As the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, mead suffers from many misconceptions. While technically similar to wine, it’s often lumped in with beer. Fermented from honey, people expect it to be sugary sweet, though it can be quite dry. Mead has been called the ancestor of all fermented drinks, and evidence of it has been found in Chinese pots dating back 9,000 years, but the ancient honey wine has struggled to gain consumer interest in modern times—that is, until now. Mead is finally enjoying a revival, thanks in large part to the craft movement and the rise in eco-conscious products. A renaissance is underway, and the mead industry has grown exponentially in the last few years.
The American Mead Makers Association formed in 2011 as a resource for the growing segment. When the group started, there were roughly 60 meaderies operating in the United States. This year there are more than 200. The country’s mead production doubled from 2012 to 2013, and according to the Mead Makers Association, sales of mead were up 130 percent last year over 2012, outpacing the growth rates of spirits, wine, beer and cider.
“Several years ago, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal predicted that mead would eventually do what craft beer has done, and it looks like it’s happening,” says Ken Schultz, whose Hidden Legend Winery in Victor, Montana, produces eight traditional meads. “Hidden Legend has seen growth of 70 percent to 80 percent this year. It’s hard to keep up. We’re scrambling to expand.”
Hidden Legend’s offerings include Pure Honey, Dark Honey, Spiced Honey, Maple Honey, Elderberry Honey, Chokecherry Honey, Huckleberry Honey and Peach Honey meads. Schultz uses winemaking techniques and oak aging to craft the meads, resulting in honey notes with a wine mouth feel. A few years ago he added a line of three historical meads that pay homage to the drink’s roots: The King’s Mead, made with 100-percent honey; The King’s Pyment, enhanced with red wine grapes; and The King’s Cyser, featuring apples. Hidden Legend’s products ($14 to $21 a 750-ml. bottle) are distributed in eight states, and the company ships online to 31 states. Schultz estimates that he produces 36,000 bottles of mead a year.
“People assume that mead is sweet and they’re always delighted when they taste it,” Schultz explains. “The educational process for mead has been extensive, but when we now ask people if they’ve heard of mead, oftentimes they have. I only see growth for the foreseeable future. Modern wine drinkers are looking for historical beverages with stories and real ingredients.”
Consumer interest in mead is certainly growing, but education remains paramount. Once relegated to renaissance fairs and historical gatherings, mead has an increased following among the general public, but it’s not widely known. Schultz, a member of the legislative committee for the American Mead Makers Association, says he and his fellow mead producers are working to expand the drink’s reach, starting with the legal definition. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) doesn’t have a category for mead, so producers are forced to call their products honey wine, which leads to more confusion.
“We’ve presented a letter asking the TTB to issue a directive that would allow us to use the word ‘mead’ on our labels,” Schultz says. “It’s no longer confusing to the public. People are looking for mead, and it’s getting to the point the term ‘honey wine’ is misleading. The TTB is working on it. They see mead’s growth.”
Most mead makers agree that consumers understand their products much more now than they have in the past. David Myers, owner of Redstone Meadery in Boulder, Colorado, has been making mead for 13 years and says growth has been booming since 2011. He credits the cider, craft beer and craft spirits categories, noting that most of his consumers are connoisseurs of all craft beverages. Redstone offers a line of eight sparkling mead Nectars that have 8-percent alcohol-by-volume (abv), ranging from $15 to $17 a 500-ml. can or 750-ml. bottle, depending on the style, and eight 12-percent abv Mountain Honey Wines ($20 to $23 a 750-ml. bottle). The meads are available in 33 states.
“The biggest misconception of mead is that it’s a singular big and sweet beverage,” says Myers. “People think honey wine must be thick and cloying. But mead, like beer and wine, is very wide-ranging. It can be dry or sweet, sparkling or still, high- or low-alcohol. There’s still room for education, but the general craft drinking population has a lot of knowledge now. There are more meaderies opening up and making good mead, and that’s good for everybody.”
Sap House Meadery in Center Ossipee, New Hampshire, is a newer mead producer that launched in 2010. Co-owner and mead maker Ash Fischbein, who’s been making mead since 1997, says the recent growth in awareness and sales has been astounding and proves that mead is gaining traction with the general public. He notes that the segment’s versatility is another contributing factor, adding that mead can be served warm or mulled with spices and that it’s increasingly being mixed into cocktails. Sap House’s website lists several drinks recipes, such as the Meady Waters, blending the company’s Sugar Maple mead, Kahlúa coffee liqueur, Baileys Irish cream liqueur, milk and fresh banana, and the Sap House Breeze, made with its Blueberry mead, Cold River vodka, Malibu Coconut rum and pineapple juice.
“There’s a large, broad pool of people enjoying mead,” Fischbein says. “Mead is an interesting phenomenon because it’s the oldest fermented beverage in the world, but the newest on the shelf. Most often, when people try our meads, they say the drinks aren’t as sweet as they were expecting. Cider is becoming a major contender for market share, and I believe that mead has the same chance.” Sap House’s regular offerings include Sugar Maple, Hopped Blueberry Maple, Vanilla Bean and the red wine-enhanced Ossipioja, along with the seasonal labels Chocolate, Peach Maple, Blackberry Maple, Cranberry Sage and Kombucha and a barrel-aged mead (all $15.99 to $19.99 a 375-ml. bottle). The products are sold in New Hampshire and eight other states, as well as online with shipping to 17 states.
