No doubt my first introduction to mead was like that of most people: As a kid at a Renaissance Faire, watching adults eat turkey legs and gulp sweet mead as novelty, sold from a booth advertising Ye Olde Snackes or somesuch. (And nothing against Ren Faires; personally, I love them.) But, the first time I became aware mead was experiencing a renaissance was in the early aughts when a winemaker friend pointed out that Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry offered mead on their wine list. And not only did they offer mead, at times they’ve offered multiple. ‘Meads,’ plural. This was surprising.
Before starting Bee Thinking in 2008, I spent a decade working in fine wine service and sales. I had been peripherally aware of mead for a long time, and after starting Bee Thinking, creating a focus for mead, via Mead Market, became a logical decision.
From the standpoint of a sommelier, where the object is to create intelligent pairings highlighting both composed dishes and remarkable wines in perfect harmony--or unexpected, surprising, and juxtaposed pairings--the choice to offer mead is fairly logical: why offer one type of wine such as grape wines, when you can offer more, creating more textured, informed, and uncommon experiences? That of course requires that the wines being offered are beautifully crafted, great examples of wine.
Enter the modern mead. Ranging in style from session & beer styles, braggots (mead and beer blend), dry traditional meads, up to semi-sweet, sack -- high alcohol and sweetness, and melomels made with honey and fruit, there are dozens and dozens of styles of mead, which is part of what makes it compelling for true drink and brewing high-brows, but what can make it confusing for those who are new to mead. To that end, let’s step back and understand why there are so many types of mead.
As the oldest fermented beverage, mead has an enormous history and many points of reference. Mead itself, sometimes called honey wine, can be blended or crafted in a great number of ways, almost all of which have historical precedent.
As honey was the only available sweetener for thousands of years it came at a
premium, and making honey last as long as it could often meant blending it in a great number of ways, thereby using a smaller portion of honey. There are also pure, unadulterated meads that strictly highlight a particular or extremely special honey such as meadowfoam, radish blossom, avocado blossom, and christmas berry.
So how quickly is mead growing in the U.S.? It can be hard to piece together. While there are new meaderies opening every day, the industry itself is trying to catch up with itself, having grown so much, so quickly.
- Mead production in the U.S. more than doubled between 2012 and 2014, from 62,000 gallons to 144,000.
- "between 2012 and 2013 (just one recent year) , mead sales grew by 130 percent according to the American Mead Makers Association, exceeding growth rates for beer, wine, distilled spirits and hard cider. " Gourmet Retailer Mag
- American Mead Maker Association reports: the number of mead producers in the U.S. grew by over 150% since 2011, making it the fastest growing alcoholic beverage category in the US. (By contrast, America’s craft beer market added just over 39% to its producer base in the same period).
- Long-established meadery, Schramm’s Mead, has experienced 622% growth (by gallons produced) in 2.5 years
- In 2008 the Mazer Cup International, the world’s largest annual mead competition, saw roughly 300 entries between the homebrew and commercial competitions, and in 2016 had 800, but the number had to be capped there due to the availability of qualified judges.
It’s an extremely exciting time to be representing mead and educating about it as a byproduct of bees, as an industry experiencing major renaissance, watching a huge influx of new craftspeople, and an industry receiving deserved attention.
We bring the same mind to building and curating our mead selection as we do to producing and designing our hives and accessories. We look for highest quality examples that perfectly represent their category, and reflect thoughtful versatility. For instance, Fringe Meadery’s deceptively simple Orange Cardamom session style, pairs equally well with backyard barbecue or spicy Indian dishes. On the other end of the spectrum, the highly respected Jadwiga from Poland’s Apis Póltorak, follows an historical recipe and has been made in the same way for centuries. It pairs stunningly with washed rind cheeses, and functions beautifully paired with cobblers, gingerbread, or served as a digestif. No matter what you drink, from beer, to Champagne, to Port, there is a mead for you.
To better feature our growing mead selection and create a striking tasting bar for visitors-- which includes four taps for growler fills--we have partnered with Portland’s Fieldwork Design to build out our retail shop. The materials used, layout, and thoughtful references to apiary and the tools of beekeeping keep the focus on our mead offerings, hive byproducts (such as honey and wax), and our carefully curated gift selection for mead enthusiasts, beekeepers, and fans of high-quality products from mostly mission-based, local businesses.
Stay tuned for details on our official grand opening celebration!