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Mead Moves Out Of The Middle Ages


If you've been yearning for a cup of mead ever since you read Beowulf in high school - and who hasn't, really? - this could be your moment. The honey wine is once again the bee's knees. WEEKEND EDITION food commentator, Bonny Wolf, explains.

BONNY WOLF, BYLINE: Until recently, you had to go to the Renaissance festival for a mead fix - medieval wenches serving the honeyed drink that's a little like wine and a little like beer. Now the so-called nectar of the gods is the fastest growing segment of America's alcoholic beverage industry. Not since the middle ages has so much mead been quaffed. Mead is the oldest-known fermented beverage. Traces were found in King Midas' cage. Pliny the Elder gives a recipe involving rainwater, honey and the rising of the dog star. Now mead is back in a big way.

Chris Weber is president of the 2-year-old American Mead Makers Association. He says in 2000 there were 20 to 25 commercial mead makers. Today there are nearly 250. And the largest growth has been in the last five years. Close to 40 new meaderies have opened just this year. Weber says California's 20-year-old Rabbit Foot, one of the biggest meaderies, has just doubled capacity to about 100,000 cases.

On the other end of the spectrum, Charm City Meadworks in Baltimore is just a few months old and is already having trouble keeping up with demand. When they started in July, they were prepared to sell 200 cases a months. They now expect to sell more than five times that. Weber says the biggest complaint he hears from mead makers is they just can't make it fast enough. And interest only seems to fermenting. The University of California-Davis just held the country's first mead-making classes - sold out.

Mead is essentially water, honey and yeast. But it's not all sweet. The new mead goes from bone-dry to dessert-sweet. And you can put anything in mead. Today's meads are flavored with chocolate, chipotle, horse radish, carrots, rosemary. Weber says he's sure someone somewhere is making mead with Brussel sprouts. The new meads are sold at liquor stores, upscale markets, trendy cocktail bars and farm-to-table restaurants. As they say at Rabbit's Foot - mead, it's not just for Vikings anymore.

MARTIN: That was Bonnie Wolf. She is the managing editor of americanfoodroots.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.