Occasionally I feel inspired by one of the prompts put forth by The Session, “an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic.” This month, The Session is hosted by U.K. blogger Mostly About Beer, and the subject is Discomfort Beer: beers that “took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to.” It seems appropriate, around the birth of a new year, to revisit times when one is pushed outside one’s usual.
Now, perhaps it’s cheating (or at least bending the boundaries of the prompt a bit), but my most memorable “discomfort beer” wasn’t beer at all: It was mead.
I can’t pin down exactly what year it was when I had my first sip of mead, though it would have been 2009 or 2010, probably. I can tell you exactly where I was, though: Chicago’s venerable Belgian beer sanctuary, The Hopleaf, which at that time hadn’t yet undergone its expansion and had only one downstairs bar perpendicular to the front door. I sat on a stool at the far end of the bar, a bit chilly, following a brisk walk from the CTA Red Line station which never seemed quite as close to the bar as it should be.
I had ordered a Belgian beer, probably Kwak, which I was enamored of due to its novel glassware. Flipping through the bar’s encyclopedic menu, I noticed a handful of ciders and, beneath that, a category called “mead.” I turned to my friend and mentioned my unfamiliarity with the beverage. “Isn’t this from Lord of the Rings or something?” I asked at exactly that moment when a bar’s ambient chatter dies, for no reason other than to highlight a young drinker’s n00b-level inquiry.
My friend shrugged. The bartender shuffled over. He explained, in a voice patient and not nearly as condescending as it could’ve been, that mead was a fermented honey wine. I followed that straightforward answer with some technical question about how, at what temperature and for how long honey ferments—once a nosy reporter, always a nosy reporter—and the bartender must have felt it was easier to just let me taste the damn thing than to suffer my litany of questions.
He poured a few fingers’ worth into a small glass and slid it across the bar. I smelled it. It smelled sweet, like honey. I drank it, too much in my first swallow, a huge gulp. My friend watched, only semi-interested, for my verdict. I scrunched my nose.
“It’s really sweet.” And that was it for me and mead for another few years. As is the case with memories, this ur-mead picked up additional qualities in the months and years after the first sip; whether or not they were true experiences, I can’t say with any certainty. I “remembered” the mead as viscous, like syrupy Dimetapp medicine on my tongue. I would recount to others that it came from a dusty, sticky bottle, though that is almost certainly a figment of my poetic imagination. It was pretty bad, I’d say. Too sweet.
In the years following my initial mead experience, I deepened my interest in and knowledge of beer. And I noticed that some beer people whose palates I trusted liked mead. They talked about it with breadth, with detail, with appeal. Had I misjudged mead? I thought of all the beer skeptics I’d secretly pitied who said that all beer was too bitter or too heavy, and I began to worry that I was that person with mead.
I gave it another shot. I sought out pours from B. Nektar and Superstition and read up on tasting notes that would help me better process what I was drinking. It worked. I found the nuance. I found the subtleties in different honeys and appreciated the ways fruits or spices could complement them. What changed? Maybe I was drinking “better” meads, or I’d learned to better tease out flavors in what I was drinking, or I’d gained a new vocabulary that enhanced my sensory experiences. Or maybe I was just taking smaller sips.
To circle this all back to The Session’s question as to what this might say about mead in 2017, I’m not willing to draw massive conclusions from my haphazard introduction to mead drinking. As my colleague Zach Fowle reports, though, mead is having a moment here in the U.S., with more drinkers (anecdotally at least) familiar with the category than before. There’s even a meadery in the unlikely community of Vauxhall, a borough within my hometown of Union, New Jersey. My mom texted me a few months ago: “Your brother and I are hanging out at the meadery.” Who’d have thought?