Mead, the fermented honey beverage swilled by Vikings, medieval royalty and costumed Renaissance festival fanatics, is undergoing a mini-revival right now, showing up at high-end neighborhood grocery stores, on tap at cool beer bars and, maybe, your Thanksgiving table.
Example A is Charm City Meadworks, which officially opened for business in July 2014. It’s turning 3,200 pounds of honey into mead every month in a garage-size industrial space in South Baltimore, supplying 130 stores, restaurants and bars in the Washington-Baltimore corridor as well as pouring flights and selling growlers in its taproom on weekends. Charm City’s meads, infused with herbs, hops and fruit, are sold in cans and bottles at Glen’s Garden Market and Mom’s Organic Markets, offered on tap at Dacha Beer Garden and Meridian Pint, and used in cocktails at Boundary Road and Beuchert’s Saloon.
Nationally, mead is on the rise: According to a report issued this past spring by the American Mead Makers Association, sales grew 84 percent from 2012 to 2014, and production increased 128 percent from 2013 to 2014. The association reported that 42 new meaderies opened across America in 2014, “with many more in the planning stages across nearly every state.”
That despite mead’s less-than-cool reputation as something enjoyed at Ye Olde Ren Fest or home-brewed by shaggy-bearded New-Agers trying to live off the grid. “I walk into sales meetings, and they’re like, ‘Where’s your battle-ax, bro?’” says Andrew Geffken, one of the two partners in Charm City Meadworks. He’s clearly not joking. “You don’t need to go to the Renaissance festival. You don’t have to only drink mead one weekend a year. You can drink it over the other 51 weeks, too. You can go hang out at Dacha or Boundary Road.”
Charm City co-founder James Boicourt was introduced to mead a decade ago while taking a beekeeping course at North Carolina State University, and he quickly refocused his love of home-brewing to making mead, because, as a beekeeper, he “had a lot of honey around.” But after growing tired of the stereotypical mead — honey-sweet, uncarbonated and potent (anywhere from 14 to 20 percent alcohol by volume) — Boicourt says he became “fascinated with dry, lighter, more drinkable meads. There was nothing like that on the market. Everything was really sweet.”
That’s one of the keys to Charm City’s appeal: Although they sell traditional herbed and spiced strong meads in bottles, Boicourt and Geffken purposely introduced a line of meads on draft that are 6.9 percent ABV, similar to craft beers; are carbonated; and are more dry than sweet, thanks in part to months of aging in used bourbon barrels. Their Wildflower Mead, made with wildflower honey, is citrusy with an acidic lemon sourness, almost like a dry champagne, and a sweet floral note at the end. The Elderberry is reminiscent of sparkling cider, with a sweet dark-berry kick. Even more impressive is the Project X, sold only at the taproom, which is infused with Sorachi Ace hops, to add plenty of hop bitterness and aroma, but finishes with a bit of honey.
That crossover is where the future of meads might lie: Geffken says they get many new customers who have never tried mead but become curious after seeing taps at craft beer bars in Baltimore or the District. “There are such great beer scenes in both towns,” Geffken says. The lower-ABV meads are “accessible to existing beer drinkers,” while a still mead like “the original dry is a good jumping off point for wine drinkers.”
Jace Gonnerman, the beer director at Meridian Pint and Smoke & Barrel, had additional draft lines installed at the two bars for the purpose of pouring still and carbonated mead, including selections from Charm City. “I think it’s a trend that’s been quietly bubbling under the surface for a while,” he says. The boom is occurring now, he says, because “if you look at the market, we didn’t have meads from someone like a Moonlight Meadery, who’s making some of the best mead in the country, and we certainly did not have a local meadery. People always flock to something if someone local is doing something solid.”
The appeal of mead on tap at bars, Gonnerman says, is that “it’s differentiation. We’re craft beer bars, but not everyone who comes in wants a craft beer. Some people want cider, some people might want mead. It’s a different flavor profile, especially for someone who thinks craft beer is all about bitterness.”
If Charm City Meadworks is the young upstart trying to make mead cool, Anthony Aellen is an old hand who has believed in mead for almost four decades. The president and winemaker of Mount Airy’s Linganore Winecellars, the family-owned winery has been making mead commercially since 1978 and providing its Medieval Mead to the Maryland Renaissance Festival since the mid-1980s. “It’s a cool re-creation of a centuries-old drink,” Aellen says. “Ours is an English-style mead, a still mead. It sort of fits in the hard cider category: higher in alcohol than beer, a little bit sweeter. It neatly fills that niche between beer and wine.”
Over the years, Aellen has made mead with ginger and spices, and has also made a version of tej, a traditional Ethiopian honey wine similar to mead, that was sold in Ethiopian restaurants in Washington. In the winter, he serves mead spiced and warmed; he also cooks with it, using it as a braising liquid for carrots and other vegetables.
Not surprisingly, Aellen says mead makes a fine pairing with Thanksgiving dishes, including green bean casserole and candied sweet potatoes. “Our mead is about 5 to 6 percent residual sugar, which sounds really sweet until you have it with something really sweet,” he says. “People say they don’t want something that sweet, but think about what you’re eating: If you’re eating sweeter things, a dry wine is going to taste really dry. It’s a taste perception.”
Charm City Meadworks: 3511 Eighth Ave., Baltimore. www.charmcitymeadworks.com. Open 5-9 p.m. Friday and 1-5 p.m. Saturday.
Linganore Winecellars: 13601 Glissans Mill Rd., Mount Airy. www.linganorewines.com . Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday.