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Need Mead?

Five hundred years later, honey wine is the new - old - buzz

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Mead. The word conjures up images of fairy princesses delicately sipping golden nectar at magical feasts, or bearskin-clad warriors drinking deeply from heavy goblets. Lit buffs think instantly of Beowulf - mead was the drink of choice for northern tribes such as the Geats, who guzzled it from gilded oxhorns. Fantasy fans may recall that Theoden, King of Rohan in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, inhabited the golden hall of Meduseld. The name literally means "mead hall" in Old English.

But what is mead, anyway?

Not just the stuff of legends, as it turns out. Mead is a fermented, alcoholic beverage made mainly from honey. Although it fell out of favor centuries ago, a few dozen artisanal meaderies across the U.S. have started making it again. Bolstered by the microbrew and localvore movements, last year the folks at Ferrisburgh's Honey Gardens Apiaries jumped on the bee-buzz bandwagon. This week, they're distributing the first 120 cases of their homemade honey wine to food co-ops - and one restaurant - in the northern part of the state.

Food historians believe that mead was the first alcoholic beverage created by humans, long before agricultural practice allowed us to grow grapes for wine, or hops and barley for beer. Mead was featured in the feasts and religious ceremonies of almost all ancient cultures, and is referenced in the artwork of the Aztecs, the sagas of northern Europe and the writings of Greek philosophers. In fact, the word for "drunken" in ancient Greek literally means "honey intoxicated." The term "honeymoon" supposedly can be traced back to a ceremony in which newlyweds were gifted with enough mead to satisfy them for a month. The stuff was supposed to be an aphrodisiac, and was believed to help a couple conceive a son rather than a daughter.

Although mead is still commonly consumed in some parts of the world, notably Ethiopia and Finland, its popularity has declined significantly since the late Middle Ages. Oddly enough, Henry VIII had a part in that fall off. After getting into fisticuffs with the Catholic Church over his desire to divorce and remarry, the English monarch disbanded hundreds of Catholic monasteries. The monks had been prodigious beekeepers, since beeswax was used to make church candles, and mead had been a happy byproduct. Unfortunately, the hives were destroyed along with the religious buildings. The loss of the hives, the rise of sugar as a sweetener and the cheap importation of wine combined to practically wipe out the widespread drinking of mead.

Over the last two decades, as small-batch brewing methods began to regain popularity, small meaderies have sprung up - the largest, in Colorado, boasted a 40 percent increase in production last year. After visiting a few in New York State, Honey Gardens owner Todd Hardie decided to venture into brewing. Last May, he hired meadmaster Jake Feldman, 27, who used to whip up batches of beer at Franconia Notch Brewery in New Hampshire. When asked how he became a "hop head," Feldman says, "It started as a hobby and then I basically begged my way into a few brewing jobs." This is his first foray into mead-making.

Honey Gardens' initial effort is called Melissa after the Greek Melissae - the term refers both to Hellenic "bee priestesses" and to goddesses such as Aphrodite and Artemis, who were associated with bees. After experimenting with more than 20 trial batches last summer, Feldman finally came up with a suitable formula, which he calls a "hybrid of beer-making and wine-making" techniques. Melissa is delicately effervescent, with an 8 percent alcohol content. The batch now on its way to stores was begun in September and has just finished "conditioning" in bottles.

The ingredients for Melissa are simple - honey, water and yeast - but specialized paraphernalia is necessary to control the fermentation. Luckily for Feldman and co., Kenneth Albert of Shelburne Vineyards was willing to share his equipment and expertise with the fledgling fermenters. The Shelburne Vineyards winery now includes a special area, marked off with duct tape, where Feldman brews mead and stores barrels of raw honey. Although his main workspace is at the apiary, Feldman drops by the winery every day when mead is in the works.

To make a batch of Melissa, Feldman blends 700 pounds of honey with water and pasteurizes the mixture. Why pasteurize when raw honey is touted for its health benefits? Because it contains wild yeast that could interfere with the brewing process. The mixture is cooled, blended with a carefully chosen brewing yeast, and poured into two 1500-liter stainless-steel tanks. The tanks are temperature-controlled and have valves that allow carbon dioxide, a natural byproduct of fermentation, to escape.

When the mead is mostly fermented, it is bottled and sealed. At this stage in the process, the liquid is cloudy from the living yeast and flat, since all the carbon dioxide has seeped out of the tank. But the beverage goes through some dramatic changes during its final "conditioning." The yeast feeds on additional sugar, turning it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. When the yeast runs out of food, it dies and sinks to the bottom of the bottle, creating "lees" that are rich in B vitamins. With the yeast out of the way, the gently fizzy liquid is now transparent gold in color. Although he hasn't had a chance to test the theory on his own product, Feldman declares, "Mead gets better with age." He estimates that bottles of Melissa could be cellared "for about three years before it maxes out."

Those who choose to drink it now will experience the aroma and flavor of honey. Because it's only 8 percent alcohol, lower than many wines, the taste is fairly delicate. And though it is slightly sweet, it isn't cloying. "People think it will be super-sweet because it's made with honey," Feldman says. Instead, like wine, it can run the gamut from dry to syrupy.

Because the flavor is mild and unusual, Feldman thinks the Melissa is best enjoyed by itself. If you do pair mead with food, though, he recommends something spicy "because it has a little bit of sweetness and palate-cleansing bubbles." Feldman also suggests serving it with cheese and fruit.

The two vats that held the Melissa before it was bottled are now filled with Feldman's current venture. He's working on a trio of fruit-flavored meads, or "melomels," using blueberry, elderberry and black currant. He's also planning to brew up a few more batches of Melissa, along with some "traditional" still mead with a higher alcohol content.

Unlike locally brewed beer, which typically uses hops and grains grown in the western U.S., "All of the fermentables we use are local," Feldman boasts. In this case, local means from New England and parts of New York. The local focus fits in with the apiary's eco-friendly philosophy; all Honey Gardens products "celebrate the beneficial relationship between the farmer and the beekeeper," says Feldman. As that relationship grows more strained by environmental factors that harm bees - including climate change and pests - the apiary staff are working to increase the visibility and importance of bees in our culture.

But getting the mead into the right hands is the first order of business. Starting this week, 750 milliliter bottles of Melissa will be available at most local food co-ops for around $12 each. They'll also be pouring it by the glass in Burlington, at American Flatbread. That wood-fired pizza oven has medieval written all over it.

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