02
Sep
18

MEAD: AN ANCIENT BEVERAGE IS REVITALIZED

 

“Say MEAD, and people hear MEAT,” says Greg Heller-LaBelle, co-owner of Colony Meadery in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It’s the first step he and his partner, Michael Manning need to overcome when they seek to introduce an ancient beverage to a contemporary audience. “We have to get up-close and personal to market our mead, especially if consumers haven’t heard of it or tasted the honey-based alcoholic beverage. Mead recycles its popularity after long periods of dormancy and right now is its time to be experiencing an amazing renaissance. Modern technology coupled with inventive ingredients has significantly improved the ancient beverage.

Eons ago, mead occurred accidently when rainwater and wild yeast entered beehives, creating the perfect environment for honey to ferment and produce alcohol. Archaeological evidence indicates mead may have been a precursor to, or perhaps evolved at the same time as beer and wine, dating from as early as 7000 BC in northern China and slightly later in Egypt and Rome. Archeologists discovered a two thousand-year old crystallized honey that was still edible. Vikings had a taste for mead. In literary writings, Beowulf andChaucer’s Canterbury Tales mention mead several times. Chaucer wrote, ”‘He sent her sweetened wine and well-spiced ale and waffles piping hot out of the fire, and, she being town-bred, mead for her desire.” Mead was drink of preference during the Middle Ages when it was safer to drink  than water. Picture Robin Hood and his Merry Men at a trencher table drinking mead from large flacons.

Greg Heller-LaBelle and Michael Manning, co-owners of The Colony Meadery, welcomed me at their facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Their working space is part of a single-story industrial building. Several steel fermentation tanks at the meadery take center stage. Plastic conditioning tanks hold various meads until suitably aged and ready to go to the bottling line  sit across the floor. Each plastic tank is named to identify and keep track of batches of mead. The steel tanks are labeled from A to Z. Two are called Agnes and Bertha. The secondary tanks start at Z and go to A, one bearing the name Xavier. They have yet to figure out what to do when the alphabet meets in the middle.“We don’t measure output in bottles or cases, but rather in gallons. Our 2,000-gallon production goes into bottles and regular old beer kegs. In some meads, we’re looking for CO2 to brighten the flavors and add a fizzy mouth feel,” Manning says.

The partners are two affable, articulate guys with an obvious sense of camaraderie. They bonded as hobbyist beer makers at a beer festival and switched to mead after realizing the potential market for a beverage that delighted the palates of mankind for thousands of years. Heller-LaBelle combined his background in beverages, startups, and economic development with his love of craft beer, bourbon and mescal. He handles the company’s business. Manning’s hand steers mead’s production, adding inventive ingredients, modern tools and fermenting techniques to Colony’s artisanal production. “We get along because we have the same vision and do different jobs. We don’t step on each other’s toes,” says Manning.. His personal recipe had earned  Best of Show at a previous Valhalla mead competition. “Some companies produce a basic mead, but mead evolves over time. Some have more or less alcohol. Ours includes a number of complex styles using berries, herbs, fruit, and hops. Blueberries and other fruits are pressed and the juice, along with pulp and skins go into the tanks to add color and tannins to the mead. Some meads are ready to drink with no aging requirement. Light, delicate meads can last for two years in the bottle while heavier ones can last for over a decade.

Mead’s flavorschange with the seasons and with pollen from flowers brought to hives by bees. Honey is subject to terroir. Where bees source their pollen from affects the flavors of mead. Seasonal styles range from sweet to bone-dry with fruit and floral aromas. Light spring honey tastes of dandelions, clover, and tree fruit blossoms that make a delicate mead. Summer’s abundant flowers change mead’s character. Fall’s darker and more flavorful honey is the backbone of more assertive mead.

Colony gets its honey from two pollinators located in New Jersey. “We almost exclusively use an orange blossom honey from bees whose hives are trucked south to giant orchards in Georgia and Florida in early spring. We pay about $2.50 per gallon. The price varies, but not significantly, always staying below $3.00.”

“We like to produce many flavors and styles. Some are produced year-round while others are sold depending on the season. “Wolfie Dog” is a straight-forward hops and honey based mead. We favor the Pennsylvania Dutch style that likens the taste to cream soda. Another year-round mead made from honey and raspberries is called “Favorite Child” because we loved it from the first moment we tasted it.”

The number of companies producing mead has exploded in recent years. By 2009, 90 commercial meaderies were in production in the U.S. Today over 200 operate with more in the works. It’s not only seeing a resurgence in the U.S. English consumers testify to its current popularity. If you’re looking for an interesting expiration into another taste profile, check out mead. It’s definitely worth a try.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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