What comes to mind when you think of mead? Probably some hoary old cliché about medieval knights drinking flagons of the stuff in a great hall, right? Well, that's partly true, but much like everything else you probably think about anything, it's also mostly wrong. Mead has actually been around for thousands of years, and while it is made from honey, it's got such a broad spectrum of styles, flavors, and textures that the base description "honey wine" doesn't do it justice.
"It predates written history. There are cave paintings showing man harvesting honey from beehives," says Michael Fairbrother, founder of New Hampshire's fast-growing Moonlight Meadery. He agrees that mead is widely misunderstood. "Most people think mead is going to taste horrible, or that it's very, very sweet," Fairbrother says. It turns out that's often not at all the case. "We can make mead as dry as we want, dry as a merlot, up to like a moscato or a dessert wine."
Two of the styles I tried recently at Cambridge's Meadhall, appropriately, are Moonlight's Sensual, a traditional wildflower-honey mead, deeply honeyed with a viscous feel, and Desire, a dark-red fruit mead made with blueberries, black currants, and black cherries that was much dryer and slightly tart, but with a long fruit finish. A third, their most popular, Fairbrother notes, is Kurt's Apple Pie, made with local apple cider, Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, and Vietnamese cinnamon. "It tastes like liquid apple pie in a glass," he says.
That's only a small fraction of Moonlight's 66 styles, around 30 of which are usually available at any given time. They include barrel-aged meads, carbonated varieties, melomels (fruit meads), metheglins (spiced meads), and limited-edition concoctions. It's a hugely versatile beverage. "Think of how chefs can cook and use honey in almost anything; the same is true for making honey wines," Fairbrother says. "We make some with chili peppers, make some with chocolate and coffee. It really is a good base to work from."
To make their mead, Moonlight starts with raw honey, warms it to 78 degrees, combines it with water or juice (depending on the style), adds yeast, and then lets it ferment for approximately three months. Before bottling, they might add spices, vanilla, cinnamon, and so on.
That willingness to experiment has helped the company grow by leaps and bounds in just a few short years. Though Fairbrother began brewing mead at home soon after taking his first sip in 1995, eventually becoming a three-time Mead Maker of the Year at the New England Regional Homebrew Competition and the president of the large homebrewing club Brew Free or Die, Moonlight got its start in 2010, when the then-software engineer founded it as a solo project. Now Fairbrother has 14 employees, and his meads have made their way into bars around the city, like Deep Ellum and Sunset Grill & Tap, and onto shelves in 22 states. "We're kind of fitting a whole new category," Fairbrother says of their expansion.
So while popular imagination might conceive of mead as a thing of the distant past, the growth of Moonlight and other meaderies around the country is ushering it into the future. There's a reason for its perseverance, Fairbrother observes. "Honey is the only food source that lasts forever," he says. "With water and honey you have everything you need to live on."