Seeking a taste
of the past? Get thee to a meadery
by Evan Peter Ehrlich,
Special to the Chronicle.
Thursday, February 19, 2004
Honey, created from flowers
by bees, is a wonder unto itself. Add a little water and yeast,
and you have mead.
Mead is enjoying a renaissance.
It is suitable for almost any occasion and is becoming increasingly
available. For many, it offers something new to please the palate.
Mead is made from honey,
diluted with water and fermented by yeast and has an alcohol content
similar to wine. Still or sparkling, dry and light or sweet and
full-bodied, mead is usually clear and light-golden in color. "Traditional
mead is a treasure capturing the essence of honey and the nectar
of blossoms," says Charlie Papazian, president and founder of the
Association of Brewers.
Dry mead is lively and
crisp up front with a pleasing acidity. Hints of apricot, pear and
other soft fruits characterize the mid-palate and are followed by
soft honey tones that override a long finish, which can include
caramel and nuts, especially in older meads.
With semisweet and sweet
meads, the front palate has a noticeable fruitiness (sweetness)
with the honey becoming apparent early and carrying through to the
finish as it commingles with fruits and sometimes raisins.
Mead can exhibit as much
flavor and aromatic complexity as wine, but generally absent are
those earthy tones and tannins. Bottle-conditioned meads, such as
the one Arcata's Heidrun Meadery offers, will also express some
yeast flavors with age.
There are many variations
of mead incorporating various fruits and spices. Some mead makers
refer to mead made with fruit as honey wine. However, in contemporary
usage, "honey wine" and "mead" are generally interchangeable.
Mead's first appearance
in history is a mystery, but most agree it's the oldest fermented
beverage. Plato described mead before the time of Christ. A 12,000-year-old
cave painting in Belgium depicts honey gathering and an amorous
liaison between a man and a woman -- a reference to mead's professed
aphrodisiacal qualities. Cave paintings in South Africa indicate
that the drinking of this beverage was part of an ancient culture
there at least 25,000 years ago.
Mead making arose independently
in a wide range of ancient cultures. Over time, mead's popularity
lost ground to the advent of beer making, and a greater availability
of wine, especially through expanded trade to northern climates
that were inhospitable to viticulture.
Today, there are at least
five commercial mead makers in California and several dozen in the
United States, with others in countries around the world. Compared
to winemakers, mead makers are few and far between. But the beverage
is available if you are willing to look.
The oldest commercial mead
producer in California is Bargetto Winery. In addition to its wines
from the Santa Cruz Mountains, Bargetto makes Chaucer's Mead, a
blend of sage, alfalfa and orange blossom honeys. Bargetto includes
a spice packet with every bottle to encourage people to try this
mead mulled, meaning warmed with spices. According to Mel Nunez,
a former Bargetto tasting room employee who now heads the beverage
department at Cost Plus in Santa Cruz, "Heated Chaucer's Mead with
spices sold well at the tasting room in Monterey, especially when
the cool summer weather hit."
In Sunnyvale, Rabbit's
Foot Meadery has produced excellent mead for more than 14 years.
The proprietor, Michael Faul, makes each of his meads from a single
variety of honey.
Rabbit's Foot currently
offers four meads. Its sweet mead is made with jasmine honey and
the dry mead is made with raspberry honey, or honey from raspberry
blossoms. Rabbit's Foot also makes Private Reserve Pear Mead, which
is made from honey, pears and spices. Each of these is 12 percent
to 13 percent alcohol by volume.
The Rabbit's Foot Grand
Reserve Mead of Poetry is distinctive because of its method of aging
and its strength. It weighs in at 17 percent alcohol by volume and
is the result of years of work. It is aged in oak barrels using
the Solera system, the method used to produce fine sherry. This
involves bottling from the oldest of a multitiered collection of
barrels and blending in younger mead to top off the barrels.
"It allows one to achieve
a sameness in product year after year," says Faul.
This aperitif stands apart
from other meads because of its strength, full body and round, nutty
flavor. Production is only 100 cases; advance ordering may be the
only way to get some.
Another avant-garde mead
producer is Gordon Hull of Heidrun Meadery. Named after the mythological
goat that provided mead for Odin and other battle- glorious Norsemen
in Valhalla, Heidrun is California's only maker of sparkling meads.
Chuck Hayward, the wine buyer at The Jug Shop in San Francisco,
refers to mead as an eclectic product of which not many people are
aware. Still, "When Gordon pours a tasting, it sells well," says
Heidrun offers five varieties
in each of two styles. It produces bottle- fermented meads, which
are described as a lightly effervescent, rustic tradition. Heidrun
also makes meads in the methode champenoise style, similar to that
of fine sparkling wine and Champagne. The mead undergoes a second
fermentation in the bottle, the bottle is turned on a regular basis
so that the yeast sediment settles into its neck, and then the yeast
is expelled, or disgorged, before the bottle is capped.
Mountain Meadows Meadery,
a family-owned micro-winery in Westwood (Lassen County), produces
several traditional meads and a wide variety of fruit and spiced
meads including persimmon, cranberry, apricot and agave.
Enat Winery in Oakland
makes a beverage called Tej -- a traditional Ethiopian drink made
from honey and gesho, which Enat describes as a unique form of hops.
A glass of mead reflects
on the history and mythology that surrounds this beverage. When
you enjoy mead you are engaging in an activity that has spanned
many cultures since before written history.
MORE ABOUT MEAD
Local retail prices for meads
range between $8 and $16 for a 750 ml bottle. Rabbit's Foot Grand
Reserve Mead of Poetry sells for $35 for a 350 ml bottle.
With the exception of Rabbit's
Foot Grand Reserve, all the meads described come in 750 ml bottles
with cork closures. The sparkling meads from Heidrun Meadery are
packaged in 750 ml Champagne-style bottles with cork and wire closures.
Sparkling meads should
be served as you would Champagne or sparkling wine, chilled to 40°F
and served in a flute. Temperatures for serving other meads is a
matter of taste; as a general rule, dry meads are served chilled
and sweet meads can be chilled or served at room temperature.
SELECTED BAY AREA RETAILERS
Beverages & More, various
Cost Plus, various locations
Whole Foods, various locations
Rainbow Grocery, 1745 Folsom
St., San Francisco; (415) 863-0620
The Jug Shop, 1567 Pacific
Ave., San Francisco; (415) 885-2922
Berkeley Bowl Marketplace,
2020 Oregon St., Berkeley; (510) 843-6929
Ethiopian-style mead is also
poured at Sawa Eritrean Restaurant #2 ($20/bottle and $5/glass),
1655 Divisadero St., San Francisco; (415) 441-4182