Illustration by Cambria Griffith
of wounds, and the bestower of immortality.” —George Robert Gayre, Scottish anthropologist
Indeed, honey has long been held in high regard, and one can only imagine that mead’s intoxicating properties would make honey that much more special to our early ancestors. The mind-altering effects were thought of as a kind of transformation, a journey into another world that opened the brain to new thoughts and experiences. “A drink I took of the magic mead [...] then I began to know and to be wise, to grow and to weave poems.” --Odin, from the Norse Saga Runahal, circa 1200 CE Mead is believed by many to be the first alcoholic drink known to man, likely a happy accident caused by mixing water and honey in an animal-skin canteen while out on a hunt. Estimates of its discovery range from 9,000 years ago to as far back as 20,000 years ago. Ancient Greeks and Romans had a well-documented affinity for mead, as did the Vikings, the Egyptians and many other cultures across Europe, the East Indies and Africa.
Fast-forwarding to the present, mead is not nearly as prevalent as it once was, taking a back seat to the much more common potent potables of today: beer, wine, cider, sake and the like. But it holds a world of complexity just waiting to be explored. The meadmaker—also known as a mazer—has at their fingertips a veritable blank canvas on which to build. “Mead presents this huge spectrum of flavor possibilities,” continues Golbeck. “The honey varietal is arguably the most important choice in determining the profile of the mead, but selecting a yeast strain, deciding how sweet you’d like it to be, whether or not it’s sparkling, and of course if you’d like to add in adjuncts such as fruit or spices, how long it’s aged, and whether or not that’s on oak...the combinations really are unlimited.”
In regards to the honey varietal, Susan Ruud and Gordon Strong—recognized as Grand Master level judges by the Beer Judge Certification Program—conducted “The Great Honey Experiment,” which had a group of people gauge six different meads, identical in every respect except for the type of honey used. Their meads, presented and evaluated at the 2010 National Homebrewers Conference, had some commonalities, but also pointed out some very interesting differences.
Golden Coast is currently focusing on making one mead, and making it well. Called Mirth in a Bottle, it’s obvious in talking with Golbeck that he has an insatiable passion for his craft. “For me, I want to show the best expression of the honey varietal,” he waxes. “That’s what I’m after.” “We start with a wonderfully aromatic orange blossom honey, and make the mead semisweet and sparkling, which really makes the citrus flavor pop, and that surprises a lot of people. That character isn’t nearly as noticeable in the base honey, but it comes through beautifully in the finished mead. We use a red-wine yeast for the fermentation, which adds these complex floral notes that I just love. But ultimately, it’s all to highlight the nuances naturally present in the honey.”
Are you reading this all in disbelief, remembering a cloying, sickeningly sweet mead that you tried at ye olde Renaissance Faire? Well, I implore you to give it another shot. There’s a world of great meads out there waiting to be enjoyed. Some are sweet or semisweet while others can be quite dry, with different carbonation levels ranging from still to sparkling, or somewhere in between, called semi-sparkling or pétillant. [You’ll thank me when that’s a question on Jeopardy! some day.] It might take a bit of searching, but there’s been a growing buzz that’s getting mead onto more and more shelves. And while I can drone on and on for days, reading about them is nowhere near as great as tasting them.
Golden Coast Mead is available for purchase in several locations throughout San Diego County, but can be shipped nationwide through http://www.goldencoastmead.com. Golbeck also offered a list of some of his favorite meads and meaderies: B. Nektar Meadery (MI), WineHaven Stinger Honeywine (MN), Mountain Meadows Mead (CA), Moonlight Meadery (NH) and Redstone Meadery (CO). And if you’re interested in making your own at home, Golbeck recommends picking up The Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm.
Talking the Talk
Honey varietal Sampling of aroma & flavor characteristics