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Brewer PreachesMead's Many Qualities in Quest for Converts
February 22, 2007 in the Anchorage Daily News
Down the Hatch [ With Dawnell Smith ]
Last Modified: March 9, 2007 at 12:38 AM

In a small hovel at the corner of a Midtown business hamlet, an elderhome brewer and mead maker stirs up something old and sweet. Hiscauldrons reek of medieval aristocracy and peasantry, time and toil,succor and whimsy. From his tanks and barrels pour the smirks andchuckles of world-worn souls.

Callit mead or call it honey wine, but don't dare call it a thing of thepast, for soon you will understand why Michael Kiker has usheredCelestial Meads into a retirement plan of worth and substance.

Withsteady income from the state's retirement fund and a good job as adatabase manager with a Native corporation, Kiker decided to invest ina small mead-making business born of love. He loves mead, wants to turnpeople onto it and thinks the Anchorage market can handle the nectar ofthe gods.

"Thereare a tremendous variety of flavors and aromas available in honey andmead," he said. "Aside from the variety of honeys -- every floweringplant produces honey with its own flavors and aromas -- there are allthe possible fruits, herbs, spices and blends with beer and wine."

Ata recent mead festival in Denver, he tried a host of lackluster meadsfrom commercial meaderies along with standout versions from small meadmakers who add ingredients such as rose petals, maple syrup, birch sapand so on.

Ican vouch for his enthusiasm. Mead feels like rose petals on the tongueand looks like every hue of dawn; it tastes entirely unlike wine andbeer but mixes nicely with both; it sustains the essence of honey butavoids tumbling into the oversweet and cloying.

Somemeads break all these rules, but not his. Kiker started making mead athome in 1995 after years as a home brewer and now makes mead from honeybought at Costco and honey ordered straight from the apiary. He addseverything from black currants picked in Alaska to berries shipped fromthe Lower 48. He also seeks out a range of honeys from basswood andsourwood to tupelo.

A mead maker is a honey connoisseur; amead maker knows the plethora of bounty from the earth.

"Therewas a time when mead was the drink of choice by the elite in NorthernEurope, but then wine moved up from the Mediterranean area and replacedit," he said. "Grapes and barley are easier to cultivate. Technologyand the relative low cost of barley, hops and grapes made mead slipalmost out of sight."

Hewants to rejuvenate interest in mead, ideally with local products. Sofar, honey from Alaska is cost-prohibitive because beekeepers kill offtheir bees every year and buy new ones each summer, tapping into thetourist market with small bottles of local honey. Others want to changethat by keeping their bees alive all winter; Kiker might even start afew hives and supply himself someday.

Fornow, however, he just wants to get his mead into local stores, bars andrestaurants such as Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse, Cafe Amsterdam, theBrown Jug and Oaken Keg liquor stores, Gold Rush Liquors and La Bodega.Other restaurants will follow, he hopes, along with foot trafficdirectly to his meadery.

Hisbottled meads should hit local liquor stores by April, if not March,and he expects a May grand opening at his Midtown spot. He knows thatsuccess depends on education, and he plans to spend a lot of timeexplaining to potential customers what mead is.

Popularwines like chardonnay taste good but betray nothing of their rawingredients -- mead definitely carries the characteristics of honey.That intensity and sweetness often turns people off when they'reexpecting wine.

"A lot of people won't drink anythingunless its bone dry," Kiker said. "Some people expect no residualsugar."

Yes,mead wallows in its honey-sweet origins in the most pleasing way, andone's lips curl rather than pucker, the mouth feels full and satedrather than thirsty.

Keepin mind that I say this as a beer and red wine drinker who avoids mostsweet whites. Yet after trying several of Kiker's meads -- particularlythe tupelo aged in oak -- I'm a convert.

Andthat's what it's going to take to make a small mead operation thrive:converts. We beer, wine and flavored-booze drinkers will have toembrace something new, maybe by starting with the more mild cysers andthen relishing the fineries of good mead.

"I don't expect people to switch tomead, but I hope I can convince them to add mead to the repertoire oflife," Kiker said.

In the end, he said, "I'm going to bethe mead evangelist."