An ancient honey wine makes a sweet comeback
To bee, or not to bee, that is the question.
Oh sure, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is known for a similar-sounding quote when he’s wondering whether life or death is preferable. But in this instance, it’s 5 p.m. and he’s trying to choose a cocktail.
Back in his day, it was pretty much a choice of stout ale, the bitter drink made from fermented grains (not bee), or soothing mead, the ancient drink made with fermented honey (bee).
Considering he was known to spend hours talking to a skull, it’s possible he was heavy into both.
Flash forward a few centuries and it’s quite possible to relive the tormented king’s cocktail-hour anguish. With the explosion of craft beer makers in the past few years, the choice of ales seems endless, and who would have guessed that mead, that honeyed drink that goes back almost 4,000 years or more, has become a trendy tavern inhabitant again?
Considering mead is one of, if not the oldest known alcoholic beverages created by man, it is probably long past due for it to find a place of honor at the bar. Records of its existence go back to 9000 B.C. in China and 2800-1800 B.C. in Europe. That was before anyone thought to invent a bar. Evidence of mead being produced by early civilizations have been uncovered in Greece, China, Africa and many parts of Europe.
Mead comes from bees’ honey, which is fermented with water and yeast. Mead makers enhance the flavor by adding any number and combinations of fruit, spices and grains. Just as honey varies in taste from hive to hive and the other ingredients vary from region to region, there are as many different meads as there are places where it’s made.
Traditionally, mead was hoisted just like a dessert wine or port. It was common to all social classes, but eventually the value of honey rose to such a level it became known as a drink of kings. Particularly in Germany and many Scandinavian countries, the banquet rooms of royal residences were known as mead halls, such as noted in the famed poem “Beowulf.”
As a name-dropper, mead can hold its own. It’s been written about by the likes of Aristotle, Dostoevsky and Chaucer as well as by J.R.R. Tolkien — “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” — and J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books.
In the world of cocktails, anything old and forgotten is ripe for resurrection and popularity, and mead’s time was due. A decade ago, there were only two or three dozen meaderies in the country. Today, there’s more than 450, most of them arriving in the past five years. Sales of mead shot up more than 42 percent two years ago, not coincidentally about the same time “Game of Thrones” became a worldwide hit TV show. The wine’s rise to prominence even led to the formation of the American Mead Makers Association, which held its first national conference in Colorado earlier this year.
The popularity of mead and mead cocktails in the United States has even swept back to England, where it had been struggling to recover since near extinction during the reign of Henry VIII, who, in destroying all the Catholic monasteries, also destroyed the source of the country’s mead. No monks. No mead.
“Mead is the fastest-growing segment of alcohol production right now,” said Cameron Crane, a Baytown resident and mead maker who went into the beekeeping business several years ago selling honey and other bee products under the name Crane Meadows.
Crane met Anahuac resident Ron Bentley, owner of Bentley Bees, a company that sells bees and hives to other keepers. The two formed a mutual interest in making mead, which they make through Frascone Winery in Anahuac. Their mead sells under the Mystik Oak label.
Just as people were learning to again drink and pair mead, mixologists began seeing its potential as a cocktail additive. With its wide spectrum of flavors, sweetness and regional nuances, mead brings a smoothness and any number of floral, spice or fruity hints to liquors like gin, vodka and bourbons. Bars from coast to coast aren’t just making cocktails with mead, many are making their own.
What excites mixologists about mead is the same thing that excites mead makers, Crane said.
“Honey adds the significant character to the mead,” Crane said. “To have good mead, you have to start with good honey, but as you know, the variety of honey by where the hives are located is tremendous.”
Although all his mead is made with honey from the area in Southeast Texas, he’s worked with other beekeepers in West Texas, where bees frequent blossoming cotton fields.
“The difference was really special,” Crane said. “Orange blossoms are also very popular. You can actually pick up the orange flavor in the honey.”
In creating cocktails with mead, mixologists must first select a mead based on its ingredients and place of origin. They must also determine what it is they want the mead to bring to the drink — for flavor or to sweeten.
“Mead can run the gamut from extremely dry to extremely sweet,” Crane said. “You need to read the description on the bottle, which is an indicator of what it will taste like.”
There also are sparkling meads, adding yet another option to the cocktail menu.
In downtown Galveston bar DTO, 2701 Market St., principal Brad Stringer, unquestionably one of the area’s most adventurous mixologists, has ventured into the mead phenomenon. One of his cocktails is The Velvet Monk, a drink that brings focus to the floral and spice flavors in it. The two main ingredients that give the drink its name are the aromatic, herbal Benedictine liqueur and Velvet Falernum, a spiced, citrusy syrup often used in tropical drinks.
“I made this with mead from Texas Mead Works in Seguin because I have access to that,” he said.
But the cocktail can be altered using meads from other Southeast Texas makers, depending on taste, he said.
“The main thing I wanted to do is be true to the mead,” Stringer said. “The first thing you taste with this is the honey and then kind of an orange blossom flavor. After that, you start tasting the cinnamon and the cloves.”
Chilling the The Velvet Monk makes it more enjoyable, but the flavors of this cocktail are so perfectly measured, Stringer suggests using no more than a single ice cube or a cocktail stone.
To add a little more zing to the drink, he rinses the glass out with absinthe before adding the other ingredients, and also adds a few drops of Teapot Bitters, a commercial concoction of bitters and tea.
Want to learn about or try mead? The Gulf Coast Mead Festival is planned for April 22 at the Frascone Winery & Vineyard, 311 Bayside Drive in Anahuac. The event will feature a variety of meads to taste and buy as well as other merchandise and food. The festival also includes live music, wine tastings and brewing classes. Admission and parking are free, and hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This could be the beginning of a whole new definition of getting a buzz from cocktails.
The Velvet Monk
Recipe created by Brad Stringer, partner and mixologist at DTO (Daiquiri Time Out), Galveston
¼ ounce absinthe
2 ounces Texas Mead Works Mead
3/4 ounce Velvet Falernum Liqueur
1/4 ounce Benedictine Liqueur
2 dashes Teapot Bitters
Lemon peel for garnish
Rinse the inside of a lowball cocktail glass with the absinthe, discarding the access. Pour the mead, the liqueurs and the dashes of bitters in a cocktail glass and stir. Add one ice cube to chill. Garnish with a lemon peel slice and serve.