Meadmakers of the New School

In about a decade, mead has gone from off-the-radar for beer lovers to an attention-grabbing trend driven by bold flavors and rave reviews. So, what’s all the fuss about?

Joe Stange Sep 8, 2020 - 12 min read

Meadmakers of the New School Primary Image

Photo: Jamie Bogner

Anyone who’s checked the rankings of top breweries on Untappd or Ratebeer lately might have noticed something unusual: Many of top-ranked are not breweries at all. They’re meaderies. As of this writing, meadmakers are four of the five top-rated “breweries” on Untappd. Checking the current top U.S. “beers” over at Ratebeer, 14 of the top 50 are currently meads. (Interestingly, every one of those 14 is a melomel—that is, a fruited mead.)

So, what’s this all about?

First, let’s give due credit to the creative new wave of meadmakers—more about them below—who have found a foothold and have been able to grab some well-deserved attention amid the cacophony of 8,000-plus breweries in the age of mad variety. Meanwhile, the number of commercial meaderies has grown, too: from just 30 in 2003 to more than 500 today, according to the American Mead Makers Association.

Vicky Rowe, executive director of the association, says that number looks likely to grow in the next couple of years: The group has about 200 more members registered as “meaderies in planning.” (Another 600 members are home meadmakers.)

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Rowe has been watching the mead scene for a while and seen it blossom. She was enjoying mead at medieval fairs in the 1980s, and in 1996, she started what is likely to be the world’s oldest mead website: gotmead.com. She says the site is “the most complete collection of mead information anywhere on the Internet.” She has watched the scene grow from a small niche to what it is today: a growing trend attracting a growing number of enthusiasts—including many beer lovers.
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From Left : Justin D’Aloisio pours at the Misbeehavin’ taproom in Valparaiso, Indiana; Tony Qualls, founder of Manic Meadery; a boysenberry mead at Manic undergoing primary fermentation with the fruit, after punchdown.

“Oh, it’s a thrill,” Rowe says. “I’ve been buying, and looking at, and learning about, and making mead—and reporting on it—since 1996. At that point in time, there were about 30, 35 meaderies in the country and not very many people making it. But oddly enough, the bulk of the folks who are in the mead world now are also beer people.

“So, we’re kind of a crossover a little bit because we get a lot of beer folks,” she says. “And I think some of that comes from the fact that beer people, they’re adventurous. They’re willing to try new things and be open-minded about stuff that they haven’t checked out yet.”

It helps that some of the new meads—she specifically mentions Schramm’s Heart of Darkness as one that has been influential—are pushing the envelope. Meadmakers are getting ideas from each other as well as from the beer world.

“All the new people coming in, a lot of them are very innovative and come up with some great ideas,” Rowe says. “And the ‘old’ folks, if you will, who have been there, have come around—like Rabbit’s Foot Meadery in Northern California. They’ve been in operation more than 20 years. And you know, they also make amazing mead. So, we’re a pretty supportive bunch, as an industry. These people have a lot of knowledge and idea-sharing going on within the commercial mead community and the home one, too. So, we’re tight because we’re not that big yet. I don’t know whether that will change when there are 5,000 meaderies, if we ever get to that point.

“I don’t know, I don’t really feel like the new guys are Johnny-come-latelies, per se. I’m happy that they’re there. They’re growing things for us.”

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Another force behind the new-mead trend has been social media. On a platform such as Untappd, raters tend to reward bold flavor (if not drinkability), and many of these meads are strong, intense drinks ideal for desserts, nightcaps, or special occasions. Often colorful and visually striking, they have also played well on other platforms. “Instagram is a hotbed of meadmakers,” Rowe says. “There’s a ton of mead activity there.”

Another element of the trend is easily overlooked: In many cases, meadmakers can ship their bottles directly to your doorstep. Most states have laws that make it easier for wineries (and thus meaderies) to ship their products straight to consumers. Amid the patchwork of state laws and an entrenched three-tier distribution system, breweries often do not have that option.

Rowe names one company in particular that has made e-commerce easier for small meaderies: VinoShipper. The platform makes it relatively simple for producers to set up an online shop and connect with customers across the country. “Given the fact that most meaderies are fairly small, it’s a huge bonus for them—especially right now,” Rowe says, referring to the closure of tasting rooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “So, this is a big opportunity for them.”

It also puts some of these coveted meads within reach—even when your local liquor store hasn’t (yet) heard of the stuff.

Some Rising Stars

Here is a rundown of a few of the producers among this new cast of characters, as well as a brief look at what they’re making that has drinkers excited. Note that many of these meaderies have their own tasting rooms, rare-bottle clubs, and online shops that can ship meads to most states. Also note that the meads listed below are virtually all somewhere between 12 to 18 percent ABV. No session drinks, these.

