November 30 2011 issue

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PAGES (45) November 30 2011

SPECIAL REPORT Mead: An ancient beverage goes modern Timothy L. O’Neal

Like a bear on a beehive, let’s get right into it: mead is a honey wine. If you’ve never sipped honey wine, you must. If you’ve had one and it failed to pleasantly pollinate you, it was a mead-dog of major proportions and you should check out a better batch.

Mead is also an ancient beverage—it’s been traced back at least as far as 7000 B.C. in China (see Sommelier Journal’s Interview with archeologist Patrick McGovern, April 30, 2011). Don’t forget, bees have been doing their thing for 2 million years. Imagine a hive in a tree trunk, where rainwater can collect. Mead may have been spontaneously fermenting for millennia before even a Neanderthal could dip in a curious finger to taste it.

Surely, everyone reading this article has been bitten by the wine bug. But my story of getting stung by the mead bee is going to lead us to the King Bee, the Heart of Darkness, Heroine, and beyond.

THE STING

At a packed wine dinner in my restaurant, Avenues Bistro in Kansas City, Mo., back in 2008, a long-haired hippie man tells me he makes mead. “That’s nice,” I say, after he reveals that it ferments in his basement. At my next wine-dining affair, the hippie sounds forth again: “Hey, I make award-winning mead! Mazer Cups, man; dude, I’ve got Mazers!”

Appeasing him by pretending to be impressed (Mazers?), I talk about getting together sometime to check it out.

Six weeks later, our next “local-focused” wine dinner is fast approaching, and I’ve got a blizzard of a problem. The slated dessert course is a hot mess—just the opposite of what we need for the warm weather at hand. In desperation, just a day before the event, I call up the local hippie. “OK, my friend, I think the time has come to taste your [click] . . .” The sudden dial tone makes me think he’s hung up on me.

Minutes later, he’s flying through our front door with bottles. High on excitement, he pours a dry cherry mead. The light-red liquid shuts down my nostrils, the sour bitterness of the taste confirms the nose, and my heart sinks for both of us. “Yeah, it’s not my best,” he admits, “but I wanted you to taste a dry example. Here, check this—it’s my marionberry mead.” This one is a deeper red, thanks to the fruit component fermented along with the honey. My nostrils start flapping, and the outrageously bright red-fruit aromas have me laughing out loud in total disbelief. This mead not only looks like, but tastes just like Christmas. Our chef, Ernesto Maldonado, drawn from the kitchen by all the fuss, takes a quick taste and declares: “Spice cake. We’re done here.”

On the night of the show, the hippie enters with a case of his juice—no labels, just a black marker used to write “Marionberry.” He’s visibly nervous, sweating, and down-left strung out by the prospect that his basement honey wine, intended only for his nonjudgmental buddies, is going to be snubbed by all these wine-brows paying big bucks for a lavish dinner. As we get to dessert, the announcement is made: “The menu for the last course has changed. We will be serving spice cake alongside mead.” Momentary silence is interrupted by a woman who shouts out, “What’s mead?”

I’m looking over to the hippie to save us. His horror at having to speak in public has me doing a double-pointing curtain call before he finally gets up. But once he warms to the task, he Wikipedias that beverage with a Renaissance flare. Walking the floor, there is cause for celebration: “This combo is outrageous! Where do I get a bottle of this mead stuff?” “Well, you’re going to have to ask the long-haired hippie over there,” I reply.

Pumped by this success, I’m invited to accompany the local meadmaker on a quest for more Mazers. Historically, a Mazer is a prized drinking cup that was popular between the 13th and 15th centuries. But our hippie was referring to the International Mazer Cup, held annually in Colorado—the largest mead competition in the world.

THE CONTEST

Three months later, I’m in Boulder, Colo., talking to the 2010 Mazer Cup managing director, Vicky Rowe, and, wow, can she wasp about mead! Rowe says she is most concerned about the wine community not taking mead seriously, or at all. She further raps about regulating bodies and the difficulties home meadmakers have in getting their product to market. She indicates a certain animosity between the home brewers and the commercial producers—an observation seconded by many others at the show, who seem to believe that those tiny basement batches are simply better meads than most of the commercial wares.

