While the origins of mead trace back at least 20,000 years to prehistoric Ethiopia, where feral bees would nest in the crown of broken trees, and to the dawn of the Neolithic Age in northern China nearly 10,000 years ago, the drink remains a relative mystery to the average U.S. drinker. Many consumers vaguely associate the beverage with medieval Europe, if they’re familiar with it at all.
That could change, however. According to the American Mead Makers Association (AMMA), the number of commercial meaderies in the U.S has increased 650% since 2003. And the trade group claims that more than 200 meaderies plan to open in the next two years.
Investment Weekly News reported the global mead market was valued at more than $408 million in 2018 and is projected to surpass $800 million by 2025.
So, what’s taken mead so long? Consumers’ first impressions can make or break a fledgling business in any industry, and, when it comes to fermented honey, it’s particularly difficult to overcome the tendency of assuming that all meads are created equally.
“It’s too sweet,” or “it tastes like medicine,” are churlish reactions that grate on producers like nails on a chalkboard because they encapsulate the barriers that have limited mead’s commercial evolution for millennia.
Fortunately, a colony of innovators across the United States are shifting those perceptions. With craft techniques and ingredients, and cross-category and -cultural collaborations, the mead renaissance is underway.
The central valleys of Arizona annually produce some of the largest wildflower blooms in the country, making the southwest a natural destination for mead makers.
“Where honey comes from is the terroir of mead, and there’s nothing quite like desert wildflower honey in Arizona,” says Carvin Wilson, AMMA’s 2019 National Mead Maker. The region is home to Superstition Meadery, helmed by Jeff and Jennifer Herbert. The Herberts cultivated a passion for homebrewing into one of world’s the largest meaderies, plus a restaurant that offers mead-paired meals in downtown Phoenix.
“When we founded Superstition in 2012, there were only about 150 domestic producers, and there was no national industry organization to represent our interests,” says Jeff. “So right after we launched our startup, we became founding members of AMMA, and in the interim, the business landscape has experienced an amazing transformation to over 600 meaderies in the United States.”
Superstition now monitors fermentation markers, collaborates with craft brewers and has a diverse range of products. Two of the nation’s longest-running meaderies in the nation are Michigan’s B. Nektar and Schramm’s, both built on the terroir of abundant Midwestern apiaries.
“I think what changed things was the growth and evolution of the craft beer industry,” says Brad Dahlhofer of B. Nektar, which has produced nearly 200 recipes and is currently the largest meadery in the U.S.
B. Nektar’s strategy to market experimental styles in scarce quantities to curious craft beer drinkers has become the blueprint to introduce consumers to mead’s flavor profiles.
For example, B. Nektar’s Miel de Garde is ranked as the No. 5 mead in the world by RateBeer.com in the “Other” category. It’s made from orange blossom honey in a traditional process, but it’s aged for 18 months in oak barrels like a wine.
Schramm’s recently partnered with Florida-based Beer Kulture, a nonprofit that previously released beers in partnership with Green Bench Brewing, to create a collaboration mead.
AMMA, in collaboration with the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), established style guidelines to fuel healthy competition in emerging mead hybrids.
“Modern winemaking techniques have made the meads produced within the last decade likely the best the world has ever known, and the range of available craft meads is wider than at any time in history,” says Jeff Herbert.
Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor, author of The Art of Mead Tasting & Food Pairing, says that consumers’ lack of familiarity and limited recipes stunted the mead industry’s growth until The Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian was published in 1984. The book launched the careers of hundreds of brewers who’ve revolutionized the beverage industry, especially mead.
“I started my craft journey as a homebrewer, and like most homebrewers that experiment with making mead, I became intrigued after reading about it in the back of the Charlie Papazian recipe books that most of us cut our teeth on,” says Billy Beltz, owner of Lost Cause Meadery in San Diego. “The first batch I made was awful of course, but I immediately fell in love with the challenge and the possibility of mead.” Other mead makers see immense potential for the category.
“There is a growing trend in the American craft beverage industries right now to evolve beyond the traditional labels of beer, wine, cider, etc. and break through some of the artificial segmentation and dogma,” says Billy Beltz, cofounder of San Diego’s Lost Cause, which is the most decorated meadery for two consecutive years at the Mazer Cup, the largest international mead competition.
“Mead is the wrecking ball that will eventually open a lot of that up,” says Beltz.
Many makers also pursue cross-cultural collaborations. Rabbit’s Foot has developed a network in Ireland to produce 100% Celtic meads. Superstition has partnered with a Brazilian startup that will be the largest meadery in South America. And researcher Dr. Garth Cambray of Makana Meadery in South Africa recently published a dissertation on a breakthrough process where unfermented honey can be converted into mead with 12% alcohol by volume (abv) in 24 hours.
As mead reaches a tipping point in the public consciousness, consumers will determine how the craft is defined by the producers they support. Should mead cater to familiar flavors to achieve widespread availability? Or should the focus be to develop unique combinations to celebrate local characteristics?
The answer to either strategy, much like the process of fermentation itself, boils down to quality control. After fermenting for millennia, the Golden Age of mead may have finally arrived. And the results have certainly been worth the wait.