Mead, which could perhaps attribute its most recent spike in the public consciousness to getting roasted mercilessly in a Bud Light commercial, is the liquid quintessence of the term “old is new.”
And seriously, it’s super old.
An alcoholic beverage created when honey and water ferment, mead predates beer and wine by millennia. Remnants of mead have been found in vessels dating to nearly 8,000 B.C., and evidence points to its consumption in ancient China, India, Egypt, Greece and beyond.
Less so, however, in Westeros (the magical, medievalesque realm in which George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones unfolds), where Tyrion Lannister drinks a preponderance of red wine and knows things.
But, says Chad Wiltz, owner of Tampa’s Garagiste Meadery, that association still helped contribute to the beverage’s retro rise from the relative grave.
“I think mead’s growth is the convergence of a lot of things,” Wiltz opines, noting that in the 24 hours following GoT’s first mention of mead, Garagiste gained several hundred followers on its social media accounts. “But for the most part, I think mead’s resurgence is a natural progression of the craft beverage movement.”
He’s not alone.
Jeff Herbert is happy to give props to Anheuser-Busch for those aforementioned adverts – “How many hundreds of millions have Budweiser spent in the last year and a half on college and NFL football games advertising mead?” he laughs. Herbert founded Prescott, Arizona’s Superstition Meadery with his wife, Jen, in 2012. “They’re making it a household name more than any of us ever could!” Even so, he credits his customers more than any aspect of pop culture.
“They come from the craft beer world,” says Herbert, whose tasting room is roughly 80 miles from Phoenix.
So, too, do most of today’s mead makers.
Herbert, a firefighter, got his start when his wife bought him a homebrew kit.
Wiltz was hitting tasting rooms when Tampa was a rising star of the craft beer scene, trading bottles and traveling when he happened upon a mead from an artisan operation in Michigan. He wanted more, but to his chagrin, it didn’t sell outside its area.
“I went to every local wine shop I could find looking for mead. Sadly, there wasn’t much.” But he soon learned that little meadery, Schramm’s, was owned and helmed by the man who’d literally written the book on mead.
“I picked up a copy and read it a few times over the coming months. I had never brewed anything, but eventually built the courage to buy some supplies and give it a shot.”
Before long, he had more than he could drink, so he shared. Then the sharers shared. Then folks wanted to buy it. He spent a couple of years pouring at festivals, and winning competitions, before crowdfunding startup money and leaving his career in nuclear medicine behind.
Today, Garagiste is still selling out its stock, both the straightforward and the exotic (a peanut-butter-and-jelly variety is among its most popular).
James Boicourt was into home brewing when he discovered mead, but entered the figurative hive through a literal one. While a student at North Carolina State, the need for a biology elective led him to the entomology department.
“All big land-grant colleges usually have one,” Boicourt says, “since it’s really important to agriculture, and the class was great – led by the man who started the Master Beekeeper program.” He had his first taste of mead in a classroom and before long, became a beekeeper himself. As Boicourt was already into home brewing, the progression was natural.
“Mead was very hard to find. And most of what I was able to get commercially was sweet and heavy, and so right away I started making meads that were lighter, more refreshing.”
In the five years since Boicourt opened Baltimore’s Charm City Meadworks, they’ve become known for it.
“We do most of ours very dry,” he says, “and we seek to introduce mead to people as its own thing, rather than explaining its history and comparing it to other things. When you do that, the audience becomes a lot wider, especially when you’re making really refreshing stuff with zero residual sugar. We are among the driest out there.”
Noobs among you: taste.
All mead is made from honey, but as Boicourt will profess, not all are cloying. They run the gamut from bubbly and elegant to heady and viscous. Garagiste’s Wiltz says there’s a mead for everyone.
“Some are big, dessert-style, sweet meads, bold and intense from start to finish. Others are dry with little to no sweetness at all. Delicate and dainty, but no less remarkable.”
The test of a good mead, says Ricky Klein, head brewer at Vermont’s Groennfell Meadery and Havoc Mead, is obviously a matter of taste, “but I would urge all drinkers to stop and ask themselves a simple question: Would I enjoy two pints of this in a row?”
Groennfell has seen 30 percent growth each year since opening five years ago.
“Back then, we couldn’t get craft beer bars to pick us up and now we’re selling at gas stations and hardware stores! It’s mind-blowing!”
As is the hype for Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season. Fans are already planning parties and gatherings for its April 14 premiere, mead more mandatory than optional. Superstition will be streaming it to the taproom and offering specials.
It may be bigger than National Mead Day (the first Saturday in August) when folks who show up in costume – Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Vikings with hollow drinking horns – enjoy discounts.
“That guy in the furry codpiece with the sword?” laughs Herbert, “I gotta buy him a drink!”