When you ask if a Brooklyn bar has mead, it can be a little confusing.
“Meat?” the bartender might ask.
“No, mead. M-E-A-D. Honey wine?”
While mead may be unfamiliar in a world where IPAs, DIPAs, and W-I-N-E are easily understood, it’s due time for this ancient beverage to officially land on the map.
Mead is not only an alternative to beer or wine, but it’s used in cocktails at places like PDT in the East Village and Budin in Greenpoint.
Honey wine is made just like regular wine, but with fermented honey instead of grapes. Herbs or fruits can be added to enhance the herbal or floral notes from the honey. The process actually removes most of the honey’s sweetness, just like with grapes, so most meads aren’t overly sweet. It’s also gluten-free.
Mead was made thousands of years before wine and beer. It may be familiar to Game of Thrones fans, or anyone who’s read Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales. In Ethiopian cuisine, it’s called tej, widely considered the country’s national drink. It’s popular in Ireland, China, and Poland, too, but just beginning to rise in popularity in America, as mazers, or mead makers, bring their passion for honey wine to the table.
Most of the information circulating about mead is inaccurate, according to mazer Raphael Lyon of Enlightenment Wines. His meads can be found at beer staple Spuyten Duyvil in Williamsburg. He finds it surprising that more Americans don’t drink mead.
“If you go to Asia, they make wine out of rice. Other places they make stuff out of sorghum–or chocolate pods. People can make alcohol out of anything,” he said.
“There’s an incredible array of things that we’re missing in this country because we’ve got such a dominant tradition of grape winemaking and beer making.”
Particularly, Lyon is looking at all kinds of local fruits and herbs, things like dandelions, rose hips, and spruce.
“When you ferment honey, what you get is something really miraculous, all the flavors of the honey without the sugar,” he said. “The grape is like a piano; there’s nowhere near the range in honey like there is in a grape.”
There’s an explosion in mead making in the U.S. right now, he added. According to an article on Meadist.com, it was the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in the U.S. in 2014.
At Earle Estates in the Finger Lakes, the Earles began as bee farmers before they began making meads in 1993. Paul Curcillo took over a few years ago, and they’re now making traditional, contemporary, semi-sweet, and “twinkle” mead, which is carbonated. They have a variety of fruit meads, which are fruit wines blended with mead.
“If you’re not a sweet wine drinker this gives you a chance to tone it down a bit,” Curcillo said. “By blending them it’s a transitional wine.”
Curcillo’s customers who know a lot about mead return repeatedly. They recently bought out all of his mead supply two months before the season ended, so he’s increasing production.
“Mead oddly enough is a very smooth drink,” he said. “I think it’s really in its infancy, but it’s something good enough that it will take off.”
At Helderberg Meadworks near Albany, Peter Voelker said his meads take four months to make. That’s because they’re oak-aged, making them very bold and flavorful.
“When you oak age something the longer, more evolved oak flavor is. You could make a quick mead probably in a month,” he said.
Even though it’s a wine, mead seems to be captivating craft beer folks even more than wine drinkers.
“I was very surprised at how well the craft beer market took to my mead. Craft beer people are a little more adventurous in what they’re willing to experience,” Voelker said.
Chris Cuzme, former vice president of the NYC Homebrewers Guild, currently brews for Cuzett Libations with his wife, Mary Izett, and will open a brewery in the spring. Between hosting ‘Fuhmentaboutit!’ on Heritage Radio Network and brewing full-time, he also heads up NYC Mead Week every May. This year it will be May 13-22; it always coincides with the NYC Homebrewers Guild’s annual mead meeting.
After helping start the more well-known NYC Beer Week, Cuzme said “no one was giving mead any love.”
It’s a “grassroots celebration of mead in NYC,” he said, The event attracts bee enthusiasts, mead enthusiasts and other professionals, and includes events at bars that carry mead. Mead Week has seen around 50 participants in the past, he said.
“I wanted to at least put some attention to it because I think it’s really an underappreciated drink in NYC,” he said. “It’s a really great addition to beer and wine. Mead keeps well, more than wine in an open bottle, and you serve it by the glass. It’s a good reason to get it.”
The common ingredient with all these mazers, besides honey, is that they all plan to distribute their meads in Brooklyn in the next few months. Enlightenment Wines will also expand in the coming months.
“Mead is like where cider was about four to five years ago,” Lyon said. “For the most part it follows the demographics of cider drinkers.”
Cuzme plans to make a braggot, half mead, half barley-based ale, as a collaboration with Melovino Meadworks, which opened in New Jersey in 2014 and has garnered numerous awards from the Mazer Cup International.
“It’s too soon to be a renaissance not too soon to hope for a renaissance,” Cuzme said. “ I think people are drinking more adventurously now.”
Where to Drink Mead in Brooklyn:
Spuyten Duyvil, 359 Metropolitan Avenue
Radegast Hall & Biergarten, 113 N. 3rd St.
Barcade. 388 Union Ave.
Budin, 114 Greenpoint Ave.
Hops Hill, 886 Fulton St.
Buy a Bottle:
Bibber & Bell, 418 Union Ave.
Enlightenment Wines CSA
Helderberg and Earle Estates meads can be purchased through their web sites.