Craft beer may be all the rage right now, but it started with local homebrewers learning their skills and growing their hobbies into full-on business plans well before it hit the public consciousness. Similarly, Minnesota boasts a strong mead-making scene, and over the past 10 years, five Minnesota mead makers have won top awards at the Nation Homebrewers Conference. So could mead be the next big thing? What is mead, anyway?
Some call it honey wine, though the term is not endorsed by its makers. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from honey, yeast, water, and often fruits, spices, and herbs. It ranges in alcoholic content but often settles between 14-20%.
While mead is one of the most historic beverages, with evidence of its existence from Norway to Greece and China, there is no longstanding mead culture that matches that of beer or wine.
"I think we're maybe creating it now," notes mead-maker Steve Fletty, as the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) and Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) have crafted guidelines and strict definitions.
"In my opinion," says mead-maker Thomas Eibner, "the breadth of what you are able to do with meads is so much greater than wine." Alcoholic content, carbonation, ingredients, and flavor vary widely as grains, fruits, and honeys offer room for experimentation.
"Most people have the hardest time when they try to determine if it is a beer or a wine," mead-maker Matt Weide says, "I usually tell them that beer is made from grain, wine is made from fruit, and mead is made from the nectar of flowers made possible by bees."
To complicate it further, mead bears similarities to dessert wines, but mead with grain tends to be more like beer. It's a brew that spans profiles, making it hard to classify. The Minnesota brewers all include their choice of honey as a primary piece, but fruits range from cherries and raspberries to currants and rhubarb. Start-to-finish time can range widely, though the consensus among the five Minnesota mead-makers was a period of at least three months for most quality meads.
"A few years ago," mead-makers Curt and Kathy Stock reflect, "only homebrewers and Renaissance Fair people were familiar with mead. That is changing with a quickly expanding commercial industry. Mead as a beverage was basically saved by homebrewers because, until recently, there were not many commercial meaderies." Curious drinkers are recommended, almost universally by the five, to try White Winter Winery from Iron River, Wisconsin (and not available in Minnesota). Minnesota makes a local version courtesy of Winehaven. Weide is currently exploring the market if a business plan for his own meadery is feasible.
While Minnesota may be raking in awards on the homebrew side of the game, commercially the state has room to grow. Michigan and California lead the way in commercial meaderies, while the Pacific Northwest is also a popular region. The honey supplies of the Upper Midwest help the region distinguish itself in the industry even without a commercial presence.
Does mead sound like it might be your next beverage of choice? August 2 is Mead Day, and several homebrewing clubs around the metro have events planned. Meanwhile, mead-maker Steve Piatz is publishing a book, The Complete Guide to Making Mead, on July 15.
Minnesota's award winning mead makers:
- Matt Weide - 2014 AHA Mead Maker of the Year (key lime mead, 13% ABV)
- Thomas Eibner - 2012 Mead Maker of the Year (Strawberry Tupelo Mead, 14% ABV)
- Thomas Eibner - 2009 Mead Maker of the Year (Two Cherry Tupelo Mead, 14% ABV)
- Steve Piatz - 2008 AHA Mead Maker of the Year (Not Mary Anne--a sparkling sweet ginger mead, 14%+ ABV)
- Steve Fletty - 2007 AHA Mead Maker of the Year (sparkling orange blossom reisling, 12% ABV)
- Curt and Kathy Stock - 2005 AHA Mead Maker of the Year (Muscat Pyment, 15% ABV)
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