Your mental associations with mead are most likely limited to Renaissance fairs and marauding Vikings hoisting flagons of treacle-sweet honey wine. At first, even Cameron Larson, mead curator and operations manager at Portland hive resource center Bee Thinking, wasn’t sold on the Old World idea of fermenting honey with yeast and water. “We had to drink through a lot of awful stuff,” says Larson, who assembled the bottle collection that now lines the shelves of the shop’s Mead Market. “We thought our customers would be basement-dwelling gamers or Game of Thrones enthusiasts.” But as an array of refined, bone-dry, sparkling, and barrel-aged takes on mead trickled in from Northwest winemakers, brewers, and cider savants, he realized the potential new audience for the ancient beverage is huge. Mead is poised for a major comeback.
According to the American Mead Makers Association, honey spirits are outpacing cider, beer, and craft liquors as the fastest-growing segment of the national booze market, with sales swelling by 130 percent in 2013. Several new urban meaderies are buzzing in Portland, including the Woodlawn neighborhood’s Hi-Wheel mead tasting room, which opened in September and is powered by Sauvie Island honey, and Fringe Meadery, which plans to collaborate with urban beekeepers. This August, Bee Thinking’s own Portland Urban Mead project collected honey from backyard beekeepers all over town in order to bottle a very local taste of the city’s next favorite sip by spring 2015.
Turns out, there’s an Oregon mead for just about every breed of drinker. Here’s a starter kit:
LIKE CIDER? Try Eaglemount Wine & Cider’s Apple Mead, a certified organic blend of cider and apple-blossom honey wine from Washington’s Olympic Peninsula that boasts that classic cider funk with aromas of vanilla and smoke. $18
LIKE BEER? Try Corvallis-based Nectar Creek Honeywine’s colorful line of easy-drinking session meads, in flavors like fresh and balanced Waggle, playfully tart raspberry Brood, and bold, bright, gingery Sting. $7.50
LIKE ICE WINE? Try Sky River Mead’s Solas Honey Wine. Best served straight from the freezer, this rich, ambrosial drink is aged in whiskey barrels and captures the pure essence of the hive. $25
LIKE CHAMPAGNE? Try Heidrun Meadery’s light, dry, and sparkling Oregon Radish Blossom mead. Made in Northern California with honey sourced from the Willamette Valley, this herby and earthy mead is ready to pair with a loaded cheese and charcuterie plate. $25
Want to try them all? Kookoolan Farm’s mead tasting room in Yamhill County’s wine country offers over 150 local and international meads—the largest selection in the country—including more than 35 open for tasting daily.