem Beowulf, it's been mentioned by everyone from Aristotle to Dostoevsky to Chaucer (above) to, more recently, JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling
  • Perhaps the most famous poetic incarnations of mead come in Norse mythology, where it is thought that anyone who drinks mead becomes a scholar
  • Mead was popular during medieval times, however, the rising cost and scarcity of honey soon made it too expensive for most, and its popularity waned
  • Tej, the national drink of Ethiopia, is a form of mead, drank out of a traditional vessel called a berele
Making mead known

But there's a lot of work that needs to be done to improve the image of a drink long associated with Renaissance fairs and medieval re-enactments.

"I think our number one challenge as an industry is awareness of what mead is," says Mr Alexander.

"You ask 10 people in a room if they've ever heard of mead, and two of them might say, 'yes', and only one of them has had a very positive experience."

The mead of the past was often sweet, and didn't appeal to many drinkers who were just looking for something good to pair with food. But mead has since changed.

"People don't realise that just because it has honey in it, [mead] doesn't need to be sweet," says Ms Rowe, citing the proliferation of not only dry meads but also meads flavoured with fruits, herbs, and spicy peppers.

Yet hampering efforts towards building mead awareness is also the name mead itself.

Technically, mead is classified as wine by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates alcohol sales and labelling in the US.

This means that mead has to be labelled as "honey wine", which doesn't help combat people's perception of the drink as being as cloyingly sweet.

"How do people recognise it as mead if you can't say the word?" says Ms Rowe.

'A canvas with very few limits'

Ironically, the alcoholic beverage that most credit with the resurgence of the mead business is beer.

The craft brewing movement, which was recently singled out in a report by the Atlanta Federal Reserve as a source of job growth, inspired many home brewers to expand their repertoire.

"I was a home brewer, and at first I liked mead because I had never had it," says Brad Dahlhofer of B Nektar meadery in Detroit, Michigan.

Bottles of mead Mr Alexander's meads have won awards at the Mazer Cup, an informal yearly meeting of mead brewers

"Every home brewer has the same dream of, 'Hey what if I could sell this? Wouldn't that be great?'" he says.

After he spent months making batch after batch of mead, perfecting his recipe, he realised that mead was "kind of an untouched category", and that no-one, at least back in 2008, was really doing it commercially.

So when he and his wife, Kerri, were both laid off of their jobs in Detroit's car industry during the recession, they decided to take the plunge.

Now, B Nektar is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, US meadery, shipping 1,100 cases a week across the country.

But for Mr Dahlhofer and his fellow mead enthusiasts, that's just the beginning.

"If you look at craft beer 25 years ago, they had 1% of the total beer market, and now they have 8%," says Maine Mead's Mr Alexander.

"So we've got a long way to go, but I feel like it's got the opportunity because of the diversity of the beverage.

"You've got a canvas with very few limits."

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