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Full mead ahead

Thanks to the efforts of several enterprising meadmakers—and some really, really tasty product—mead’s moment may have finally, at long last, arrived.
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Photo by Ed Rudolph

Photo by Ed Rudolph

Ken Schramm, owner of Schramm’s Mead in Ferndale, Michigan, wrote “The Compleat Meadmaker” in 2003. Today, the meadmaking guide is considered required reading for anyone interested in attempting a batch of honey wine, but several months after the book went to print and began hitting shelves, Schramm was interested in more immediate outcomes: royalties. While tooling around on his publisher’s website to find out if he was making enough, however, Schramm came across an interesting section on how book sales work.

“Basically, it said if you hit the point of having 12,000 copies in circulation, there’s a critical mass thing that occurs,” Schramm says. “The work itself generates enough talk, enough discussion, that sales tip, and it just snowballs from there.”

The publishers knew what they were talking about—sales of the book took off right around that magic number. Which got Schramm thinking: There has to be some similar threshold meadmakers must reach, some pinnacle to which honey wine must climb, before it builds upon its own momentum and becomes as popular an alcoholic beverage as wine, cider or beer.

Before we dive in further, a quick refresher: Mead is the drink that results when you combine honey with water and ferment it. It was probably the first alcoholic beverage man created (pots containing a mixture of honey, fruit and fermentation compounds have been found dating back as far as 7000 B.C.) and is made in some form by cultures all over the world. Mead’s also very diverse—it can be as low in alcohol as 5% and as high as 25%; it can be still or sparkling, dry or sweet; and it can come in a variety of forms, including cyser (mead plus apples), metheglin (mead plus spices) and pyment (mead plus grapes).

But you probably already knew this. According to Schramm, more people today are aware of mead as a category than ever before.

“In the time since I’ve published my book, the number of people I meet who know what mead is and can even name a couple of commercial examples has gone from almost none to three or four out of 10,” he says. “That, to me, has been just as telling as anything else.”

Today, Schramm calls his business “a meadery that runs out of mead.” Every new bottle release attracts throngs of fans; a portion of each batch has to be kegged off just to keep something on in the taproom, otherwise all the bottles would be gone too quickly. In July, Schramm packaged the largest batch of mead he’d ever made. It sold out in just two days. His bottles—as well as those from Superstition Meadery, B. Nektar, Moonlight Meadery and others—are also the current darlings of beer’s second market, trading for brews and whiskeys as über-rare as Pappy Van Winkle and selling for upwards of $400.

“Whatever tipping point there is,” Schramm says, “I think we’ve passed it.”

The numbers certainly back him up. According to data from the American Mead Makers Association (AMMA), the number of companies producing mead in the U.S. grew from 194 in 2014 to 275 today—a 42-percent jump—with 427 companies making mead worldwide. The AMMA data also show that mead’s explosive growth crushes that of every other alcoholic beverage—even beer. From 2014 to 2015, the sales and production of craft beer increased by 17 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Mead sales grew by 42 percent and production increased 128 percent during the same time period.

“It’s wild,” says Jeff Herbert, founder of Superstition Meadery in Prescott, Arizona. “We’re having our first real growth spurt. We’re where craft beer was in the ’80s and ’90s.”

In many ways, Herbert has been both the beneficiary of and fuel for that growth. His two-year-old meadery has racked up more gold medals at the annual Mazer Cup—mead’s most prominent tasting competition—in a shorter time than any other meadmaker in history. Herbert also acts as the editor of American Mead Maker, AMMA’s journal, and as chair of the group’s research and publications committees. He’s made it his mission to integrate mead into the craft beverage conversation, even through such classic methods as product placement.

Sharp-eyed fans of the show “Two and a Half Men” may have caught the bottle of Superstition’s Lagrimas de Oro sitting on a kitchen countertop, visible right behind Ashton Kutcher’s flowing locks. It was the first serious attempt by a meadmaker to embed his or her product in the national psyche, if only subliminally.

Even more successful are Superstition’s numerous collaborations with breweries and other meaderies worldwide—a concept familiar to any beer fan, but surprisingly foreign among producers of mead, Herbert says. Logistics certainly factor into this; there simply aren’t as many meaderies as there are breweries. But the self-reliance of most meadmakers certainly has had an impact.

“Almost everyone I can think of who starts a meadery has this lone wolf, entrepreneurial spirit, so you’ve got to really go out of your way to reach out and try to connect with someone,” Herbert says. “Plus, I think the way that we make mead, unlike with breweries, we each have a system we’ve worked so hard to really nail down, you feel like it’s your secret Coca-Cola recipe. I think people in mead don’t necessarily share all of that information, and so collaborations just never really happened.”

That is, until Herbert got going. In the two years Superstition’s been open, the meadery has collaborated with U.S.-based breweries like Arizona Wilderness and Bottle Logic as well as overseas beer producers like WarPigs Brewpub in Copenhagen and the Swedish brewery Sahtipaja. Superstition also formed the world’s first meadery-to-meadery collaboration with Mabinogion Mead in Wales, as well as the first domestic meadery collab with Michigan meadmaker B. Nektar.

“That’s fun for us on so many levels,” Herbert says. “We’re learning how to brew from all of these awesome brewers. We’re being creative. Plus, we’re associating Superstition—and mead, in a much greater sense— with all of these great breweries and their fans. Those collaborations are how we create awareness, first and foremost, in the craft beer world.”

It’s a strategy that uses the American beer revolution to fuel the mead renaissance, and it’s paying off. But much of mead’s newfound momentum also has to do with recent successes in bringing meadmakers together, Herbert says.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, there were two or three attempts to unite the mead industry, and it never stuck. There just wasn’t enough interest; the people in charge didn’t have enough gravitas to get the meadmakers together, and there weren’t enough people in the industry,” he says.

Thanks to a series of AMMA board member changes that took place last year, Herbert says, the industry organization is stronger than ever. The group also recently embarked on its first real academic relationship— with the University of California, Davis—to fund mead fermentation research and is partnering with a master’s student from Oregon State University whose research focuses on the fermentation temperatures of different honeys. One AMMA member, Golden Coast Mead, is collaborating with yeast provider White Labs to study the growth of ale yeast in mead. Until now, Herbert says, no one has attempted to group, support or share these kinds of studies into the scientific aspects of meadmaking.

“Every time you come up with one of these ideas, it’s something no one’s said out loud before,” Herbert says. “It’s really exciting to be at that phase where the industry’s coming together and we’re working together and we’re making progress.”

Mead isn’t yet a happy hour staple; the drink’s greatest challenge has always been lack of awareness. But as new meadmakers continue to appear and more outstanding examples appear on shelves, the snowball will only continue to roll and gather momentum.

“The hard part is educating someone and convincing them to try it,” Herbert says. “After that, it’s easy. Mead’s not an acquired taste. It’s like pizza or ice cream—it’s just delicious.”


Track These Down

Superstition Endovelicus: Made with raspberries and aged in a port barrel. Tastes like: leather, mesquite honey, raspberry jam.

Moonlight Utopian: Aged in used Sam Adams Utopias barrels. Seek now, it won’t be available again until 2021 Tastes like: toasted oak, maple syrup, dates.

Schramm’s Nutmeg: Made with its namesake spice; usually released between October and December. Tastes like: autumn in liquid form.

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