So ... there are 350 meaderies in the United States — which is about 348 more than my most liberal previous estimate. I was walking down the famous King Street in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, when something caught my eye in the gleaming window of the Savannah Bee Company: mead tasting. Well, what can I say? They had my attention.
Mead is an incredibly out-of-fashion beverage made from fermented honey and water. Over here, stateside, it is most associated with Vikings and the Britons they terrorized because, for the average American, it got stuck in their head while they were trying to nap through a high school lecture on Beowulf. The truth is that mead was made widely across Europe and Africa, and there is good evidence that the Chinese were enjoying the stuff as far back a 7,000 BC. To put this into perspective, what was happening in Denmark at the time was pretty much nothing.
While mead is, more or less, just honey, water, and yeast, it can still be sparkling like champagne or as carbonated as beer. Across styles, the alcohol content can swing from 8 percent to 20 percent, and that, coupled with the fact that none of varieties I tried tasted particularly boozy, is why you ought to keep an eye on the ABV.
I started with something called Tupelo Ambrosia, brewed by St. Ambrose Cellars in Michigan. Made with Tupelo honey, it is like a super-smooth dessert wine, floral and buttery. St. Ambrose also puts out a draft-style mead called Black Madonna, which tastes and feels like a sour blackberry beer, except not awful. Strangely, given my opinion on sour beers, I thought it was pretty good, as the sweet and sour balanced the whole thing out. The final St. Ambrose selection I tried was X. R. Cyser. Cyser is a style of mead made with apple juice, and this was a draft style that included thistle honey and maple syrup. It tasted exactly like an apple pie in a glass. Don't misunderstand — it was a really good apple pie, and I can see how it would hit the spot after a long, lingering Sunday lunch in the fall or winter. But quaffing a glass o' pie while watching the game seems a bit off.
For all you hopheads, Boulder's Redstone Meadery has a sparkling mead — Nectar of the Hops — which they pitch as a "Mead IPA." It was the lightest — weighing in at 8 percent ABV — and medium sweet. There was a lot going on in the glass. Given that I generally like IPAs, strangely, it was not my favorite. Boulder, for the record, hosts the annual Mazer Cup International Mead Competition. It features more than 300 homemade meads, which is believable, and 200 commercial ones, which is baffling.
The trophy (or battle-axe, or chain-mail shirt, or whatever Viking swag they give out) for my personal favorite would go to the Monk's Mead. Made by Monk's Meadery in that center of Scandinavian-American culture, Atlanta. They claim to be Georgia's first meadery and, without any fact-checking on my part, that just about has to be true. Monk's Mead is a wonderful drink that sits somewhere between champagne and beer in effervescence. It's made with Wildflower honey, but it's dry at the same time, with a hint — and just a hint — of fruitiness.
This was the mead that made me think I could sit back and drink a glass of the stuff, not out of novelty, but because it was just good. At nearly 13 percent ABV, it was dangerously easy to drink, and after a flagon or three, I can clearly see why you'd want to get into some old-fashioned Nordic "impulse shopping" or go colonize Iceland.
Or grab a battle-axe and reread Beowulf.