How the World's Oldest Booze Is Finally Becoming Cool
In America, mead has long been something to sample at the renaissance fair. Not anymore.
Mead is a terrible name for a drink. Honestly, it's neither cute, nor sexy, nor all that easily comprehensible. Often, it just sounds like you're saying "meat.” That's good comedy, for sure, but it's atrocious branding.
Mead -- or honey wine -- has existed for thousands of years. Almost every civilization on Earth figured out how to ferment honey at some point or another, long before beer or wine, or even Fireball. With that legacy, spanning our planet and its history, you'd think it'd get a little respect. At the very least, you'd think people would know a little about it.
Yet, when most of us consider mead, we just picture frilly-panted Renaissance courtiers, or pointy-helmeted vikings, or men in cargo shorts bellowing, "m'lady." Plentyoftrendpieces invoke these tropes because they're the easiest way to provide context, but the clichés are more than a little misleading about the drink's history.
You’re probably not picturing a 9,000-year-old Neolithic Chinese jar, for instance, when you hear the word; or first-century Romans penning recipes that call for rain water; or medicinal mead in 13th-century Wales; or the ancient and on-going mead tradition in Ethiopia based around tej, the country's national beverage.
In America, mead has long been something to sample at the odd renaissance fair. Not anymore. Ten years ago, there were around 150 meaderies in the US. Today, that's up to roughly 500, plus 200 more awaiting federal license approval.
Though more people are making the beverage, it's still oddly hard to find in bars and grocery stores. But thanks to a dedicated community of mead loyalists, that is starting to shift. Soon, "grabbing a glass of mead," might roll off the tongue as naturally and easily as "a glass of wine" or "a beer." In fact, the oldest booze in the world might finally be cool.
As countless mothers explain to their teenagers each morning, there are many kinds of cool. One of these is endemic to gentrified Brooklyn, which is both the site of New York City's first meadery and an ideal environment to tap into mead's potential as a beer and wine alternative that's natural, local, gluten-free, and different.
At least that's how it's presented by Raphael Lyon, the mazer (mead-maker) for Enlightenment Wines Meadery and its tasting room and cocktail bar, Honey's. Fred Minnick, in his book Mead: The Libations, Legends and Lore of History's Oldest Drink, describes a mazer as "part historian, part honey expert and fermentation guru." Lyon is certainly all of these.
His role as "fermentation guru" is key to understanding why this drink is so unique and worth caring about at all. Honey wine is mead, yes, but mead isn't just honey wine: Often honey facilitates co-fermentation between other ingredients like apples, cherries, lavender, etc. You can use almost any fermentable ingredients in any combination.
The batch you get today is not the same as the one you'll get tomorrow.
Lyon identified what he sees as "the most exciting thing" about mead during a visit to Honey's last spring: "When people come to grape wine, they're often rating it against what they've been told it ought to taste like. I'm trying to give you something that can't exist except here. We're trying to make something you've never had before."
While online communities search for more outlandish recipes (seaweed mead, anyone?), the menu at Honey's avoids stuntier combinations, and the palate tends to be dry rather than sweet. "A lot of people think mead is going to be sweet because it's made out of honey," Lyon explained. "But beer and grapes are sweet, too, before you ferment them."
Lyon's co-founder Arley Marks emphasized that the honeys here, as well as the other ingredients, are sourced locally. That's a big point for this particular brand -- but also a way for mead to find its niche in an America that increasingly honors local sourcing. Instead of fetishizing a particular variety of grape or region, mazers have historically just used the best ingredients around them.
Ethiopia developed the drink tej by mixing honey with gesho, a shrub and bittering agent, because gesho happens to grow in Ethiopia. If you had a cherry tree in your yard hundreds of years ago, you'd drop those cherries in your mead. Many contemporary meaderies and mazers follow suit. "New York produces really good honey, we produce really good cherries," Marks pointed out. "We don't necessarily produce really good grapes."
Minnick also emphasizes in his book that honey has "true terroir" -- the flavors that arise from a wine's environmental context. Honey here doesn't taste like honey from 200 miles away, even if it's from the same flower. If you're getting mead from a local meadery, as many are, that matters.
"That's the beauty and the headache of honey," Minnick writes. "The batch you get today is not the same as the one you'll get tomorrow. Perhaps that's why 19th-century alcohol manufacturers moved to making ales and wines -- the honey just wasn't consistent."
