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Mead: Drink of gods, Vikings

MEAD, that drink of Viking saga and medieval verse, is making a comeback. But this is not your ancestors' honeyed wine.

"It's not just for the Renaissance fairs anymore," says Becky Starr, co-owner of Starrlight Mead, which recently opened in an old textile label mill in this little town in the US state of North Carolina.

In fact, this most ancient of alcoholic libations hasn't been this hot since Beowulf slew Grendel's dam and Geoffrey Chaucer fell in with the Canterbury pilgrims at the Tabard.

In the past decade, the number of "meaderies" in the United States has tripled to around 150, says Vicky Rowe, owner of, self-described as "the Internet's premier resource for everything to do with mead."

"I literally get notifications of meaderies every couple of weeks," says Rowe, who runs the website from her home in the woods north of Raleigh, North Carolina. "So they're popping up all over. And many are wineries that added mead to their mainstream products, which is incredible."

Traditional mead is made with three ingredients - honey, water and yeast. The biggest hurdle has been overcoming that centuries-old misconception that something made from honey HAS to be sweet.

But, as Rowe is quick to point out, grapes can be pretty sweet, too.

"And just like wine, mead can be as dry as a bone or it can be so sweet makes your fillings hurt," she says. "And it depends on how it's made."

The honey, water and yeast are just the base. There are fruit-flavored meads, called melomels. There are methyglyns made with herbs and spices. And then there are what Rowe calls "weirdomels, which is mead made with lots of other things."

The wine rack in Rowe's basement holds bottles from mead makers around the US - from a New Jersey man who makes authentic Tej with Ethiopian gesho, a hops-like bittering agent, to a guy in Anchorage, Alaska, who flavors mead with everything from local currants to coriander, Indonesian Koryntje cinnamon and hot peppers.

There are even veggie meads.

"I had a beet mead that was screaming pink, like, fluorescent pink, and actually was quite tasty," says Rowe. "I've had mead made with nuts, with exotic honeys you've never heard of. You know, pretty much anything you can throw into a liquid and ferment."

Because it requires no human intervention, many believe mead is the world's oldest alcoholic beverage. Traces of a mead-like substance were found in a 9,000-year-old Chinese burial chamber. Until about 1500, mead was the alcoholic beverage of choice, Rowe says.

"Because cultivated grapes were only for the rich, the poor folks, they couldn't get it," says Rowe, who earned the nickname "Mead Wench" after years of wandering Renaissance fairs laden with wineskins full of her own homemade meads. "They had thin beer that they could make at home or they had mead, because honey was readily available to anybody."

In "Beowulf," the Old English epic heroic poem, the great mead-hall Heorot is the scene of most of the action. It is where King Hrothgar "with fair courtesy quaffed many a bowl of mead," and where the "fell monster" Grendel slaughtered 30 thanes (nobles) passed out "after drinking mead."

Chaucer's 14th-century "Canterbury Tales" contain several references to mead or "methe." But with the opening of the New World and its sugar plantations, Rowe says, "mead began a slow decline ... and by the 1700s was almost nonexistent."

That began to change with the spread of Renaissance fairs and re-enactment groups and the growth of craft beer. This musty old drink was suddenly seen as a "new and interesting and potentially wonderful thing," says Rowe.

"It's just like skirt lengths, you know? They're long, they're short, they're long, they're short. It's that kind of thing."

Picking up where Chaucer left off, J.K. Rowling has introduced a whole new generation of readers to the honey wine. Devotees will no doubt recall how Ron Weasley was nearly done in by a poisoned bottle of Madame Rosmerta's oak-matured mead in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

Wine and beer makers aim for a slightly older demographic.

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware state markets a mead-like ale called The Midas Touch. Based on the residue from drinking vessels discovered inside the golden king's 2,700-year-old tomb, the concoction is described as "biscuity" and "succulent," with hints of honey, saffron, papaya and melon.

Mead producers are riding the craft-beer wave and the "locovore" craze. Jon Hamilton's White Winter Winery in Iron River, Wisconsin state, did a bourbon barrel-aged cyser (apple mead), but that's about as exotic as it gets.

"You won't see an orange-blossom mead because we don't grow oranges up here," says Hamilton, a former psychotherapist who runs the business with his wife, Kim, a former teacher. "We use black currants. We use strawberries. We use raspberries. We use blueberries. We use apples and apple cider - all from our neck of the woods."

No one tracks on how much mead is made or sold. The US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau's wine statistics do not list honey wine as a separate product.

But Mike Faul, founder of Rabbit's Foot Meadery outside San Francisco, says his production is growing about 30 percent a year. He distributed 6,000 cases last year to as far away as Japan and Ireland.

"In fact, in this bad economy, this year may turn out to be my best year ever," he says. "In good times or bad, people drink. But in bad, they seem to drink more."

But this is still a far cry from mead's heyday in the Middle Ages.

"Your average meadery is a couple of guys or a couple or a single person whose buddies all said, 'Wow! That stuff that you make is great. You should SELL it," says Rowe, who has a 5-gallon glass carboy of dark spiced mead fermenting on her kitchen counter. "I know a lot of people that started out in their garage or their basement, and now have tasting rooms and a whole meadery. And they're kicking butt and taking names."

That's Ben and Becky Starr.

The North Carolina couple got into mead a few years ago after tasting it at a Renaissance fair. After two years of experimentation and rave reviews from friends, the Starrs took it to the next level.

In 2006, they traveled to Boulder, Colorado, and entered their spiced cyser in the International Mead Festival's home mead-maker competition. They won the wooden mazer (goblet) for best in show.

"That was when we realized we were doing something pretty good - it wasn't just that our friends liked free booze," says Ben Starr, who has a ponytail that reaches halfway down his back.

Labor Day Weekend, Starrlight Mead opened in a little cinderblock office building behind the old Chatham Mills label factory.

When drafting their business plan, the Starrs asked several area wineries about their first-year sales. Since mead was such an unknown, they decided to take those numbers and halve them "to be a little more conservative, a little more realistic," Ben Starr says.

They made about 40 cases of their award-winning spiced apple, thinking they'd last through the end of the year. It sold out in about two months. Same for their semisweet mead.

"We more than doubled those numbers in our first few months," says Starr, who had added two more stainless steel fermentation tanks to meet demand.

During a recent wine-tasting tour, Mallory Radcliffe stopped by Starrlight and was surprised by the range - from almost clear semisweet to deep-red blackberry. Golden peach was the favorite.

"When they add the fruit, you have a different vibe," Radcliffe said. "Real light. Real enjoyable. Real easy to drink."

"We've seen a big increase in the number of people that know actually what mead IS, which is surprising," says Becky Starr, who is wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Got Mead?" in ancient Norse runes.


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