PITTSBORO, N.C. — Mead, that drink of viking saga and medieval verse, is making a comeback. But this ain't your ancestors' honey wine.
"It's not just for the Renaissance fair anymore," says Becky Starr, co-owner of Starrlight Mead, which recently opened in an old woven label mill in this little North Carolina town.
In fact, this most ancient of alcoholic libations hasn't been this hot since Beowulf slew Grendel's dam and Geoffrey Chaucer fell in with the Canterbury pilgrims at the Tabard.
In the past decade, the number of "meaderies" in the United States has tripled to around 150, says Vicky Rowe, owner of Gotmead.com, which describes itself as "the Internet's premier resource for everything to do with mead."
"I literally get new notifications of meaderies at least every couple of weeks," says Rowe, who runs the website from her home in the woods north of Raleigh. "So they're just popping up all over. And a lot of those are wineries that have decided to add mead to their mainstream product lines, which is just incredible."
Traditional mead is made with three ingredients – honey, water and yeast. The biggest hurdle has been overcoming that centuries-old misconception that something made from honey HAS to be sweet.
But, as Rowe is quick to point out, grapes can be pretty sweet, too.
"And just like wine, mead can be as dry as a bone or it can be so sweet it makes your fillings hurt," she says. "And it depends on how it's made."
The honey, water and yeast are just the base. There are fruit-flavored meads, called melomels. There are methyglyns made with herbs and spices. And then there are what Rowe calls "weirdomels, which is mead made with lots of other things."
The wine rack in Rowe's basement holds bottles from mead makers in nearly every state – from a New Jersey man who makes authentic Tej with Ethiopian gesho, a hops-like bittering agent, to a guy in Anchorage, Alaska, who flavors his meads with everything from locally picked currants to coriander, Indonesian Koryntje cinnamon and hot peppers.
There are even veggie meads.
"I had a beet mead that was screaming pink, like, fluorescent pink, and actually was quite tasty," says Rowe. "I've had mead made with nuts, with exotic honeys you've never heard of. You know, pretty much anything you can throw into a liquid and ferment."
Because it requires no human intervention, many believe mead is the world's oldest alcoholic beverage. Traces of a mead-like substance were found in a 9,000-year-old Chinese burial chamber.
Until about 1500, mead was THE alcoholic beverage of choice, Rowe says.
"Because cultivated grapes were only for the rich, and at that point in time the poor folks, they couldn't get it," says Rowe, who earned the nickname "Mead Wench" after years of wandering Renaissance fairs laden with wineskins full of her own homemade meads. "They had thin beer that they could make at home or they had mead, because honey was readily available to anybody."
In "Beowulf," the Old English epic heroic poem, the great mead-hall Heorot is the scene of most of the action. It is where King Hrothgar "with fair courtesy quaffed many a bowl of mead," and where the "fell monster" Grendel slaughtered 30 thanes passed out "after the drinking of the mead."
Chaucer's 14th-century "Canterbury Tales" contain several references to mead or "methe." But with the opening of the New World and its sugar plantations, Rowe says, "mead began a slow decline ... and by the 1700s was almost nonexistent."
That began to change in the 1960s, when the hippie culture rediscovered the joys of mead. Then, with the spread of Renaissance fairs and re-enactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the growth of the craft beer industry, this musty old drink was suddenly seen as a "new and interesting and potentially wonderful thing," says Rowe.
"It's just like skirt lengths, you know? They're long, they're short, they're long, they're short. It's that kind of thing."
Picking up where Chaucer left off, J.K. Rowling has introduced a whole new generation of readers to the honey wine. Devotees will no doubt recall how Ron Weasley was nearly done in by a poisoned bottle of Madame Rosmerta's oak-matured mead in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
Wine and beer makers are aiming for a slightly older demographic.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware markets a mead-like ale called The Midas Touch. Based on the residue from drinking vessels discovered inside the golden king's 2,700-year-old tomb, the concoction is described as "biscuity" and "succulent," with hints of honey, saffron, papaya and melon.
Mead producers are riding the craft-beer wave and taking advantage of the "locovore" craze. Jon Hamilton's White Winter Winery in Iron River, Wis., did a bourbon barrel-aged cyser, but that's about as exotic as it gets.
"You won't see an orange-blossom mead coming out of our shop, because we don't grow oranges up here," says Hamilton, a former psychotherapist who runs the business with his wife, Kim, a former teacher. "We use black currants. We use strawberries. We use raspberries. We use blueberries. We use apples and apple cider – all those kinds of things that are found here in our neck of the woods."
No one keeps tabs on how much mead is made or sold. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau's wine statistical releases do not list honey wine as a separate product.
But Mike Faul, founder of Rabbit's Foot Meadery outside San Francisco, says his production is growing about 30 percent a year. He distributed 6,000 cases last year to customers as far away as Japan and Ireland.
"In fact, in this bad economy, this year may turn out to be my best year ever," he says. "In good times or bad, people drink. But in bad, they seem to drink even more."
But this is still a far cry from mead's heyday in the Middle Ages.
"Your average meadery is a couple of guys or a couple or a single person who all their buddies said, `Wow! That stuff that you make is really good. You should SELL that,'" says Rowe, who currently has a 5-gallon glass carboy of dark spiced mead fermenting on her kitchen counter. "I know a lot of people that started out in their garage or their basement, and now have tasting rooms and a whole meadery. And they're just kicking butt and taking names."
That would describe Ben and Becky Starr.
The North Carolina couple got into mead a few years ago after tasting it at – where else? – a Renaissance fair. After about two years of experimentation and rave reviews from friends, the Starrs decided to take it to the next level.
In 2006, they traveled to Boulder, Colo., and entered their spiced cyser (mead made with apples) in the International Mead Festival's home mead-maker competition. They brought home the wooden mazer (goblet) for best in show.
"And that was the point where we realized we were doing something pretty good – that it wasn't just that we had friends that liked free booze," says Ben Starr, who sports a ponytail that reaches halfway down his back.
Labor Day Weekend, Starrlight Mead opened up shop in a little cinderblock office building in back of the former Chatham Mills label factory.
When drafting their business plan, the Starrs asked several area wineries about their first-year sales. Since mead was such an unknown, they decided to take those numbers and halve them "to be a little more conservative, a little more realistic," Ben Starr says.
They made about 40 cases of their award-winning spiced apple, thinking they'd last through the end of the year. It sold out in about two months. Same for their semisweet mead.
"We ended up more than doubling those numbers in the first few months that we've been open," says Starr, who's already added two more stainless steel fermentation tanks to meet the unexpected demand.
During a recent wine-tasting tour, Mallory Radcliffe and her family stopped by Starrlight. The Fuquay-Varina woman had tried mead before, but she was surprised by the range of the Starrs' offerings – from the almost clear semisweet to a deep-red blackberry.
A golden peach was the clear favorite.
"When they add the fruit, you have a different vibe," she said. "Real light. Real enjoyable. Real easy to drink."
"We've seen a big increase in the number of people that know actually what mead IS, which is surprising to us," says Becky Starr, who is wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Got Mead?" in ancient Norse runes.
But there are still plenty of visitors wanting to know where they grow their grapes. The Starrs are working on them.
Allen G. Breed, a national writer for The Associated Press based in Raleigh, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.