My mom doesn’t like beer, she doesn’t much drink wine anymore either. She is more of a spirits kind of lady. But last year, when I brought home a golden bottle of small-batch mead, she lost her mind–she wouldn’t share. It was her new favorite thing: she would sip it, analyze it, talk about it, sip it again, stare at it, admire it, and suddenly the bottle was gone. I finally found a craft bottle I could bring home and impress my family with, beer- and wine-drinkers alike…even my mom. And who knew it would come from a crazy throwback to ancient times, like mead?
I’m here to tell you, mead is on the rise in a way few anticipated. And I’m so happy it is! It’s a great platform for some larger social issues, in addition to being gorgeous and delicious.
Mead is made primarily from honey. Water is also a key component, as well as potential spices, hops, etc. but it cannot be made without honey, which means, bees are the centerpiece of this classic libation.
Bees in Crisis
I’ll get back to mead in a moment. I bring up bees because, if you follow food trends and publications even a little bit, you know our bees are vanishing in biblical numbers. It’s a crisis that isn’t unique to the US, or to a particular region. Something is causing bees to abandon their hives and never to be seen again. This is now known as the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder (or CCD).
Last year we highlighted exactly what CCD means for our food system with the side-by-side photos above. So I would encourage each person out there who enjoys eating fruits and/or vegetables to do a little research and read a few articles about the terrifying plight of the honeybee, because it holds the future of said fruits and vegetables in its crosshairs. What you might find is that evidence points to our treatment of the honeybee to support mass-produced monoculture farming as leading to the collapse of this imperative creature.*
Larger, commercial-scale beekeeping practices often include:
- Shipping hives across the country to pollinate orchards/crops.
- Feeding the hives a kind of sugar-water during transit (since they can’t reach authentic pollen).
- Artificially inseminating queen bees.
- “Culling” existing queens and transplanting them to new hives.
These are normal practices in the honey/pollinator industry that have been active for generations of beekeepers. Bees are 100% necessary to pollinate our crops around the world, and transporting healthy hives to where they are needed most is nothing new, nor has it historically been a problem…until recently. What’s changed? Our approach to agriculture and the pests that seek to destroy crops. We now send hives to pollinate crops that have been sprayed or systemically developed with high pesticide content. Slowly but surely, some theorize that the bees’ minds deteriorate due to ingesting and bringing all that pesticide back to the hive.
Research continues on CCD. Beekeepers around the world are eager to keep their hives alive and happy and healthy. But one thing seems to stand out amidst all the data: smaller beekeeping enterprises that utilize a more holistic model by keeping their hives local and avoid crops with known pesticide use when sending out their pollinators have a significantly reduced number of CCD cases. When holistic beehives stay home, they stay happy and make honey.
Mead Saves Bees
Circling back, I repeat: Mead is made from honey. The bonus of enjoying a delicious glass of mead is that many of the producers out there, whether already established or up and coming, are devoted to sustainably sourced honey. Their love of the honeybee and its byproduct are a major part of what inspires them to make mead. It’s an industry that provides a means of support for holistic beekeepers to grow and maintain their hives and nurture their bees. And it’s on the rise! Turns out, the people missed mead!
The growth that mead is seeing is actually becoming a factor in the honeybee industry. When given a way to financially support a small beekeeping enterprise with mead demands, doors open for more and more beekeepers to sustainably create and maintain hives that won’t be subjected to the industry-wide practices involving excessive travel or exposure to potentially lethal chemicals. There is now an alternative that feels right.
But if you aren’t sold on the socio-economic reasons to “give meads a chance,” then I say it’s time to revisit the new age of meads. They range from sweet to semi-sweet to off-dry, still to sparkling. They aren’t always the syrupy “nectar” that we might think of when we hear “honeywine.” Sure, plenty of them are sweet; I would say that if you enjoy specific dessert wines or moscato, sweet meads wouldn’t be far off base for you. But those of us looking to dabble, who may be looking for that “gateway” mead without a toothache, the options are out there and indeed, they continue to grow.
– San Francisco Mead Co: California Gold (my mom’s favorite)
– Moonlight Meadery: Wild (dry mead) or Fling (semi-sweet)
– Rabbit’s Foot Meadery: Sweet Mead
According to the relatively-new American Mead Maker’s Association, there are 150+ meaderies in the country, spread out coast to coast and everywhere in between. You probably have one in your area. The number of cases of mead sold more than doubled between 2012 and 2013. Mead is not a passing fad, it’s ancient. It’s been depicted in art and scripts dating back thousands of years. It’s here to stay, it just got eclipsed for a few generations. It’s no longer confined to Ren Fairs or TV shows about Vikings. With more and more consumers hunting for artisanal drinks made with locally sourced ingredients, mead is right in line and ready for its moment. Mixologists are using them in cutting edge cocktails and restaurants are adding them to their drink menus to beautifully compliment their cuisine.
Check out the meaderies in your area; take the time to learn about their honey source and sustainability of their beekeeping. Stay educated and stay drinking!
*I recognize there are many theories as to why the bees are disappearing, and there may not be one exclusive reason. This is simply where I’ve landed after doing my own research.