In his recent three-star review of Agern — the Nordic-inspired restaurant in Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal, from Noma founder Claus Meyer — New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells called out mead as an oddball beverage.
"Strange things are happening in mead," Wells wrote about the wine list, which includes an entire section of mead, "a beverage that is pretty strange to begin with."
It's true: For most Americans, mead is an unfamiliar beverage that's commonly perceived as sweet and alcoholic and is often equated with Beowulf and Renaissance Faire enthusiasts. But it's also part of a historic winemaking tradition, one that has been utilized the world over for millennia as a way of making a fermented beverage.
According to the American Mead Makers Association, mead is one of the fastest-growing alcoholic beverages in the country by sheer number of new producers. In 2003, the U.S. had roughly 30 producers. Today, there are more than 300, with meaderies opening in parts of the country as far flung as Portland, Maine.; Richmond, Va.; Southern California; and even Alaska.
But commercially available meads are still relatively rare, and the beverage hasn't been fully embraced en masse. There's no widely sold "six-pack" of mead, for instance, as there is for beer and even cider. The new breed of meads are experimental and funky, infused with fruits and herbs that add tannins and bitterness to balance the honey's sweetness.
"There's pressure on the industry to think about mead the same way we think about grape wine," said Raphael Lyon, a mazer, or meadmaker, based in New York. "They want you to have two or three different meads based on two or three different kinds of honey-'varietal' meads."
But to Lyon, who makes mead under the Enlightenment Wines moniker, honey may be the least important factor.
"People make the mistake of thinking about mead as a wine that's made from honey and water," he said. "If you start in the other direction, you'll see that mead is a way of taking fruits and herbs and adding honey to them and fermenting it all together. The idea of just honey-plus-water doesn't have any kind of historic authenticity."
Lyon started Enlightenment Wines in 2009 out of a barn in the Hudson Valley. This summer, he expanded to a small production facility in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and opened an on-site tasting room and cocktail bar called Honey's. There, mixologist Arley Marks serves Lyon's bone-dry honey wines, along with several cocktails that feature mead, such as Night Eyes, made with sparkling mead, apples, and cranberries.
A hyper-educated creative with art degrees from both Brown and Columbia, Lyon began making mead in the 1990s to distance himself from what he calls "the networks of commerce that fuel modern food systems."
He takes a philosophical approach to making honey wine and sees himself as part of an historical winemaking tradition. He insists on using unprocessed honey, which is richer in nutrients, to make the yeast happy.
Lyon said that thinking about mead the way we think about modern grape wine culture is historically fraught because "most alcohol for millennia was made from a bunch of different stuff." For Lyon, that stuff includes such things as foraged dandelion flowers, wild apples, elderberries, juniper berries, lavender, marjoram, cranberries, tart cherries, rose hips, and sumac flowers, all of which find their way into the mead he makes.
"Mead made from just honey and water doesn't have any tannin or structure," said Lyon. "Using herbs and botanicals doesn't just provide a flavor, it's critical for the fermentation process. It clears the wine and it prevents microbial spoilage." (The yeast and proteins are attracted to the botanicals and then fall out to the bottom of the fermenter with time.)
Globally, mead is nowhere near as popular as it once was. As agriculture became prevalent, more easily grown and harvested ingredients such as barley and grapes became the dominant fermentable sugars of choice, and mead fell out of favor. The relatively high price of honey — up to $2 per pound, compared to pennies per pound for malted barley — is still the No. 1 reason mead doesn't enjoy more mainstream success.
At Agern, beverage director Chad Walsh's beverage list is populated exclusively by American produced wines, ciders, beers, and meads. He says it's easy to find great American-made meads; in fact, just as with craft beer, American craft mead makers are leading the reinvention and re-popularization of mead worldwide.
One of his most popular bottles is Utopian, a $180 mead from New Hampshire's Moonlight Meadery. It is aged for five years in used Sam Adams casks that once held the brewery's Utopias beer, a 29 percent ABV strong ale that tastes like Madeira. Thick and sweet with notes of vanilla and Bourbon, the mead is robust and sherry-like in flavor.
Pour a glass
The following meads can be hard to find in retail stores, but are worth seeking out:
• Enlightenment Wines St. Crimson, N.Y.: This ruby-tinged mead is made from black currants and wildflower honey. ($25 per 375-ml bottle)
• Nektar Tuco-Style Freakout, Michigan: Michigan's B. Nektar draws inspiration from an infamous Breaking Bad character for this lime zest-infused mead with a base of orange blossom honey. ($10 per 500-ml bottle)
• Melovino Berry Boku,N.J.: This mead uses a blend of mixed berries including raspberries, currants, blueberries, and strawberries for a blend of sweet and tart flavors. ($22 per 500-ml bottle)