Nicholas Higgins, the mead maker for Maine Mead Works in Portland, Maine, says awareness is definitely rising. He agrees that there’s a broad spectrum of consumers seeking mead, though he adds that the drink requires a bit of hand-selling on- and off-premise for people who are unfamiliar with it. Maine Mead Works has a core set of four 12.5-percent abv meads ($12 to $15 a 750-ml. bottle) in its HoneyMaker line: Dry and Semi Sweet, which are both aged in oak; Blueberry; and Lavender, which is infused with local flowers. The company also offers sparkling meads that have lower alcohol content ($7 a 500-ml. bottle).
“We find that a lot of people are at least vaguely familiar with mead now,” Higgins says. “We’re located on the Maine Wine Trail, so some people come in and ask where our grapes are. Mead takes explanation, and we focus a lot of our marketing and promotions on education. The overall quality is going up, and people are experimenting with different flavors. I hope mead will follow what craft beer has done in the last decade.”
Many mead makers are eyeing the craft beer and cider industries as their role models, and they’re also crediting popular movie franchises like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” that feature the drink. Millennial consumers have been the most accepting, notes Glenda Downs, director of sales and marketing at Sky River Meadery in Redmond, Washington. Sky River produces nine meads, including Dry, Semi Sweet, Sweet, Raspberry, Blackberry, Rose and Ginger expressions (all $14.50 to $25.95 a 750-ml. bottle).
“We sell more meads in retail stores than in restaurants and bars,” Downs explains. “The on-premise needs some assurance that they’ll sell the whole bottle before they open it for a glass pour, and mead is still gaining the awareness required for that to happen. Lately, we’ve been making an effort to create cocktail recipes so the on-premise has more ways to sell mead.”
The category has a presence on retail shelves at stores big and small, though many proprietors say it remains a niche category. Denver’s Argonaut Wine & Liquor, a mammoth 40,000-square-foot outlet, carries roughly 30 meads at any given time, with an emphasis on local labels. The store’s wine buyer, Sheila Carey, says flavored fruit meads are performing well, and she adds that many of her staff members enjoy the drink, which further boosts sales.
Top Hops Beer Shop in New York City is a smaller operation, but it also boasts a mead selection. Store owner and founder Ted Kenny generally carries five labels, though he says a lot of his customers shy away because of their higher prices. “A good mead retails for $18 and up,” Kenny says. “We’re definitely seeing increased interest in mead, but it’s a small category. There’s a lot of potential, and mead will continue to grow, but producers need to increase their production. Getting enough supply is an issue for us.”
The history of mead has become a key talking point for a lot of retailers. At Park Restaurant & Bar in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, Massachusetts, bar manager Robert Grafton emphasizes mead’s history and the locally sourced ingredients of many of his brands. Grafton says interest in mead is growing in New England, noting that sales are skewed toward women. The restaurant offers a handful of mead labels for sale by the glass ($8 a 2-ounce pour) or in flights of three 1-ounce pours ($12).
“Most people consider mead to be a sweet beverage enjoyed at medieval-themed parks and events,” Grafton says. “We love to change peoples’ perceptions of ancient honey wine and we’re all about educating our guests. Flavored meads have been exceptionally well-received, and I see mead becoming more popular in the coming years.”
Casellula Cheese & Wine Café in New York City also offers a handful of meads, including South Africa’s Iqhilika African Birds Eye Chili ($8 a 3-ounce pour) and Denmark’s Dansk Mjød Viking Blod ($10), which is made with hibiscus and hops. Brian Keyser, the lounge’s owner, says a local distributor claims his venue is one of the largest mead accounts in Manhattan, though he only sells an average of one glass of mead per day. “The mead category has plenty of room to grow, but it will always remain a fringe player in the beverage world,” Keyser says.
In true craft drinks fashion, Columbus, Ohio’s Brothers Drake Meadery & Bar has emulated the brewpub and micro-distillery format by making its own meads in-house and serving them in an attached lounge. The venue produces a variety of meads and generally offers 10 at a time. Staples include the signature Wild Ohio, made with local wildflower honey; Apple Pie, a blend of traditional mead with cider; and Ginger Verve, a mead that’s enhanced with chamomile, aged for two years, and then infused with vanilla and ginger ($4 to $8.50 a 5-ounce glass; $16 to $30 a 375-ml. or 750-ml. bottle). Brothers Drake also boasts a variety of mead-based cocktails ($7 to $12) like the Corner Punch, made with its Honey Oak mead, Oyo vodka, Oyo Stone Fruit vodka and a blend of organic fruit juices.
“While mead is not a new drink by any means, it’s been the slowest to make it back to the mainstream after Prohibition,” says Amy Mesh, the bar manager at Brothers Drake. “As more people become familiar with how diverse mead is, the category will continue to grow.”