Pass the flagon, it’s time to try some mead
For many makers of mead, or honey wine, it all began in the homebrew bucket. That’s where Ron Lunder first combined honey, water and yeast in 1987, shortly after he became interested in the culture of beekeeping, honey harvesting and fermentation. The longtime Lassen County resident entered a few of those early batches into state fair contests—and he began winning prizes.
“That’s what encouraged me to think about doing this on a commercial scale,” said Lunder, who today owns and operates Mountain Meadows Mead, in Westwood.
Lunder uses honey from a farmer in Surprise Valley, in the northeast corner of the state, and he has built a creative repertoire of honey wines that go beyond just traditional dry mead. He makes one mead with ginger and tropical spices, another with Oregon cranberries, and even a sweet mead fortified to 20-percent ABV with honey-based spirits—a delicious slow sipper that tastes of nutmeg, mint, honey and lemon. The Mountain Meadows blue agave nectar mead combines the sap of the Mexican cactus with wildflower honey for a semi-sweet drink, fruity and with a tart, tangy finish.
HoneyRun Winery, based in Chico, also began on a homebrewing scale, in 1985. Even before then, owner John Hasle kept bees. After three years of harvesting their honey, he began fermenting it in his beer-making kit—often offering the resulting meads to friends as “wine” for their weddings. A positive response invited Hasle to acquire his commercial license, and by 1992 he was selling HoneyRun Winery honey wines.
Today Hasle, with his wife, Amy, makes straight honey-based meads, but most of their brews are infused with pure fruit juice. HoneyRun’s product line includes half a dozen offerings, including elderflower honey wine, cherry honey wine and blackberry honey wine. The HoneyRun traditional dry mead—Ragnar’s Dry Mead—is redolent of honey, beeswax and fresh herbs. The taste is spicy, of mint, pumpkin pie and a faint medicinal tea quality.
Mead originated 8,000 years ago or more in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere within the native fly zone of the European honeybee, which didn’t appear in the New World until early European settlers brought along their beehives. While wine took root as the favored drink in latitudes hospitable to grapes, in some equatorial and sub-Arctic zones honey-based alcohol became and would remain the tipple of choice.
Often, early mead-makers added herbs and fruits to their brew pots, possibly to vary the flavors, hide defects or both. Today, such infused meads remain common. Those brewed with fruit are called melomels—and the categorization gets even more specific: Grape-honey mead is called pyment, apple-honey mead cyser, and mulberry-honey mead morat. Still other meads are flavored with herbs.
Honey-based alcohol walks a fine line between the wine and the beer worlds—and it belongs, really, to neither. Though meads are often called honey “wines” and are usually sold in standard wine bottles, the wide range of recipes used in mead-making makes the craft of fermenting honey into a beverage more akin to the culture and methodologies of beer brewing.
In fact, Lunder says beer drinkers are his main consumer base, while the wine community, at best, tolerates the presence of honey-based alcohol.
“There is a growing awareness of mead, mostly among beer people,” Lunder says, noting that he regularly pours samples of his mead at beer festivals, where inventiveness of his meads makes them a natural fit in the colorful world of craft beer. “We’ve tried wine events, and a lot of people there kind of walk by and sneer at us. Wine drinkers seem to know what they want, while beer drinkers seem more open to new flavors and styles.”
Meaderies in the United States are growing in number. In California, other popular brands include Chaucer’s, in Santa Cruz, and Rabbit’s Foot Meadery, in Sunnyvale, which also began as the bucket project of a homebrewer and is now among the finest makers of mead—and a few honey beers, or braggots—in America. And at least one producer in the United States—Heritage Wines, in New Jersey—is emulating an old Ethiopian honey drink style called tej, made using an indigenous bittering herb called gesho.
Meads from our local producers are available at S&S Produce and Natural Foods, Chico Natural Foods, Liquor Bank, Safeway, Duke’s Cork-N’-Bottle Shop, among other locations. Such retail markets usually feature designated beer aisles and designated wine aisles—and perhaps somewhere in between you’ll find the mead.