Is mead worth the money?

Mead is an ancient alcoholic drink, and for reasons no one understands, it’s become the hip new drink over the past couple years.

According to a recent industry survey by the American Mead Makers Association, sales increased 130 percent from 2012 to 2013 — outpacing beer, wine, liquor, and hard cider.

You can now find mead on tap at bars, in restaurants, and even in some grocery stores. But not everyone has tried it yet, so hunted down a few experts (and a bottle) and got to work…

How mead is made

According to Dan Cook, the co-founder of The Mead Kitchen in Berkeley, California…

“The first mead was invented when somebody put honey into a leather skin pouch. Someone else drank it, thought ‘whoa,’ and that guy became the village shaman.”

Dan is mostly joking, but he isn’t far off: Mead stretches back to at least 2000 B.C.

“Mead is made by fermenting honey,” says Greg Heller-LaBelle, co-founder and CEO of the The Colony Meadery in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “Different ingredients can be added either during or after fermentation to give it flavors.”

Today, producers like Heller-LaBelle use a “process more similar to wine, where you keep fermentation temperature cool and consistent. Our usual process is to ferment a mixture of certain type of honey and water to a desired strength, then stop fermentation and move it to a secondary tank, where flavors are added.”

Meanwhile, Cook “adds a bit of carbonation” to his mead. As a result, “it reminds a lot of people of beer.”

The flavor

“Mead can be made sweet or dry, light or heavy, savory or tangy,” Heller-LaBelle says. To give the mead a different flavor, makers include ingredients like hibiscus or hops. But the real secret is in the bees.

Female bees (or “the girls” as Cook likes to call them) forage in different plants, which become different kinds of honey in the hive. As a result, the honey – and the mead – can take on a different flavor. For example, last year Cook created a mead with a licorice flavor by having his bees buzz in some fennel.

“As long as you’re getting good, minimally processed honey, you’ll have all the flavors,” he says. “And when you ferment off all the sweetness, you’re left with all those weird citrus-y notes.” Those notes can greatly enhance the flavor of your mead.

What it tastes like

To test it out, I bought a bottle of Dansk Mjod Viking Blood, a sweet variety available at my local grocery store. The bottle was chilled in the fridge and served cold.

Cook warned me: “When people try mead for the first time, they aren’t always sure if they like it.”

At first, the mead tasted sweet — sweeter than I usually prefer my drinks. Cook was right. I wasn’t sure I liked it. But then I had a second glass and realized a few things.

For one, the honey really does come through. It is the first thing I tasted: warm and complex honey. The next thing I noticed was the smoothness of the drink. Unlike the hard liquor or the cheap wine I’m used to, the mead didn’t have much of a bite at the end. It also didn’t have the bitter first taste of beer.

My conclusion: Mead is different from anything I’ve ever tried, and it isn’t half bad. However, I wish I would’ve listened to the experts and looked for a different brand, which brings us to…

Finding the best value

This may be one category where you don’t want to skimp.

Both Cook and Heller-LaBelle agree you should look for local mead makers who use quality, minimally processed honey. Cook says, “Honey is the only thing that makes mead worth drinking. Overly processed [read: cheap] honey is 20 to 80 percent sugar.”

The two also agree you should avoid larger beer or wine manufacturers who make one variety of mead. “It’s hard to make mead well, and dabbling in it can lead to substandard products,” Heller-LaBelle says.

However, Cook says “you can find a decent bottle of mead for about $35,” which is less than many wines.

Storing, pouring, and pairing

For storing, Heller-Labelle says, “mead is generally much more resilient than other beverages, being usually impervious to light and heat. But of course, a cool, controlled temperature environment is best.” In my experience, the door of my refrigerator worked fine.

When you’re ready to pour, “serving temperature can vary based on taste and the mead, but you’ll always have the trade-off of all beverages. Colder mead will be more drinkable, but you’ll lose flavor.”

Unlike beer and wine, which have a short shelf life, mead will last a while re-corked. My bottle was still drinkable a week later.

Trying it out

Mead is labeled as a type of wine. You can find mead in many liquor stores and in grocery stores in areas where it’s legal to buy wine and beer products.

If you don’t want to commit to an entire bottle, mead may be available on tap at local bars, especially bars that specialize in having a variety of spirits.

And if you’d like to sample more than one variety, look for a tasting event. Both The Mead Kitchen and The Colony Meadery offer in-house tasting events if you’re in the area. If not, check review sites like Yelp to find a local tasting event.

The American Mead Makers Association also lists its members by state and in alphabetical order. Try it and tell us what you think in the comments below.

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