Next morning, the hotel banquet area is buzzing with activity. The low ceiling and fluorescent lighting remind me of a VFW hall set up for bingo. Multiple round tables are populated with glasses, scoring charts, and ultra-nice people with plenty of facial hair, getting tasting-grid serious with the samples. A flurry of worker drones are racking glasses, washing, and preparing for the next round of competition. After about an hour, I ask Rowe, “So this is it?”

“Yes,” she says, “there are hundreds of entries from all over the place—Poland, France, Central America, Africa, Italy, Germany, and tons from the States. With so many, this is what you will see for two full days.” Suddenly, I’m spiritless. Seeing this, Rowe confers with several officials, then comes back with, “Hey, would you like to sit in as a judge?” My eyes light up. “OK, which category would you like to judge? There are Pyments, Cysers, Metheglins, or you could do Weirdomels, Melomels, or Braggotts.”

Totally confused, I ask, “Weirdomels?” Rowe smiles: “Yeah, those are the meads that don’t fit into any other category.” Happily seated at the Weirdomel table, I discover that they are indeed strange. As each one is presented, it is deconstructed to reveal its ingredients. One particular horseradish mead should never have been made. A few entries later, another sounds equally bad—chipotle-pepper mead. Nose hovering over the glass with caution, I find something appealing, the soft pepper notes playing in complete harmony with the honey tones. Down the gullet, the mead is smooth, with no apparent heat. Then, what seems like 20 seconds later, it’s as if someone has lit a “ladyfinger” firecracker in my belly, as a poof of pleasant, soft heat slowly makes its way back up. Talk about a finish! As I look around the table, the other judges can’t hide their exhilaration. On the Mazers’ 50-point rating scale, this one is, to me, perfect. It ends up winning the Weirdomel (aka “Other”) category and almost takes best of show. Too bad that basement batch is long since gone.

The final day features the meadmakers behind tables, serving their suggested food pairings—a first for the competition. Various dips, desserts, cheeses, even meat dishes are matched with meads of all categories. As I make my way around the room, my attention is caught by a stately man in a coat and tie, Ryker Brandt, representing the Kendall-Jackson of mead: Chaucer’s. Pouring the traditional honey version, he says, “Now, try a gingersnap cookie.” Ka-pow! The combination is addictive, the spice cookie cutting the heavier, honeyed tones of the mead. As we all know from wine-trade tastings, some reps keep super-special bottles under their tables for a select few to try. Now, from under the Chaucer’s table, Brandt unveils a thermos and pours a bit of steaming liquid into a mug. Chaucer’s, unlike any other meadery, attaches a bag of mulling spices to its product and suggests serving it hot. What a marketing success! If you take nothing else from this article, get yourself a bottle of Chaucer’s, heat it up, and give it a whirl this fall and winter. At Avenues, we’re currently having success blending the spiced, heated version with true apple cider.

Leaving the festival is bittersweet. Of the many meads I’ve tasted, few seem likely to tickle the fancy of the masses. Even the food pairings are less than inspiring; while I see incredible potential for applications of mead with various cuisines, the beverage begs for further experimentation.

Back home, no distributors are coming around pushing meads of any sort. Heck, so few even carry any. But it’s time to follow up and conduct further research. On the phone again with Rowe in mid-2011, I find things are changing: “Growth has been up 25% since 2009 based on entries,” she says; more important, she highlights a “severe increase in the overall quality of meads in the last few years.” Then I ask, “So is there a Château Latour of mead?”

“The Heart of Darkness!” Rowe quickly responds.

“Who makes that?” I ask.

“Ken Schramm. He wrote the book on making mead. And he started the Mazer Cup.”

THE GRAIL

The 100-bottle production of The Heart of Darkness, produced by B. Nektar in Ferndale, Mich., sells out at $120 retail—for a split! Online reviews portray it as the “definitive mead,” a beverage that behaves more like a complex dessert wine. My conversations with King Bee Schramm are honest and revealing. When I ask him how many copies have been sold of his book, The Compleat Meadmaker (Brewers Publications, 2003), he says, “Forty thousand since 2003.” Best believe there’s a basement home brewer near you!