Today, you can get more consistent, cheaper, mass-produced honey, but that might mean giving up the qualities that make the drink so appealing. This strength of mead can be a weakness at scale.
If a mead is made with good honey, however, all the richness of the flowers is present without the glare of sweetness. If you're drinking Enlightenment Wines, for example, you're basically drinking New York.
And there is a growing audience for that.
Here is Lyon's own description of Honey's clientele: "They don't want to get drunk really fast, and they're not trying to show off, and they don't want to drink beer, so what do you got? A lot of people are allergic to wine, they're allergic to gluten, they're all our customers. They're young, they're pretty fashion forward, a lot of artists, a lot of creative people."
Lyon sees Honey's as a place to educate as much as a place to serve his product. That can mean correcting a historical record that he sees as exclusionary, as much as it means showing people that mead can be delicious and subtle and not at all what they're expecting.
While an industry's worth of people isn't going to visit a small, natural light-filled bar in Bushwick to learn about mead, they might see it on Instagram. For instance, the Instagram of Dylan Sprouse, aka Zack of the Disney sitcom The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Sprouse is also the founder of All-Wise, a meadery also located in Brooklyn.
From Sprouse's vantage as an attractive celebrity with long blonde hair, mead's biggest obstacle to mainstream success is overcoming its image problem. "I think that the marketing is dogshit so far," he told me over the phone from China, where he was on a film shoot. "If mead's going to emerge, it needs to be something that's a little more approachable, a little more, I don't know, a little more not what it's been."
Sprouse means that it's been a "fringe alcohol," and would-be customers associate it with an antiquated manliness. One of mead's most successful brands is Viking Blod, which trades on this association, but doing so is unlikely to make mead the next cider.
As a former-child star -- Dylan and his twin brother Cole, who played Cody, were two of the highest paid ever -- Sprouse presumably had plenty of options for how to spend his adulthood. Yet, he decided to open All-Wise. It debuted last summer, a few miles from Honey's.
Sprouse told me mead "has this very kind of weird vibe/motif to it that a lot of people try to punch up and sell," but he doesn't think that's its strength.
Here's another way of thinking about it: When do you drink rosé? All day. What do you tailgate with? Cheap beer. What do you toast with at a wedding? Champagne (or something bubbly that wine snobs won't allow you to call Champagne). So when do you drink mead?
"I think it's for people who want to drink something more than beer, that's kind of a replacement for wine that sits somewhere in between, right?" Sprouse mused. A natural comparison is cider, which went from fringe to mainstream in the last 15 years or so, but cider is more immediately comprehensible, both to customers and makers.
He may not have the answers yet, but by drinking and making mead, Sprouse is altering its image. And that's not nothing. Maybe Instagram can do for honey wine what it did for rosé. If his 6.8 million Instagram followers see that he's making mead on Instagram, maybe they'll get curious and try it for themselves.
Even if mead gets its glow-up, though, there are problems beyond image to confront. The biggest one? Price.
"Our ingredients are automatically much more expensive than pretty much any other brew," Sprouse lamented. "Honey is no joke. It costs a lot of money."
A bottle of All-Wise costs $30. One from Enlightenment Wines Meadery goes for between $25 and $60. Some brands sell for $20. On the other hand, you can buy a decent cabernet or riesling for $10. Companies can cut down on these costs with cheaper honey, but, again, risk losing the thing that makes mead compelling.
There's also not much precedent for consumers spontaneously grabbing a bottle at the store. Even in America, many try it for the first time when they or a family member make it themselves. This is, in part, because until recently there weren't a lot of great options, but also because, whether in Ethiopia or England, mead's venue has traditionally been the home.
That's how Sprouse came to it at the age of 16, when it was an easy way to get booze underage. Honey wine is often recommend to novice homebrewers because, as he puts it, it's "hard to fuck up." His interest is also cultural though: Sprouse identifies as a Heathen, a branch of Norse paganism (and a story for another time). The point is, he kept making more.
"You develop this taste and nostalgic love for it," he told me. "But then you go to shop for a similar alcohol, and you find that there's really not much of a selection for you, because homebrewers end up moving up the scale from mead to beer to opening up professional breweries. Not many actually stick with mead. So for me, I was kind of intrigued that there weren't many outlets where I could find this drink that I'd grown to love."
Families in America aren't known for passing down mead recipes, so learning in this country meant going to the library and crossing your fingers -- that is, until the internet happened, and brought with it a modern, virtual version of communal mead culture.
