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A few years ago, your best chance of tasting mead might have been at a Renaissance Fair. We're going to wager the enduring memory is of overpowering sweetness and little desire for a second glass.
But a new generation of meadmakers is updating the ancient craft to produce a more drinkable product, closer to wine than a cloyingly sweet liquor. They're also riding the coat-tails of the thriving craft beer movement and making creative use of local ingredients.
Ben Alexander, owner of Maine Mead Works in Portland, Me., one of the most successful new meaderies in the U.S., is among the trailblazers.
"Mead has the quintessential terroir," says Alexander, 36, who began developing his mead in 2007 after becoming fascinated with its history as the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world. "You can get good honey anywhere, and it always has this sense of time and place."
That idea resonates especially well in Maine, which has one of the strongest locavore movements in the U.S. Spend a little time in Portland, and you get the sense that every new food product on the market better be made with native Maine ingredients or no one's buying.
Alexander's mead, called HoneyMaker, is dry and crisp, with delicate, dancing floral notes. The bees that make the honey that goes into it feed exclusively on goldenrod, a bushy yellow flower that Alexander says gives the mead "a meadow taste, and nice balance for a dry mead." The 50,000 hives are trucked every summer to huge goldenrod fields in Aroostook County at the top of the state after they first pollinate Maine's blueberry crop.
Though Alexander found a plentiful honey supply in Maine, he knew he would need help to get the recipe right. After some research, he came across the work of Garth Cambray, a young scientist in South Africa who had been developing ways to improve the ancient fermentation method.
Though mead has never really been a big beverage in the U.S., it's been important throughout Africa for millennia, and Europe and Asia for centuries. The traditional method is to use the yeast that grows on plants to ferment honey – the Ethiopians, for example, use the geichi bush to make their honey wine, tej. Through his experiments, Cambray eventually found that yeasts could more efficiently turn the sugar in mead into alcohol if they had some extra food – salts and other nutrients added to the honey water base mixture just before the yeast.
"The normal way takes a long time, and if the product goes wrong, you can get all kinds of horrible flavors," says Cambray, who is also 36.
Alexander invited Cambray to Maine to help him fine tune the recipe for HoneyMaker. Cambray brought with him ginger root with South African yeast, which became the mother for Alexander's yeast.
"The thing about wild yeasts is that they're very promiscuous, so the yeasts Ben is using have bred and become unique," says Cambray. And like the honey, "the yeast fingerprint is completely unique to the area, which is quite exciting."
Cambray is considered one of the world's leading experts on mead, and has his own meadery called Makana, which exports mead from South Africa around the world. He says there's been an explosion in interest in and development of meaderies, in Africa, the U.S., and beyond, since Maine Mead Works launched its product in 2008. The quality of mead is also increasing dramatically, he says.
This year, Alexander says he expects to sell 7,500 cases, up from 4,000 in 2011. His current product line includes the basic dry mead, but also meads made with Maine-grown strawberries, blueberries, hops, and lavender. He's selling it in six states, and D.C.
And slowly, Alexander's locavorism is running up against his drive to innovate. This fall, he's experimenting with new techniques — aging mead in those hard-to-come by bourbon barrels and French oak.
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