Mead has been around about as long as humans have been drinking alcoholic beverages.
Excavations of ancient Egyptian tombs have unearthed mead, and a form of the honey liquor was enjoyed in Neolithic China. Aristotle refers to mead when discussing the very nature of sweetness. In Norse mythology, mead was said to inspire poetry. Perhaps most famously, mead plays a central role in Old English epic poem Beowulf, where it serves as the medium through which legendary stories are traded.
It’s the common ancestor of beer, wine, and cider. And yet mead has remained on drinking culture’s fermented fringes, at best a fourth-string intoxicant. It enjoyed a popularity bump in the middle of the decade, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Game of Thrones and mead-swilling fan-favorite barbarian Tormund Giantsbane, plus a few odd mentions in the Harry Potter series. But this year’s Minnesota State Fair marked the latest evidence of mead entering the hive mind.
The Fair’s vaunted 2019 beer list featured a standout from Sociable Cider Werks: Honey Bee Lavender Honey Mead. In the sea of 53 shandies, dessert beers, and experimental IPAs, it was this mysterious, yet eminently familiar, drink that sparked the most curiosity.
Put simply, mead is honey fermented in water. As malt is to beer, apples are to cider, and grapes are to wine, honey is to mead. Microbes feast on the honey, creating a wine-like elixir that can be combined with fruits, juices, and even hops to create an incredible variety of flavors.
“There’s over 200 varieties of honey in the United States alone, so that’s 200 varieties of mead you can make right there,” says Joshua Eckton, owner of White Bear Meadery in White Bear Lake. “You can blend honeys, you can use different yeasts to change the characteristics, and of course there are different fruits and spices you can add in. There’s quite a range.”
Eckton, a mead homebrewer with three decades of experience, opened White Bear Meadery in June, the first mead-only taproom in Minnesota. White Bear’s meads show off the drinks’ versatility and seasonality. Their traditional meads are clear and served slightly chilled (Valhalla and Freya). One mixes apples and cinnamon in a toddy-like delight (Spiced Eple). Another infuses coffee into a caramelized honey wine (Berserker).
It’s only now that Eckton sees a viable business opportunity. Less than six months after opening, he’s seen craft beer adventurers, some with hundreds of taprooms visited, wander in to try the next evolution in the local beverage scene.
“Everybody knows about beers and wines, and mead’s getting into the spotlight again,” he says. “People are saying, ‘OK, that’s another craft beverage.’”
Eckton estimates 90% of his clientele still don’t know what mead is, exactly. Over the years, locals became acquainted with the beverage at the annual Minnesota Renaissance Festival. There, costumed fairgoers revel in the medieval appeal of mead, drinking it from horns as Vikings would. The association between the Renaissance Festival and mead began in 1971, when festival organizers reached out to drywall contractor and hobby meadmaker James E. Bird, asking him to make a drink for their 21+ attendees. J. Bird Wines became a commercial winery in 1984, and they’ve been the Ren Fest’s mead supplier the whole time.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t know what it is, but yet how old it is and how popular it was,” says Matthew Winters, current co-proprietor (with James E. Bird’s granddaughter Jessie) of J. Bird Wines, based in Cambridge. “It’s a simple thing of saying, ‘Mead was the first alcohol that was ever created, so every other alcohol ever created was the bastard child of mead.’ So, you should at least try it to know where all the alcohol started.”
Winters knows that, in order for mead to have a renaissance all its own, it needs to get out of cosplay culture and into the mainstream. That means larger commercial companies need to normalize mead as a regular offering before people stop seeing it as a novelty. But the lack of consumer awareness, high price of honey, and lengthy fermentation time are all obstacles to this breakout.
“With beer and wine, you can pump out large quantities, and it can be good relatively quickly,” Winters says, noting that J. Bird meads sit for three to four years. “People want it quicker. But now people are starting to realize that, if you want something good, you can wait for it.”
Along with Sociable, J. Bird Wines, and White Bear Meadery, commercial producers fermenting honey into mead in Minnesota include Waconia’s Schram Vineyards, Minneapolis’ Urban Forage and Chisago City’s WineHaven Winery and Vineyard. Opened in 1995, WineHaven has built its reputation on the success of its internationally awarded Stinger Honeywine mead.
“[Mead is] one of those beverages that, frankly, I’m not sure why it disappeared,” says WineHaven winemaker Kyle Peterson. “Prohibition had something to do with that, but it was the beekeepers who kept that tradition alive.”
Beekeeping has been a tradition at WineHaven throughout the generations, and this close connection to the honey and its source is, to Peterson, what separates their mead from the field. He remembers his grandmother telling stories of Queen Elizabeth and her royal recipe for mead, marveling at the drink’s significance in royal weddings (giving us the term “honeymoon”). “There’s this huge, huge culture to mead that most people, to this day, aren’t even aware of. It used to be bigger than beer, and it’s nice to see it’s getting its moment again.”
When Lou Karp, the man behind Sociable Cider Werks’ mead program, went to meadmaking school two years ago. At the time, mead was growing faster than any other alcoholic beverage market. Until hard seltzer blew up, that is. Still, Karp believes mead’s White Claw moment awaits.
“It’s just a novelty to people right now,” Karp says. “A lot of commercially available meads are extremely sweet and super high in alcohol, and that’s not what we’re making. We want to make something that’s accessible to everybody.””
In addition to Honey Bee Lavender Honey Mead, Sociable released a low-ABV canned mead (Mead for Speed) in January to help the drink mount the comeback it deserves. But Mead’s growth velocity ultimately lies in the public’s willingness to give it a try. Minnesota drinkers are known for being omnivorous, so it’s only a matter of time until mead is dusted off and held, once again, to the same heights as beer, wine, and cider.
“It’ll definitely continue to rise in popularity,” Karp says. “We just gotta get it into people’s hands.”