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."