An upcoming Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County conference in Geneva aims to create a new buzz for this old craft beverage made from honey
GENEVA — Many of the Earle Estates Meadery visitors have stopped in to try mead because they’re fans of the hit show, “Game of Thrones.”
For the purposes of this column, all you need to know about the show is that it's set in medieval times and its characters drink lots of wine and lots of mead.
So many may come because of the show, said Paul Curcillo, who with wife Stephanie King are principals of the Penn Yan meadery, which with Torrey Ridge Winery and WortHog Cidery make up CK Cellars.
But when they leave, they’re fans of mead.
“I think people are looking for something different and something new,” Curcillo said.
New York state, and perhaps the Finger Lakes region, is poised to experience a renaissance for what many consider the world’s oldest craft beverage — mead.
Sometimes known as sweet wine, this craft beverage made with honey has the industry abuzz, according to Pilar McKay, agricultural economic development resource educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ontario County.
Late last year, the state authorized the licensing of farm meaderies for the manufacture and sale of mead made exclusively from New York-produced honey. Similar legislation led to a boom in the local craft beer, cider and distilled spirits industries throughout the state.
A two-day mead-making conference in Geneva next week, with tastings the first night, will focus on all aspects of making mead, from production to marketing to merchandising and more — and will bring together honey producers in front of craft beverage makers in the hope of determining the next step for growth.
Mead is probably one of the last craft beverages that can be opened up for growth this way, said McKay, who is organizing the conference.
“It’s an exciting time to learn about mead,” McKay said. “For me, the conference is an opportunity to listen and to find out where the missing links are.”
New York is well-suited to support mead in a big way.
Here are some numbers: According to the USDA, New York produced more than 2,668 million pounds of honey in 2018, which was valued at $8,978,000 — more than Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont combined, McKay said.
“We already have the honey to do it,” McKay said. “We may already be there. It’s part of the excitement of discovering new things.”
New York has been gaining speed quickly in the mead industry, and the passing of the farm bill makes it easier to start a meadery, according to Vicky Rowe, executive director of the American Mead Makers Association and a scheduled speaker at the conference.
“I expect to see a lot more meaderies in New York going forward,” Rowe said in an email. “There is plenty of interest and enthusiasm for mead.”
And it’s not like mead is a hot new fad, although Rowe calls it “the oldest new thing out there in craft alcohol.”
Mead has been around since ancient times, according to many historical accounts. The oldest meads came from China and India, said Rafael Lyon, owner of Enlightenment Meadery in Brooklyn and a speaker at the conference, but it was and is made all over the world.
“Anywhere people kept bees, they made mead,” Lyon said.
Mead saw renewed attention in the 1950s, but the industry really took off in the 1990s, Rowe said. Right now, there are 600 operating meaderies, with over 200 in the process of opening.
“A lot of the momentum is coming from the under-40 age group, who are very open to new things,” said Rowe, who added she has been fascinated by the beverage since the 1980s and makes it herself.
Because of its culinary history, many people are more apt to have family recipes passed down than for, say, beer or spirits, McKay said. Mead also is a craft beverage that is gluten-free.
Keynote speaker Ken Schramm owns a meadery in Michigan and is author of the home mead-making guide, “The Compleat Meadmaker.”
“It’s easier to make mead than other craft beverages, at home,” McKay said.
Mead and cider, in a lot of ways, are similar. Both are perceived to be sugary and sweet, which is a misconception, Lyon said.
Some are, but not always.
Lyon said almost 2,000 customers visit for tastings every month.
“We like to explain that in fact, all alcohol, whether it be beer, wine or spirits, starts as something sweet,” Lyon said. “How it ends up when it’s done is up to the winemaker or mead maker.”
In addition to fermented honey, mead can be made with apples and cherries and other herbs such as chamomile, yarrow and rosehips, Lyon said. Enlightenment Meadery uses sumac flowers because of the Hudson Valley ecosystem it’s located in and only makes dry mead, Lyon said.
Rowe said mead can range from as dry as a bone to as sweet as anyone could want, with a virtually unlimited number of flavor combinations, from honey to fruits to spices and even chili peppers. The drink also can have as low as a 5% alcohol level or as high as 18%.
Here, Earle Estate uses clover honey, and some styles include raspberry and strawberry, some of which are drier or sweeter than others, Curcillo said.
“Now, there’s a mead for everybody. The truth is, a good wine, a good cider, a good mead is one you like,” Curcillo said. “It’s the beauty of our industry. You can taste it before you buy it.”
And many believe there will be more opportunities to try it as the industry grows.
Citing American Mead Makers Association statistics, Lyon said mead became the fastest growing product category in the alcohol trade in 2013, and continues to grow every year.
“I think as long as mead makers focus on using local honey and local ingredients, we can generate a New York mead industry,” Lyon said. “Small mead makers, embracing their local environment, is the way to go. Much like in any winemaking practice, with grapes or otherwise high-volume industrialized production, using bulk foreign honey and fruit produces a lower quality product and destroys the sense of place that consumers are looking forward to.”
Mead has been around this long, so why not even longer?
“It’s a fantastically versatile beverage that has been a part of the human story literally as long as we have written history,” Rowe said.