Medieval No More: Mead Enjoys A Renaissance

Originally published on May 1, 2011 1:23 pm

Mead, the honey wine of yesteryear and the preferred drinks of Beowulf, Geoffrey Chaucer and Vikings hasn't been popular since, well, Beowulf, Geoffrey Chaucer and Vikings. Long relegated to Renaissance fairs and fantasy books, the drink was stuck in the Dark Ages.

But mead is gradually making its way back into the mainstream. Over the past decade, the number of meaderies — places that ferment honey for production, like Brothers Drake in Columbus, Ohio — has boomed.

"When I first conceived of the idea of having a business, there were about 30 meaderies nationwide," says Woody Drake, one of Brothers Drake's resident mead masters. "Now, they're pushing 200. That's only been six years, so that'll give you an idea of how things are growing."

It's a re-emergence seen across the country. Ben and Becky Starr opened Starrlight Mead in Pittsboro, N.C., less than a year ago. They'd been introduced to the drink at Renaissance fairs and started fermenting honey at home. When the batches became drinkable, they started giving it to friends and neighbors who raved about it.

Now, they are the ones doing the mead introductions. "This one is lightly sweetened; the boysenberry is added after," Ben Starr explains to a crowd assembled at a recent Renaissance fair in Knightdale, N.C.

His wife, Becky Starr, wearing a green velvet dress with billowing white sleeves and a corset, pours small samples of the amber drink. The fair-goers are surrounded by jousting knights, juggling magicians and singing bards, but they aren't your typical Renaissance crowd. Most of the mead tasters — "mead virgins" Becky calls them — are in blue jeans and tennis shoes ... not the period costumes the fairs are known for.

They taste a range of flavors — sweet, dry, tart — all of which are well received. "If people try it, they like it," says Becky. And that enthusiasm has been reflected in their meadery's sales.

"We're still selling about twice as much as we expected to do our first year," says Ben. "It's been crazy. We've run out of almost every flavor twice."

A Local Libation

Anecdotal stories aside, it's hard to say just how much mead production has grown. Because mead is made of a mixture of honey, yeast and water, it's an agriculturally based alcohol, says Cary Greene, the chief operating officer of WineAmerica, a trade association that represents the industry in Washington, D.C. Under federal definition, all agricultural products that are fermented to make alcohol — like apples for cider and grapes for wine — fall under the same umbrella as mead. Separating the individual growth of each product is hard to do.

That said, "It's astonishing the level of growth we've seen in the last decade," says Greene — but that's not necessarily a surprise. "There's lots of different products that have changed and gone in and out of fashion over the years," he says. "If you go back to the Colonial period, everybody drank cider. It was the beverage of choice. Cider and beer: those were the two choices everyone had on their tables. In some ways, cider isn't thought of as a mainstream product anymore either."

But the mead-making boom is really thanks to the resurgence in America's taste for wine and a renewal of interest in eating (or in this case, drinking) local. "The idea of locality — of using the agriculture of the local area — that is something that's also caught on in the last decade and it's a new model for rural economic development," Greene explains. "Mead is definitely a part of that."

Brothers Drake is big on local appeal; the Columbus meadery's business model is inspired by a commitment to local products. One side of the warehouse-style meadery is all production — growlers of new mead flavors, 55-gallon drums of honey and large metal vats. The other is all show — eclectic art from a studio down the road, a polished walnut bar from a fallen tree in a friend's yard.

Oren Benary, Brothers Drake's general manager, describes the meadery as "truly local." All ingredients are bought and all products are sold locally. "It's a very old idea where you make what you consume and you consume what you make and there's nothing wrong with that," he says.

The meadery, located right next to Ohio State University, draws a young crowd: mostly mead newbies who don't know much about the drink beyond what they learned in English class. Benary and his mead master, Woody Drake, are happy to educate. There's a widely held belief that mead is only sweet, Drake says. That's wrong.

"Mead goes everywhere from dry to sweet and everything in between," he says, "There's the right mead with the right meal, just like there's the wrong mead with the same food. It's the same as it is with grape wine and beer."

Once people are introduced to a well-paired mead, they're hooked, so it's just a matter of getting people to raise a glass. To attract future mead fans, the meadery invites local bands to play on Saturday nights.

"Somebody came in the other day and they saw our place and they said, 'Wow this place is hip,'" Benary says. "And I looked at the person and said, 'Yeah mead is hip, imagine that."