Schramm dismisses the bad blood between the home brewers and the commercial outfits with a chuckle, citing “professional jealousy.” Regarding the difficulty of pairing with food, he asks if my restaurant serves Continental cuisine. When I respond in the affirmative, he points out: “That’s why no distributor is showing you any meads, because it doesn’t go with your food. It’s much better with heavy, spiced foods like Thai, Indian, and Ethiopian; cheeses, too.” Referring to mead’s across-the-board lack of acidity, Schramm acknowledges that it “just doesn’t have that ‘pop’ like wine does.” A reported increase in the popularity of spiced meads makes sense, considering that the spices take on the role of acidity in wine.

Marketing can be a constant problem. As Schramm asks, “Doesn’t ‘spiced mead’ sound a whole lot better than its category name, ‘Metheglin’?” Besides the Burgundian confusion surrounding those classifications, other issues include the name “mead” itself (rather than “honey wine”) and the oft-stated need to “rip those Viking horns off the labels” to hoist the beverage out of the Dark Ages.

The conversation gets technical when it comes to the type of honey used, the fermentation technique, and the quality of whatever might be blended in, whether fruit, hops, or something else. Schramm firmly believes that as with wine, it’s the quality of what you harvest that dictates the quality of the product. “Honey is an annual crop with seasonal changes and regional differences,” he says. “Orange-blossom honey from one area is not the same as from other areas.”

Honing in on The Heart of Darkness, I’m looking for the same thing any meadmaker would love to have—the recipe! (Online, one fan even put forth a recipe for her own “Heart of Dorkness.”) The category is Melomel. At home in Michigan, Schramm maintains not a vineyard, but a “tree yard” with exotic blackcurrant varieties (Crandall and Consort) and Belgian Morello cherry trees, among others. Annual picking is a family affair. Like grapevines, fruit trees are weather-sensitive. Schramm even drops the word “terroir” as he discusses how potential plantings of fruit trees many miles away might differ.

Although The Heart of Darkness and his book are Schramm’s claims to fame, his latest project is the one that could really shake things up. Gewürztraminer is difficult to grow in Michigan, with only one in five vintages reaching full ripeness. Although sugar is traditionally used to chaptalize, Schramm has been substituting honey. “I’ve done it twice with great success,” he says. “The result tastes like a poor man’s Trockenbeerenauslese! Working with honey instead of sucrose adds complexity, yet will only likely work with grape varietals normally capable of making sweet wines. Reds are probably out.” Honey being much more expensive than sugar, it’s no wonder that it hasn’t been used much by winemakers.

THE FINISH

In another event at the restaurant, we source 12 meads available in Missouri and Kansas and invite our regulars to get loose on all things mead. Mark Church, recognized as Best Bartender in Kansas City, works with traditional mead as an ingredient in high-end cocktails. While his cocktails are inspiring (to the point that other bartenders should consider mead as a secret weapon in competitions), they are more mead-accented than mead-based. It takes bartender Will Woods, from the hole-in-the-wall Dave’s Stagecoach, to hit a home run with the simple recipe of an orange slice muddled with sugar and combined with ice and honey wine. A woman at the bar shrieks, “This is total heroin!” Woods now does mini-shots, playfully called “Heroine,” at his own bar.

Back in the kitchen, a discussion with our chef about that gingersnap-cookie-and-Chaucer’s combination inspires Maldonado to heat up the mead and spices, let the mix cool down, and make it into a gelato finished with ginger-cookie dust. Servers report some difficulty in selling mead gelato, but marked success in putting it out as “Gingersnap Cookie” and leaving the mead component for the post-bite discussion.

Late into the party, I realize that special someone who stung me two years earlier is missing—the long-haired hippie. When I ring him up, he answers, “This is John Charlesworth.” “You’re not going to believe this, Charlesworth,” I report, “but we’re having a mead party and want you to bring down some of your [click] . . .” Dial tone. A few minutes later, I find out he’s no longer the long-haired hippie—his hair is short. He offers a bottle of the same 2009 traditional mead I had tasted originally. Just as Charlesworth himself seems more refined, his honey wine, like a Sauternes, has become deeper and longer with a bit of bottle age.

The drinks-and-gelato event is a hit, but I have to report back to Schramm the next day: “I had a mead party, sourcing all available meads from my marketplace, including Poland, Ireland, Oregon, and—”

Cutting me off, he says, “Yeah, I bet that didn’t go over real well. You remember back in the early 1990s, when microbrews were just coming onto the market? Well,” he concludes, “that’s exactly where mead is today.” Stay tuned.

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