Mead, the honey wine drunk by famous olde tymers like King Midas, Chaucer and the Vikings, hasn’t had a big following since, well, King Midas, Chaucer and the Vikings. Mostly poured by velvet-clad, corseted “wenches” at renaissance fairs, mead’s been trapped in the Middle Ages. But with a current estimate of 60 dedicated meaderies nationwide (the majority of which popped up in the past decade), this medieval drink is experiencing a modern day revival.
Bottle-conditioned (adj.): Sparkling beverages that get their effervescence from a second fermentation taking place in the bottle, as opposed to being filtered and then injected with CO2.
Widely believed to be the oldest fermented beverage, mead was the Greeks’ “Nectar of the Gods,” the Romans’ nobility drink, the Hindus’ fertility elixir and the Moors’ Love Potion #9. The Vikings drank it for warrior-like strength and the Celts believed paradise had a river of mead flowing through it. The word “honeymoon” is thought to come from the European custom of giving a month-long supply of mead to newlyweds to ensure fertility and happiness. So, why, given its history and magical powers, are we not still buying it for good-looking singles at the bar and lapping it up in our honeymoon suites?
“The biggest hurdle for mead to overcome is the idea that it has to be sweet,” said Steve Villers, who owns Blacksnake Meadery in Dugspur with his wife, Joanne. Meads can be sweet—some tooth-achingly—but they can also be bone dry. Traditional mead is made with three simple ingredients—honey, water and yeast—and as with wine, its sweetness depends on how long it’s fermented (the longer it goes, the drier it is). There are fruit meads, called melomels, and herb/spice meads called methyglyns, which comes from the Welsh word for medicine. Sack meads are aged longer, taking on the complexity of a port or sherry and then there are meads that merge with other libations. Pyment is a fermented blend of honey and grape juice (wine mead), cyser blends honey with apples (cider mead) and braggot combines honey with malted grains and hops (beer mead).
The Villers opened Blacksnake five years ago when they were looking for a business to run from their country property alongside full-time jobs as teachers. Before that, they had been home-brewing mead using purchased honey, but after turning friends and family onto it, they bought hives and learned the art of beekeeping. Now, under a farm winery license, they make 3,600 bottles annually—from “bee to bottle.” From their own hives each year, they harvest up to 2,000 pounds of honey (though they lost 70 percent of their hives this year due to a combination of weather and colony collapse disorder, that mysterious bee disappearing phenomenon named in 2006 and afflicting apiaries ever since). They dilute the honey with water to a specific concentration before adding yeasts to incite fermentation. The honey ferments in 220-gallon stainless steel beer tanks for two months before it’s taken off its lees. “With a four-spout bottler and a hand corker, it takes us one day to bottle 200 gallons of mead,” said Steve.
Blacksnake produces four award-winning traditional meads: a dry wildflower, a dry tupelo, a semi-sweet called Sweet Virginia and a dessert bottling called Meloluna. “We love the dry meads as apéritifs, the Sweet Virginia with BBQ and Thanksgiving meal and the Meloluna with fruit desserts,” said Joanne. They also produce two bottle-conditioned (see Winespeak 101) sparkling meads—one with lime that the Villers recommend with Asian or Mexican food and one with hops that tastes like a pale ale. During the fall, they sell a cysar and a melomel called Squashed, which combines wildflower honey with butternut squash and pumpkin pie spices. Blacksnake’s meads range in price from $12 to $18 and can be purchased at Beer Run, Greenwood Gourmet Grocery, Market Street Wineshop Downtown, Rebecca’s Natural Food and Revolutionary Soup. Hill Top Winery in Nellysford also recently added meads (everything from a pomegranate melomel to a lavender methyglyn) to their fruit wine lineup. Mead’s re-emergence is still a far cry from its days on Beowulf’s table, but this musty beverage is certainly getting a fresher look.