Schramm’s

Launched in 2013 in Ferndale, Michigan, Schramm’s has grabbed special attention with its rich melomels such as Heart of Darkness, packed with fruit grown on their own farm: raspberries, black currants, and Schaerbeek cherries. The Statement is a more intensely cherried melomel, while Black Agnes balances a sweet mead with loads of tart black currant. Nutmeg strikes a different sort of balance, as a metheglin—spiced mead—whose eponymous ingredient has a long track record of compatibility with honey and sweetness. For more about this influential and envelope-pushing meadery, see “Meadmaking for Brewers” (page 51).

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Superstition

In Prescott, Arizona, Jen and Jeff Herbert have a clear and stated mission: “to reintroduce the world’s oldest fermented beverage to mankind.” Founded in 2012, Superstition has grown since then to become the state’s largest “winery.” The drink that gets folks all atwitter is Berry White, made with raspberries and white chocolate. There are variations on that theme, such as Blackberry, Blueberry, or Strawberry White, or the Grand Cru, a blend of all four versions. Another of interest to beer enthusiasts is Samba, made in collaboration with Marble Brewing of Albuquerque, New Mexico. At 12 percent ABV, it gets a bright burst of Samba hops for a pineapple-like aroma and flavor (see “The Beyonders,” page 59, where you’ll find a profile of Superstition and a recipe for Samba).

Pips

Some of the most sought-after bottles in the trend come from this small producer, founded in 2016 in Beach Park, Illinois, north of Chicago. According to their own description, while most often making dessert drinks, they “are willing to push the boundaries at times and stretch past balance to bring out intense flavors and unique combinations in [their] products.” Demand greatly outstrips production (and as such, they declined to be interviewed, out of concern that the attention would make it even harder to serve their local customers). Attention grabbers have included Blue Suede Shews, made with orange-blossom honey, wild blueberries, and cashews, and Banana Pancake, made with bananas and “natural flavors” that evoke pancakes—maple syrup and all.

Boneflower

In production since 2018, Boneflower’s story would be familiar to many craft brewers: Two hobbyists start making mead because they can’t get the kind of thing they want to drink. They’re located in St. John, Indiana, a far suburb of Chicago. A darling of the fans is Slow Heavy Jam, a pyment made from wildflower honey and lots of Concord grape. Other fan favorites include Tripleberry, a melomel made with blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries, and the seasonal Holiday, made with apples, cherries, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Garagiste

Based in Tampa, Florida, since 2016, Garagiste has put out a colorful range of products. Attention-getters include several variations on peanut-butter-and-jelly flavors, variously named Goober or some variation thereof (e.g., Reboog). The most recent is Goobvee One, made with apple, grape, blueberry, strawberry, and other flavors. Another melomel that lights up eyes and palates is Cilice, made with red currants, raspberries, and cherries, then aged on Four Roses bourbon staves. Or for a wake-up, consider Blue Mountain, which gets “an absurd amount” of Jamaican coffee and has a bourbon barrel–aged variation.

Manic

Not far from Boneflower, Manic is based in Crown Point, Indiana, another Chicagoland suburb. Founded in 2017, its notables include rich Collusion (16 percent ABV), brewed with black currants, black raspberries, marionberries, vanilla, and maple syrup. Another is the Nordic Quad (17.5 percent ABV), a Viking-inspired metheglin spiced with juniper, hibiscus, coriander, and rose hips.

Misbeehavin’

More from that new-mead hotbed of northwest Indiana, this one in production since 2016 in Valparaiso. Their wide range—they say they release about 48 different meads per year—includes a jammy variety of melomels, many aged on oak. Local favorites include a series of PB&J-flavored meads called With a Baseball Bat, or sweet, juicy Same Old Jam, getting various fruits plus flavors such as vanilla, maple, or white chocolate.

Types of Mead

Mead has its own sort of style vocabulary, and there is some overlap. Here’s a brief explanation of some of the most common types, though there are many variations based on various mead-making traditions around the world.

Mead: A fermented drink made of honey and water, coming in a wide range of alcoholic strengths. Honey must be at least 51 percent of the fermentable sugars.
Melomel: A fruited mead, and by far the most popular type in the new wave of craft meads.
Pyment: A type of melomel made with grapes.
Metheglin: A mead flavored with herbs and/or spices.
Braggot: A beer-mead hybrid that may include malt and/or hops.
Cyser: A cider-mead hybrid that includes fermented apple juice.
Hydromel: A word often used for lower-alcohol mead (i.e., “water-honey”)

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