What's Old is New Again: Mead is on the rise in PA

Mead might just be the next big thing in the beverage world, which is ironic, because it’s also the world’s oldest fermented drink. This ancient brew has been glimpsed in cave drawings and documented in cultures from Ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia. Made by fermenting a mixture of water and honey, mead can be made dry or sweet, boasts complex flavors, and is naturally gluten-free. What’s not to like?

Add in the explosion in craft beverages nationwide and the thirst for something new, and you have a recipe for dramatic growth. In 2017, the American Mead Makers Association announced that during an 18-month period, a new meadery opened in the U.S. every three days. The country had only 30 commercial meaderies in 2003; that number has grown to over 400.

The mead movement has spread to the Commonwealth, and the beverage has never been more accessible to Pennsylvanians: A 2017 law declared that mead conforming to the state’s standards (made with more than 51 percent honey and water, and not exceeding 8.5% ABV) can be sold alongside beer in distributors and bottle shops. This change made brewing mead a more enticing opportunity.

Scott Neeley, founder of KingView Mead in Pittsburgh, launched his “Mead Hall” after seeing room in the market for a high-quality product. Now part of his job is to inform curious drinkers about the beverage.

“We do a lot of social media and getting out into the public space through festivals, restaurants, and bars,” he says. “The main misconception is that mead is beer. It’s not. We educate consumers about making alcohol, with the sources of the sugars being the key differentiating factor.”

Here’s a crash course: Mead is made from honey; beer from grains; hard cider from apples; and wine from grapes (most of the time). Of course, there are crossovers. KingView brews everything from standard mead (made with honey only) to melomel (made with added fruit), cyser (apples), pyment (grapes), and metheglin (spices). While they brew meads that run the gamut from dry to sweet, they’ve found that semi-sweet batches have the broadest audience.

Like wine, mead is an agricultural product that can be produced with 100 percent Pennsylvania ingredients. For KingView, buying local is part of their ethos.

“KingView Mead is PA Preferred,” says Neeley, referencing the official designation given to products that are grown and made in Pennsylvania. “We get apples from Trax Farms, honey from several producers around the state, and most of our grapes are PA-grown. We [recently] purchased 33.5 acres and have already started the process to build an organic farm to offset some of our needs.”

While mead is going mainstream, it has long been a staple of Renaissance Faires, providing a taste of Medieval Europe to the costume-and-broad-sword set. Mount Hope Estate & Winery in Manheim, Lancaster County, has been part of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire for over 38 years.

Mount Hope focuses on sweet meads with a higher alcohol content. In addition to their traditional mead, they make World of Travelers Honey Mead, which is much darker in appearance with a rich, fuller flavor, and Orange Blossom Honey Mead, a semi-sweet product with a lovely citrus character and subtle acidity.

As mead grows in popularity, established breweries and wineries are adding it to their offerings. This includes Arsenal Cider House and Wine Cellar in Pittsburgh, a city with a robust craft beer scene and lots of adventurous, omnivorous drinkers. That means there’s a market for something new, and a place that can offer a pour of mead alongside other more familiar brewed beverages has a great opportunity to spread the gospel.

At Arsenal, they focus on traditional meads, both dry and sweet, made with a wide varieties of honey including Japanese Knotweed, Wildflower, Orange Blossom, Clover, Buckwheat and Alfalfa. They have also experimented with adding Brettanomyces, a wild yeast strain that’s become popular in the craft beer world. It produces a mild sour flavor, and their first run of “sour mead” sold out.

Arsenal is also committed to using Pennsylvania produce in its beverages: They currently source honey through Bedillion Honey Farm in Washington, PA, but also get a small portion of their ingredients closer to home.

“We have also set up 10 hives behind our production facility,” says Larkin. “They won’t produce a whole lot, but we plan to make a cyser (mead made with apples) with it by the end of this year.”

Fortunately for Pennsylvania drinkers, the mead movement is still gathering steam.

“At this point I don’t see mead slowing down as more and more producers come aboard and higher quality products make it into the hands of consumers,” says Neeley. “Being gluten free is also a big plus as there continues to be an increase in individuals looking for those products. The challenge is reaching people and showing them what mead can be.”

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