When most people think of mead—if they’ve even heard of it—they imagine Tyrion Lannister of King’s Landing or Hogwarts’ Rubeus Hagrid slugging down the cloying amber grog. But few know that mead predates wine as humanity’s oldest tipple, with the earliest evidence dating back to 7000 B.C. in China. In medieval times, you could find the honey wine in war and wedding ceremonies alike. It was thought to promote strength in battle and fertility in the bedroom.
While the history of mead is rich, a new wave of Washington meads are less about dusty memories and more about quaffability and compatibility with food. The thing that hasn’t changed is the way mead is made. It’s still fermented honey and water, but modern mead makers are crafting a range of styles, from bone dry to sweet, flavored with herbs and fruit or even carbonated.
Similar to the way that terroir influences a wine, the aromas and flavors of mead are influenced by what flowers the bees pollinate. While meads vary greatly, the best examples are crisp, low in alcohol (less than 8 percent) and food-friendly, like something you’d chill and serve with roasted chicken or smoked salmon.
Mead is also starting to pop up in more bottle shops, bars and restaurants, from Ballard Loft (5105 Ballard Ave. NW; 206.420.2737; ballardloft.com) to Capitol Cider (818 E Pike St.; 206.397.3564; capitolcider.com). Jonathan Chambers, beer and cider manager at Capitol Cider, likens contemporary meads to aromatic white wines, and he attributes the elixir’s sudden rise to curious palates.
“There was a misconception that the only people who drink it play ‘Dungeons & Dragons,’” says Chambers, who increased his mead selection following the popularity of this year’s March Meadness, a month devoted to mead tastings and pairings at Capitol Cider. “I think beer and wine drinkers are always looking for something new or different.”
That explains the national surge, too. In the past five years, the number of meaderies in the United States has nearly tripled, according to the American Mead Makers Association. Washington, with 16 meaderies, ranks fourth, behind Michigan, Colorado and California.
For eastern Washington mead pioneer Vince Carlson of Adytum Cellars, it was the plight of the honeybee that drew him to mead. Carlson has been raising bees since he was 15.
“It’s about capturing the concentrated essence of the honey varietal,” says Carlson, who is now 50 and makes his mead on a 12-acre pear orchard in Zillah. “I want to taste the flowers.” Fireweed honey produces a dry, clean mead with mineral notes, he explains, while mead made from orange blossom honey yields a very fragrant nose and citrus notes.
Bastyr University grads Jeremy and Michelle Kyncl craft mead in the same spirit of sustainability. The couple owns Hierophant, a 3-year-old meadery in the historic Green Bluff farming loop 15 minutes north of Spokane. (The 12-square-mile loop is also home to U-pick orchards, two breweries, a winery and a cidery.)
On a typical weekend, Hierophant’s tasting room is packed with hipsters sampling beguiling honey wines, such as fir retsina mead, made with Douglas fir resin. Trained herbalists, the Kyncls source wildflower honey from remote areas in eastern Washington and northern Idaho. They select bitter or complex plants and ingredients—everything from chamomile to cardamom—that complement honey’s sweet, smooth profile. They steer clear of supersweet meads.
“When you ferment the sugar out, you’re left with that homeopathic bouquet of what the bees were pollinating that season,” Jeremy says. “It becomes this very alchemical thing, and you experience the honey on another level.”
As the Kyncls point out, mead is part of a growing trend in reviving Old World fermentation processes.
“It’s our goal to bring this ancient beverage into the 21st century as something fresh, hip and adventurous,” Michelle Kyncl says.
Jessica’s Top Five Washington Meads
Sky River Dry Mead ($14.50)
Sisters Glenda Downs and Denice Ingalls make nine meads (widely available at PCC, QFC and Whole Foods stores) at their Woodinville meadery. This medium-bodied, golden-hued example features stone fruits and a delicate honeyed nose. They call it dry, but it tastes off-dry to me. Pairs with: Thai curry. Woodinville, 14270 Woodinville-Redmond Road NE; 425.242.3815; skyriverbrewing.com
BeeHaven Sparkling Ginger Mead ($6/500 milliliters)
Joe Zajac of Tukwila uses clover honey to make this bubbly mead, which includes fresh ginger and ground coriander. It clocks in at a low 5.5 percent alcohol with brisk acidity and a spicy finish. Pairs with: Poached pears and pork tenderloin. Facebook, “BeeHaven Beverage LLC”
Adytum Cellars Vintis Grape Mead ($32)
Zillah’s Vince Carlson blended the pulp and skins of Roussanne runoff with honey must to make this sweeter style of mead, which is unctuous in body and reminiscent of grape candy. The mead’s floral source is snowberry blossom, which grows along the Columbia Gorge. Carlson recommends it as an after-dinner drink with fruit. Pairs with: Fresh melon, kiwi and green grapes. Zillah, 390 Valley View Road; 425.482.9030; adytumcellars.com
Hierophant Rose Cardamom Mead ($20)
Husband-and-wife herbalists Jeremy and Michelle Kyncl add dried rose petals, cardamom and vanilla to their sustainably sourced honey wine made in Mead (believe it), 15 minutes north of Spokane. It has a heady, floral aroma, but crisp, off-dry flavor and light finish. Think of off-dry Gewürztraminer. Pairs with: Berries and rose-scented whipped cream. 16602 N Day Mount Spokane Road; 509.294.0134; hierophantmeadery.com
Dragon’s Lair Plum Crazy Mead
(not available until December)
American Mead Makers Association president Chris Webber crafts this tart, lip-smacking, slightly effervescent mead using wildflower honey. Possibly the driest of the bunch, it reminded me of a bracing, superfruity sparkling rosé. His Lakewood meadery (called “Outlanders Keep,” formerly “Dragon’s Lair Country Wines and Mead”) is open for tastings by appointment only. Meads will be available online by the holiday season. Pairs with: Sushi. 6714 Lake Grove St. SW; 253.537.1050; outlanderskeep.com
NOTE: Every meadery, with the exception of BeeHaven, is open for tastings. At press time, BeeHaven’s meads were available at several bars and bottle shops, including Beer Junction (West Seattle, 4511 California Ave. SW; 206.938.2337; thebeerjunction.com) and Full Throttle Bottles (Georgetown, 5909 Airport Way S; 206.763.2079; fullthrottlebottles.com). Prices may vary.