In his recent three-star review of Agern—the Nordic-inspired restaurant in Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, from Noma founder Claus Meyer—New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells called out mead as an oddball beverage.
“Strange things are happening in mead,” Wells wrote about the wine list, which includes an entire section of mead, “a beverage that is pretty strange to begin with.”
It’s true: For most Americans, mead is an unfamiliar beverage that’s commonly perceived as sweet and alcoholic and is often equated with Beowulf and Renaissance Faire enthusiasts. But it’s also part of an historic winemaking tradition, one that has been utilized the world over for millennia as a way of making a fermented beverage.
According to the American Mead Makers Association, mead is one of the fastest-growing alcoholic beverages in the country by sheer number of new producers. In 2003, the U.S. had roughly 30 producers. Today, there are more than 300, with meaderies opening in parts of the country as far flung as Portland, Me.; Richmond, Va.; Southern California; and even Alaska.
However, commercially available meads are still relatively rare, and the beverage hasn’t been fully embraced en masse. There’s no widely sold “six-pack” mead, for instance, the way that there is for beer and even cider. The new breed of meads are experimental and funky, infused with fruits and herbs that add tannins and bitterness to balance the honey’s sweetness.
“There’s pressure on the industry to think about mead the same way we think about grape wine,” said Raphael Lyon, a mazer, or meadmaker, based in New York. “They want you to have two or three different meads based on two or three different kinds of honey—‘varietal’ meads,” he says.
But to Lyon, who makes mead under the Enlightenment Wines moniker, honey may be the least important factor.
“People make the mistake of thinking about mead as a wine that’s made from honey and water,” he said. “If you start in the other direction, you’ll see that mead is a way of taking fruits and herbs and adding honey to them and fermenting it all together. The idea of just honey-plus-water doesn’t have any kind of historic authenticity.”
Lyon started Enlightenment Wines in 2009 out of a barn in the Hudson Valley. This summer, he expanded to a small production facility in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and opened an on-site tasting room and cocktail bar called Honey’s. There, mixologist Arley Marks serves Lyon’s bone-dry honey wines, along with several cocktails that feature mead, such as Night Eyes, made with sparkling mead, apples, and cranberries.
A hyper-educated, creative guy with art degrees from both Brown and Columbia, Lyon began making mead in the 1990s as a way of distancing himself from what he calls “the networks of commerce that fuel modern food systems.”
(If that sounds a little out of the mainstream for a commercial beverage producer, it is; mead seems to attract freethinkers and outsiders, as bees are drawn to, uh, honey.)
“I was really interested in, ‘What are the basics of survival?’” he explained. “Not from an apocalyptic sense but just to know what a self-sufficient farm looked like, what heirloom crops were.”
He takes a philosophical approach to making honey wine and sees himself as part of an historical winemaking tradition. He insists on using unprocessed honey, which is richer in nutrients, to make the yeast happy.
“The role of the mazer is about seeing the natural world,” he said, “finding the elements of it that you want to preserve, and using honey as the sugar basis for the fermentation process.” Read more