It may be the world’s oldest drink, but mead is the newest artisan alcohol trend – thanks in part to the popularity of craft beer, and a certain murder-happy TV show.
The delicious fermented honey drink dates back almost as far as human civilization, with evidence of mead production as early as 7,000 B.C. in Asia. But mead-making declined in the Middle Ages when it was discovered that rotten grapes were a cheaper way to get wasted, relegating it to the dustbin of history, a largely forgotten drink from another time.
For a while, at least.
Like a White Walker from beyond the Wall, mead is back from the dead and popping up everywhere, largely due to it being the bevvie of choice for George R.R. Martin’s (notoriously short-lived) characters on HBO’s Game of Thrones.
According to the American Mead Makers Association’s 2014 annual industry report, mead sales jumped 130 per cent the year following the debut of Game of Thrones, making mead the fastest growing segment of the entire U.S. alcohol market.
“Yeah, that’s a big part of it,” admits Dana LeComte, co-owner of Tugwell Creek Meadery, of the drink’s increased popularity. Tugwell Creek produces more than 10,000 litres of mead annually, and was Western Canada’s first meadery when it opened in Sooke, B.C., in 2003.
“It’s a big part of nerd culture,” agrees Jeff Gillham, co-owner of Vancouver’s Humblebee Meadery. “And nerd culture is hip and cool now.”
But were it not for the popularity of craft beer, mead might never have been given a second look by consumers, argues Gillham.
The “craft beer revolution” has helped drinkers broaden their horizons, and for many, mead is seen as the “next big thing.”
“Craft beer really opened that door, and opened people’s minds about other craft beverages,” says Gillham.
There’s a lot of appeal for the craft crowd. Mead is local, it’s artisan-produced, and it’s even gluten-free.
It’s an ecologically friendly product, too. Mead products support beekeeping efforts, and that helps keep those plucky pollinators in action.
Since mead is essentially any alcoholic drink made from fermented honey, it can come in many different forms, notes LeComte, including the traditional wine style, or the cider-like “hydromel.”
With flavours like “Saffron Orange” and “Green Tea and Kaffir Lime”, Humblebee’s canned offerings are carbonated and are anything but traditional, but that’s kind of the point.
“We’re reintroducing a very old drink for a modern
palate,” says Gillham.
Unfortunately, that’s created some difficulty for the provincial government, whose job it is to tax mead production and sales. When LeComte opened up Tugwell Creek Meadery in 2003, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch had to create a whole new licence, just for mead.
Humblebee Meadery, meanwhile, has been stuck in limbo, waiting for BCLDB approval since September.
“We’re not a beer, we’re not cider, and we’re not wine, so they don’t know what to do with us,” says Pierre Vacheresse, the other half of Team Humblebee. “We’re totally different, but we’re OK with that.”