Cheers to Mead!
The ancient wine – made of honey, not grapes – is making a comeback
By Alex Starace
Mead, the drink of the gods, is made from fermented honey and often credited as mankind’s first alcoholic creation. Back in medieval days, as part of marital tradition, a bride and groom were bestowed enough mead to last a month, for good fortune in fertility. Hence the term ‘honeymoon.’
The legendary concoction also evokes a brutal, ancient history. Taliesin, the sixth-century Brythonic bard, sang of warriors carousing in mead halls. It was the drink of choice for the monster-slaying Beowulf in the eponymous Old English epic. And in Norse mythology, it was believed to be an inspiration to poetry – because it was first produced using the drained blood of the impossibly wise and mellifluous Kvasir.
By the Middle Ages, however, mead was surpassed in popularity by wine, and then by beer and harder spirits. Befitting of its mythical history, though, it never quite died out. While the drink lost all popularity in Western Europe, it was consumed in Russia throughout the 1800s, making appearances in the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. In other regions of the world, mead remains common. Ethiopian mead, known as tej, continues to be consumed in the region. In the Americas, blaché, a mead-like drink that is flavored with tree bark, remains popular with the Yucatec Maya in southern Mexico and Central America.
In recent years, mead is gaining a foothold in the United States. The traditional recipe of honey, water and yeast can easily be augmented by adding fruit and spices, giving boutique American meaderies a wide canvas on which to work. South Florida Opulence had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Fairbrother, the founder of Moonlight Meadery, which is based in Londonderry, New Hampshire.
Fairbrother, who quit his job as the COO of a software company to brew mead, explained that among those who have heard of the drink, it’s often unfairly given a bad rap because of its assumed association with Wiccans and Renaissance fairs. And, until recently, it was legitimately hard to find good quality mead, though as Fairbrother put it, “If you try Wonderbread, you don’t give up on eating Panera – there’s a real big difference.”
More than Meads the Eye
Moonlight Meadery, which started production in 2010, has found success by focusing on high-quality ingredients. “The biggest challenge is quality honey,” explained Fairbrother, “Making sure it’s not been diluted with corn syrup and that it’s not been adulterated. We buy only true-source, certified honey, which is sustainable … and independently verifiable all the way back to the beehive.” With superior ingredients comes a finished product that’s sweet (but not cloying), delightfully complex and full of surprises. Fairbrother’s meads have flavors as diverse as rhubarb, apple pie and coffee – and he boasts a catalogue of over 60 distinct products. With quality comes success: His company has won multiple awards at the Mazer Cup International and was the first New Hampshire winery/meadery invited to the Newport Mansions Food and Wine Festival.
Though mead is historically the drink of warriors, it’s now far more popular with women. Fairbrother, who got his start as a homebrewer, noticed this phenomenon early on: “When I pulled out a bottle of beer, my buddies were hanging around. When I pulled out a bottle of mead, every woman in the room was knocking somebody over [to try some].” His informal research has since held true to form: 80 percent of Moonlight Meadery’s current customers are women. Which only means that mead, that mystical drink, continues to evolve. If Fairbrother’s creations are any indication, the beverage has a bright future ahead.