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The need for mead

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Could this be the year that mead finally makes its big comeback?

by Don Russell

Every few years, a wire service reporter or drinks writer discovers honey wine and pronounces it the Next Big Thing. In 2010, the Associated Press said the sweet stuff hadn’t been this hot “since Beowulf slew Grendel’s dam.” In 2007, the San Jose Mercury News declared that, for mead, “the Dark Ages may have finally come to an end.” All the way back in 1995, a Syracuse newspaper reported that “mead just seems to have caught the public’s fancy.”

It’s true: In recent years, the official drink of Ye Olde Renaissance Faire has attracted hundreds of new fans, especially among homebrewers dabbling with honey instead of grain.

Indeed, some of the most adventuresome flavors at homebrew festivals these days are meads made with herbs, spices, fruit and other offbeat ingredients like chipotle pepper and tea. Heck, some are even barrel-aging mead.

Vicky Rowe, who runs America’s biggest mead judging competition, the Mazer Cup in Boulder, Colo., says entries have grown 30 percent a year since 2009. Count her among the fearless optimists as she predicts, “We’re teetering on the brink of becoming a big thing.”

Not to be a buzz-kill, but don’t hold your breath. Why? Well, it all starts with one question: What the hell is mead? Beer, everybody knows. And the same goes for wine. But mead?

“Awareness is a big problem,” says Marc Johnson, who owns Pennsylvania’s 4-year-old Stonekeep Meadery. “People might’ve read about it in ‘Beowulf’ or saw it in ‘Robin Hood,’ [but] they don’t know what it tastes like.”

So, before Johnson can convince you to buy a bottle, he’s got to explain what it is. That’s not the easiest way to sell anything, much less something you’re about to pour into your mouth.

What he’ll tell you is that mead is technically wine made with honey instead of grapes. And that’s the next big stumbling block.

Because of its legal classification, mead must be sold in wine stores. Wine stores like the one in my neighborhood that carries about 7,000 bottles, from pricy Bordeaux to affordable Zinfandel. And exactly two brands of mead.

Why so few? Partly because most of America’s estimated 125 to 150 meaderies are too small to supply large distribution networks. They’re mainly home-based operations or part of larger wineries, hand-bottling their succulent products and happily selling them one at a time in tasting rooms and those dreaded Renaissance fests.

One of the biggest, Rabbit’s Foot in California, produces just 15,000 gallons a year (smaller than even an average brewpub) and is sold in only about 10 states, according to owner Mike Faul.

“We just don’t have the clout to grow that big,” Faul says. “Plus, there are only so many people who are going to drink it.”

Which brings us to the other reason there’s so little mead at the wine store: It turns out that, while mead can range from the sweetness of dessert wine to the dry, bubbly character of fine Champagne, wine snobs are—and always will be—snobs.

Wine drinkers care about grape varieties and vintages and terroir. Honey? That’s what you put on crackers and Brie.

“Let’s just say there’s a certain amount of resistance from the wine crowd,” says Rowe, whose GotMead.com serves as an online community for mead makers and fans. “Wine people just want their Merlot. But beer people are all over it because they know a good thing when they see it.”

Which may be the very best reason for hope in mead’s future. For, as you talk to people in the mead business, you hear a lot of the same giddy, underdog optimism of craft brewing circa 1992.

Most of them are glorified homebrewers and now they face the same challenges of growth, of dealing with regulatory authorities who have no clue about their product, of spending countless hours pouring samples and educating consumers.

They speak earnestly about quality and tradition and, maybe most important, distinct, unforgettable flavor.

As with microbrewing 20 years ago, there’s an uncertainty among meadsters about where this is all headed. But there’s a passion behind the craft that convinces them they’re headed in the right direction.

WHAT TO DRINK: Six meads to sip now

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