It's hard to imagine that online community's existence without Vicky Rowe, who was once described to me as "the mead mother" and who self-describes as "the Barbara Walters of the industry since the '80s." More official titles include executive director of the American Mead Makers Association (AMMA) and founder of GotMead.com, a website that started as Rowe's personal notes and grew into the largest compendium of mead knowledge on the internet.
"It's the same thing that's been happening," Rowe told me over the phone, "we just have better tools than vellum and quills now."
The AMMA, which was founded just five years ago and is headed by Rowe, represents both the drink's homemade-side and its business-side. While mead may never have Budweiser-level scale, the AMMA is overseeing an industry-wide jump similar to the one from homebrewing to craftbrewing.
But when you make beer, you're taking what's largely been an industrial product and brewing it at home. Mead is taking the opposite path. Making mead at scale means taking a homemade, folksy beverage and transforming it into a Capital-P product. And even after thousands of years, the drink hasn't solidified into something a marketing team could easily summarize and sell. As Rowe puts it, mead is "the Wild West of the craft alcoholic beverages."
Sprouse expresses it another way: "Mead is variable. Everyone's scrambling to see how it should be best served."
That's inspiring from a maker's perspective, but it's also exciting on the consumer side. What can't mead taste like?
The Got Mead? Facebook group has 5,000 members and the Mead Facebook group has around 10,000 members, constantly swapping recipes and advising one another on the finer points of fermentation. Batches range from practical to wild, from plum mead to tobacco mead. With competitions and meetups, there's real overlap with the craft-beer industry, and mead is arguably more intelligible from a beer perspective than a wine perspective (it can even be combined with beer into a drink called braggot). Its culture has a similarly democratic and exploratory approach.
For mead to continue expanding, however, it'll likely have to court both the beer crowd and the wine crowd, but by offering them something distinct from either.
Currently, the US government doesn't recognize varieties of mead. Whether made with blueberries or gesho, it's treated as one broad honey wine. Jim Vaughan, national sales manager of Chaucer's Cellars, a California mead brand, explained that most stores don't even know what section to put it in. Sometimes it's in the craft beer aisle, other times the wine aisle. Often, it's not there at all.
But that's changing.
Chaucer's, which released its first batch over 50 years ago, has been serving American mead longer than anyone. As Renn Faire culture blossomed, the winery was there to satisfy its whimsical demands -- and more or less happened into dominating what market there was to dominate. Its product is more in line with what you might expect in taste and presentation, and it clearly has no qualms about appealing to the classic mead market (its name is a nod to a mead reference in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales).
When I spoke on the phone with Vaughan, he recalled that, as he traveled the country in Chaucer's early days, "the mead customer profile was people that attended Renn Fairs, new age solstice folks, hippies." Then in the early '90s, he started to "run into the first generation of the beer geeks, and they all knew about mead, versus the wine crowd."
As homebrewing and craftbrewing culture has flourished, and we've become more open to new drinks -- consider cider's transformation from "fringe beverage" to standard beer and wine alternative -- and as Game of Thrones and Harry Potter have name-dropped mead and spread awareness, Chaucer's has found that it's no longer the only mead in town.
"We've lost several events," Vaughan told me. "It's not like they didn't like Chaucer's or didn't like the price -- but they wanted to go local. It doesn't matter if I'm in Pennsylvania or Missouri, they go, 'Oh, we have our local mead.' We kind of like that because it helps make it a category."
So things are changing, and maybe the industry's growth is mead evolving into something more consistent.
"In truth, I see the success of mead being very multiplicitous," Sprouse replied when I asked whether mead could go mainstream. "For now it's gonna emerge in a lot of places in a lot of weird ways. And then probably one or two of those places will get it right and then the rest of the world will follow suit."
Or mead in America could look a little different everywhere, as it always has. That communal spirit might scale, and just as there's now a craft brewery and a cidery in what feels like every town in America, more and more will have a meadery. In Michigan, B. Nektar, one of the country's biggest mead brands, will use extravagant labels and experimental flare to integrate into the craft-beer scene -- while in Brooklyn, mazers like Raphael Lyon will lean into the natural-wine movement and emphasize honey wine's natural, hipper vibe.
But regardless of whether that new packaging means mead stays cool, becomes even cooler, or retreats back to the Renn Faire, these people aren't going to stop making it.
"What we're doing is literally trying to make the world's greatest mead," Lyon told me as I tried my own first glass. He added, "We're trying to find out what that is."