Why Wine Lovers Need to Give Mead Another Look

Learn why grape purists should take a chance on the original honey wine.
Tools of the trade at All-Wise Meadery / Photo by Katie June Burton

Here’s the buzz: Mead, considered by many historians to be the earliest version of wine, is having a moment. Creative mead-makers (called “mazers”) are turning out inspired versions of this honey-based beverage with medieval roots.

Mead was born 8,000 years ago, which pre-dates wine and beer by several thousand years, says author Fred Minnick in his book, Mead: The Libations, Legends, and Lore of History’s Oldest Drink (Running Press, 2018).

It likely started simply. “Somebody left a pot of honey outside in the rain,” says Minnick. “It fermented, and people drank it. Mead was born.”

Today, the mead revival parallels the craft brewing and cider movements. Most meaderies focus on intensive local production, often starting with the terroir of regional honey.

Done right, says Mark Oberle, co-owner/mead maker of San Diego’s Meadiocrity Mead, “it’s about capturing the uniqueness of the honey, not only the land, but the varieties,” like clover or orange blossom honey.

Among the growing numbers of mead makers, it’s possible for producers to jump from sparkling mead to fruit-infused pink meads reminiscent of rosé, or even into dry, barrel-aged meads that suggest Sherry or a light whiskey.

Don’t expect a super-sweet sip. A growing number of meads are relatively dry, with their honey providing nuanced flavor without overt sweetness. And while some old-school meads remain little more than a mix of fermented honey, yeast and water, producers have turned increasingly to botanicals, fruit and spices to create unique offerings.

Many meads are also aged in barrels, bringing additional, wine-like nuance.

This makes for an exciting, experimental landscape. According to the American Mead Makers Association, there were over 400 commercial meaderies in the U.S. as of 2018, a more than tenfold increase from 2003.

Among the growing numbers of mead makers, it’s possible for producers to jump from sparkling mead to fruit-infused pink meads reminiscent of rosé, or even into dry, barrel-aged meads that suggest Sherry or a light whiskey.

Raphael Lyon, founder/co-owner of Enlightenment Wines Meadery in Brooklyn, New York, likens the mead movement to California’s nascent wine industry in the 1970s.

“The assumption was that American wines were bad, used cheap grapes, were mass produced and sweet,” says Lyon. Yet, had you known where to look, he says, “you would have seen the growth of natural producers in Napa, working on would become world-class wine in America.”

Today, mead appears to be headed in a similar direction. “A lot of producers are striving to make something exceptional,” says Lyon.

Here are seven makers behind the mead you’ll want to get to know.

The honey wine of All-Wise Meadery / Photo by Katie June Burton
The honey wine of All-Wise Meadery / Photo by Katie June Burton

All-Wise Meadery (Brooklyn, NY)

It would be easy to discount this new meadery as a hipster vanity project. Located in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, it’s co-founded by former Disney child star Dylan Sprouse, who is also the meadery’s master mazer. But its debut bottling, Show Mead, is very promising. It’s dry and funky with just a hint of smoke, and it might remind wine lovers of Chenin Blanc or a lightly oaked Chardonnay.

Sprouse, along with partners Doug Brochu and Matt Kwan, has focused on natural meads made using ingredients sourced from small, growers and producers in New York, like Tremblay Apiaries in the Finger Lakes region. This local focus yields expressive bottlings with flavors that continue to develop as the beverage ages.

All-Wise Meadery’s Show Mead, dry and funky with just a hint of smoke, might remind wine lovers of Chenin Blanc or a lightly oaked Chardonnay.

Sprouse first experimented with making mead in his dorm room at New York University. After a brief stint at Brooklyn whiskey maker King’s County Distillery, he opened All-Wise in 2017.

The mead aesthetic here is dry and lightly oak-aged. Look for experimental bottlings with infusions like oolong tea, fruits and vegetables that are reminiscent of fruit and veggie brews in the craft-beer arena.

Try it: Show Mead

Left to right: Brad Dahlhofer, Kerri Dahlhofer and Paul Zimmerman of B. Nektar
Left to right: Brad Dahlhofer, Kerri Dahlhofer and Paul Zimmerman of B. Nektar

B. Nektar (Ferndale, MI)

This geeky, quirky meadery is a sommelier favorite, and its offerings were spotted recently at New York City’s Agern, two-time honoree on Wine Enthusiast’s America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants list. Bottle names often are influenced by pop culture and exhibit delightfully dark humor. Current offerings include “Kill All the Golfers,” made with black tea and lemon juice, a side-eye at the Arnold Palmer, and the spiced, garnet-hued “Black Fang,” made with blackberry, clove and orange zest.