And hip means business, like it's 1380 all over again.

Nathan Rott and Abby Verbosky also contributed to this story.

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Here's a word you may know: Mead. That honey wine swilled in the works of Beowulf and Chaucer and hasn't been popular since, well, Beowulf and Chaucer.

But as Tim Fitzsimons discovered, mead is making a comeback, slipping out from under the tents of renaissance fairs and jumping onto the wine shelf.

TIM FITZSIMONS: If you want to buy mead, there's pretty much only one place you could be sure to find it.

Unidentified Man: God Save the Queen.

CROWD: God Save the Queen.

FITZSIMONS: At a renaissance fair in Knightdale, North Carolina, mead enthusiasts are everywhere. Next to the jousting arena, and across the way from Queen Elizabeth's tent, a blacksmith calling himself Sir Geoffrey takes a swig from something curious. Is that a...

Sir GEOFFREY (Blacksmith): It's a bull horn.

FITZSIMONS: That's right, a bull horn. And it's a full of mead.

Sir GEOFFREY: I actually have a larger one at home that will hold an entire bottle of mead. This is just my traveling size.

FITZSIMONS: Sir Geoffrey is not alone in his love for the honey wine, which is believed to be the oldest alcoholic beverage. Mead is making a comeback, and not just among the renaissance fair crowd.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

FITZSIMONS: On the other side of the hay-strewn grounds, Ben and Becky Starr are introducing different types of mead to a small crowd.

Mr. BEN STARR (Owner, Starrlight Mead): So this one is lightly sweetened with...

FITZSIMONS: As Ben gives the tasters a crash course his wife, Becky, doles several varieties into the waiting cups. One is slightly carbonated; one, juniper-berry flavored; and there's even a mead made from orange-blossom honey.

The crowd likes it, but that doesn't surprise the Starrs, who opened their Pittsboro, North Carolina, meadery just seven months ago.

Mr. STARR: We're still selling about twice as much as we expected to do our first year. We've run out, twice, of almost every flavor.

FITZSIMONS: Turns out, mead is a better business than most would think.

Mr. CARY GREENE (CEO, WineAmerica): I mean, it's astonishing - the level of growth that we've seen.

FITZSIMONS: That's Cary Greene, the chief operating officer for WineAmerica, a trade association. Because the honey in mead is an agricultural product, it falls under the same umbrella definition as other alcoholic beverages, such as wine and cider. But that's precisely why it is so hard to track exactly how much the beverage is catching on. Though there are plenty of other indicators, many familiar with the business say that the number of places that brew mead has exploded over the past decade.

Mr. GREENE: And is growing all over the country - I mean, you've got meaderies, now, in more than 20 states.

FITZSIMONS: Why the growth? Greene says part of the reason may be the go-local craze spreading across the country.

Mr. GREENE: And to consumers, I think they more or less see this is as a local, authentic experience. They think of this as their neighbors producing something that's a fine product, and they get excited about that.

FITZSIMONS: That love of all things local is what brings customers to Brother's Drake, a meadery in Columbus, Ohio. With a hip location next to the Ohio State University, art on the walls, and wine glasses instead of bull horns, Brothers Drake is about as far from a renaissance fair as you can get. And it draws a different crowd - a college crowd.

Mr. OREN BENARY (General Manager, Brothers Drake): Most people don't know what mead is.

FITZSIMONS: Oren Benary is the general manager of Brothers Drake.

Mr. BENARY: So we tell them it's alcoholic, and they start to like it instantaneously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BENARY: And somebody came in the other day and then they said, wow, this place is hip.

FITZSIMONS: And hip means business, like it's 1380 all over again. Just ask Woody Drake, the Brothers' mead master.

Mr. WOODY DRAKE (Owner, Brothers Drake): When I first conceived of the idea of having a business, there were about 30 meaderies nationwide. And now, there are pushing 200. And it's only been like, six years.

FITZSIMONS: And besides, he says, if business ever slows down, they can always sell it at the renaissance fair.

Unidentified Men: (Singing) Well, it's all for the grog, me jolly, jolly grog...

For NPR News, I'm Tim Fitzsimons.

Unidentified Men: (Singing)'s all for me beer and tobacco. I spent all me tin on a lassie drinking gin, far across the western ocean I must wander. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.