By Natalie Lariccia
It’s one of the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages, reportedly dating back to 7000 BC in northern China. Now, mead—a fermented drink made from honey, water, malt and yeast—is creating a new buzz, giving brewers a unique opportunity to experiment with flavors and highlight local crops.
Photo by Rainier Ziehm
To be classified as mead, no less than 51 percent of fermentable sugars must come from honey. The alcohol content of mead typically ranges from 8 to 15 percent ABV; it can be carbonated, sparkling, still, dry, off-dry or sweet.
“It’s the most ancient form of alcohol. It really has its own place,” says Sarah Benary, co-owner of Brothers Drake Meadery in Columbus. Open since 2008, Brothers Drake is a bustling urban meadery featuring nearly a dozen different mead varieties, a full bar, live music entertainment and food menu.
The meadery uses primarily locally-produced honey and ingredients and only distributes its products in Ohio. “We really wanted to focus on keeping a strong local market,” Benary says. “I think it makes it special for people in Ohio. It’s a big part of who we are.”
Kent Waldeck, owner of Crafted Artisan Meadery in Mogadore, says he has been pleasantly surprised with the growing interest in mead and with the growth of his meadery. Waldeck opened his small facility near Akron in 2012. His meads now are sold in nearly 150 Ohio stores, including Acme Fresh Markets, Heinen’s and Whole Foods Markets.
A home brewer since 2002, Waldeck now runs Crafted full-time. He attributes mead’s growing popularity to the appeal of craft beer and locally-sourced foods. “People want to try new things, and mead kind of fits that bill. It’s not beer, and it’s not wine,” he says. “You can’t go into it expecting what you would expect from a wine.”
Crafted’s offerings span nearly a half-dozen different varieties, highlighting several different types of honey, including Tupelo and Ohio wildflower honey. The “Spiced Apple Cyser” melds Ohio wildflower honey with Ohio apple cider, spices and yeast, while “Tupelo Dry Mead” uses a delicate blend of Tupelo honey, water and yeast. Tupelo is a rare honey blend gathered for a few brief weeks in the Apalachicola River basin in Florida’s panhandle. Waldeck also is experimenting to create new mead flavors, including vanilla, cinnamon, and lime.
And he views his meadery as a way to give back to the community: a portion of each sale of Crafted’s Pollinator—a small batch bottle that highlights flavors of blackberry, Saigon cinnamon and dry hops—is donated to the The Ohio State University Bee Lab for ongoing research.
Travis Hreha, co-owner of Lakewood-based Humble Bee Vineyards with his brother Carson Hreha, says he also enjoys experimenting with different flavors when creating meads. Humble Bee’s most popular variety is the Cleveland Sunset, a strawberry-orange honey wine. He also makes chocolate, strawberry and seasonal flavors.
For Dave Jilbert, owner of Jilbert Winery in Valley City in Medina County, a boyhood beekeeping hobby and love of agriculture led him to making honey wine and eventually open his Valley City winery. Located in Medina County, the winery is housed in an antique dairy barn. Honey wine is what got the ball rolling when he originally opened in 1999; nearly 15 years later, it remains one of his top sellers.
Jilbert turns out batches of mead from honeycomb to bottle in about two weeks, thanks to his investment in an ultrafiltration system—a process that helps create a more consistent and pure-flavored product than he can quickly produce. He doesn’t plan to expand his mead offerings; he just wants to keep doing what he enjoys: providing a quality and consistent product and providing customers with unique, intimate experiences like his weekly seasonal “chef’s table” dinners.
“I work really hard to stay really small. [Mead is] the strength of our winery,” he says. “It’s a unique product. People come from many miles around just to taste our honey wine.”
Mead may have a niche market at the moment, but if the buzz at Ohio meaderies is any indication, it’s enjoying a sweet comeback.