B. Nektar was founded in 2006 by Brad and Kerri Dahlhofer, along with their friend, Paul Zimmerman. Brad and Paul, avid homebrewers, started to make meads in Brad’s basement and went on to win awards at multiple homebrewing competitions.

Mead Cocktails from the Hive Mind

Brad and Kerri married in 2005, where, of course, they toasted with glasses of mead. When Kerri was laid off from her job in 2006, she began plans to open the meadery. B. Nektar opened its doors nearly two years later on August 2, 2008—National Mead Day.

A decade later, B. Nektar is among the largest meaderies in the U.S. Minnick credits it as a pioneer which has “influenced new talent to enter the category.” The meadery still churns out edgy, irreverent meads, and hosts whimsical, never-too-serious events at the facility like karaoke, comedy and quiz nights.

Try it: Black Fang

Bos Meadery's Mead Hall
Bos Meadery’s Mead Hall

Bos Meadery (Madison, WI) 

Head mead-maker Colleen Bos co-founded this meadery in 2012, along with Jeannine Bos and Peter DeVault. Colleen capitalized on her experience as a professional medievalist.

“I’m just a geek, is what it boils down to,” she says. “I’m the kind of person who ends up wanting to do deep dive[s] in whatever I’m interested in.

“I got interested in the science of fermentation and got really far into it. I got interested in medieval history, I got a master’s degree it in. Now, magically, these two things have actually come together for me.”

Bos is renowned for sparkling meads, like the award-winning Pomegranate Pyment, which is a sort of wine-mead hybrid of fermented honey and grapes. She also crafts lower-alcohol “session meads” like Hammer Smashed Cherry, made with local Door County cherries. The operation is also known for its popular mead hall, which opened in 2015.

“I’m just a geek, is what it boils down to. I’m the kind of person who ends up wanting to do deep dive[s] in whatever I’m interested in.” —Colleen Bos, Bos Meadery

“We’re a friendly, informal place, with raucous live music sometimes,” says Bos. The former medieval history instructor says that the venue is also a tip of the hat to the epic poem Beowulf, which is set in a mead hall.

Try It: Hammer Smashed Cherry

Raphael Lyon (left) and Arley Marks outside Honey's, the tasting room for Enlightenment Wines Meadery
Raphael Lyon (left) and Arley Marks outside Honey’s, the tasting room for Enlightenment Wines Meadery

Enlightenment Wines Meadery (Brooklyn, NY)

Run by a group of herbalists and artists, this meadery starts with honey sourced from a single beekeeper, also Tremblay, in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The mead is then made at either of two production facilities, one on a family farmstead in the Hudson Valley where many of the mead’s botanicals are sourced, or another in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Enlightenment’s tasting room, Honey’s, offers straight pours and mead cocktails.

“It is a world of experimentation and curiosity. We don’t need authorization or permission from on high to know what we like or even to learn how to make it.” —Raphael Lyon, Enlightenment Wines Meadery

Co-owner Raphael Lyon started the venture in 2009 while he farmed his family’s Hudson Valley homestead. There, he focused on heirloom crops, some of which he turned into fruit wines and meads made with other local ingredients.

“It’s about what grows naturally here,” says Lyon. “The fruits, the herbs that are used…we need to use regional stuff and use it naturally.”

This meadery focuses on small-batch, seasonal offerings that are crafted with wild yeast, foraged herbs and locally sourced fruits. One example is Enlightenment’s Memento Mori bottling, made with 150 pounds of foraged wild dandelion flowers.

In 2015, Lyons partnered with Arley Marks and Tony Rock to expand operations and open Honey’s, the meadery’s tasting room and cocktail bar. Marks, also a devoted herbalist, designed and built the bar and cocktail program for Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese restaurant in New York City.

An exploratory approach continues to drive Enlightenment, says Lyons. It’s appropriate for a company named for the philosophical movement that encouraged the first-hand experience of trial and error over traditionally-accepted wisdom.

“It is a world of experimentation and curiosity,” Lyons says of mead. “We don’t need authorization or permission from on high to know what we like or even to learn how to make it.”

Try it: Memento Mori

Hive inspection at Meadiocrity Mead
Hive inspection at Meadiocrity Mead

Meadiocrity Mead (San Diego)

Terroir matters in mead, says Meadiocrity co-owner/mead-maker Mark Oberle.

This hyper-local “bee-to-bottle” meadery, which opened in 2016, counts a beekeeper among its four owners. The operation makes a handful of traditional-style meads, notably its flagship Foundation bottling, simply made from raw honey, water and yeast. Despite the lack of additional botanicals, the terroir instills citrus and bright apple tones into the mead.

“I can capture the essence of a growing season from a specific growing region all in a glass, and it’s going to taste different if I harvest honey in that same spot at the same time the next year.” —Mark Oberle, Meadiocrity Mead

Inspired by the booming craft beer industry, San Diego now boasts multiple mead makers. Oberle attributes the trend to “a perfect storm of Southern California weather that allows us to have all the bees, and consumers who are open to trying the products.”

Oberle, who’s trained as a sommelier, draws parallels between wine grapes and honey. Where and how they are harvested matters, he says.

“I can capture the essence of a growing season from a specific growing region all in a glass, and it’s going to taste different if I harvest honey in that same spot at the same time the next year,” says Oberle.

Even the amount of rainfall can result in variations that show up in the honey.

“One year, we had a lot of rainfall,” he says. “We got a lot of sage blooming and a lot of these lighter, floral blossoms that lasted for a very long time. And this last year, we got almost no rain, so most of the flavors are very robust—buckwheat and sage and some of these flowers that were able to withstand the dry climate.”

Eventually, Oberle aspires to set up vertical mead tastings to showcase the differences from year to year.

Try It: Foundation Mead

Melovino Meadery shows off their cans / Photo courtesy Melovino, Facebook
Melovino Meadery shows off their cans / Photo courtesy Melovino, Facebook

Melovino Meadery (Vauxhall, NJ)

Its name, Melovino, is a play on the Latin words for honey and wine. So perhaps it makes sense that this producer has an affinity for both mead and wine.

Sergio Moutela, the mead maker, remembers helping his grandfather make wine from a very early age. As an adult, he began to experiment at home, where he made wine, beer and other fermented creations. Eventually, it brought him to mead.

Garrido is a deliberately “Vinho Verde-style mead” that’s fermented with grape juice and yeast from Portugal.

Indeed, many of Melovino’s creations take inspiration from the wine world. Past bottlings include Sweet Affair, which combines honey with juice from either Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. A current offering, By Any Other Name, is a blush-hued, off-dry grape mead made with fresh strawberries that resembles a bottle of rosé. Garrido, meanwhile, is a deliberately “Vinho Verde-style mead” that’s fermented with grape juice and yeast from Portugal.

Try It: By Any Other Name

The lineup at Midwest Meadwerks / Photo courtesy Midwest Meadwerks
The lineup at Midwest Meadwerks / Photo courtesy Midwest Meadwerks

Midwest Meadwerks (Chicago)

Tom Sadowski, a proponent of fruit meads, is quick to point out that his surname translates from Polish as “fruit farmer.” While he doesn’t manage orchards of his own, he’s brewed beer and mead in his Chicago home since the 1990s, a hobby he started with his brother.

“I have twin boys, and a girl who was 17 months older,” says Sadowski. “I had three in high chairs, three bottles, three in diapers. I’d sneak down and have a mead. Like mother’s little helper, it was dad’s little helper.”

“With the kids going through high school, soccer…[mead] got pushed to the side. I own a Tru-Value hardware store, too.” —Tom Sadowski, Midwest Meadworks

Over the years, he attended brewers groups and beer clubs, where he’d connect with other mead makers. One of his meads, Triskelion, a black currant, cherry and raspberry blend that’s now his flagship product, won a national award in 2006 for Meadmaker of the Year from the American Homebrewers Association. It was then that he decided it was time to turn pro.

However, as is often the case, life had its own plan. “With the kids going through high school, soccer…it got pushed to the side,” says Sadowski. “I own a Tru-Value hardware store, too.”

It wasn’t until his kids entered college that Sadowski finally built his own meadery, which opened in 2016. He continues to champion fruit meads, with offerings that include Lush, a raspberry-spiked mead, and CherryBomb, which mixes ripe cherry and jalapeño heat. Decades after he started his journey, Sadowski is still passionate about making mead.

“I don’t have much time to do anything else besides the hardware store and the meadery,” he says. “I’d like to retire into mead-making full time. That’s my goal. That’s my retirement plan.”

Try it: Triskelion

Published on October 15, 2018
Topics: Honey Wine
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip. and NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening, which debuts in September 2018. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net




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