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Mad About Mead

Filed under Anchorage Press, Home Page - Features Left, Food & Drink, Brew Review, Archives, Vol. 16, ed. 20 on Thursday, May 17, 2007 by Author: James "Dr. Fermento" Roberts.

By James ‘Dr. Fermento’ Roberts
In medieval times, the father of the groom supplied the newlyweds with enough mead (fermented honey) to last through one full cycle of the moon, or a month. Honey, it was thought, increased the chances that a newborn child would be a male.

Although the beverage itself decreased in popularity over the centuries, the concept of the honeymoon is firmly entrenched in our society. Today, mead is making a huge comeback, especially in Alaska. Maybe it was really the alignment of the sun, moon and stars that influenced conception, but the birth of Celestial Meads in Anchorage isn’t happenstance or even witchery. Rather, it’s the fine-tuned intention of a local home brewer with a passion for dabbling. Celestial Meads is a modern-day take on what could be the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage.

Mead isn’t beer, but both are fermented. There are types of beer that use honey in the recipe. There are also types of mead that use malt in the recipe. The beverages are treated similarly, although they’re worlds apart. References to mead extend back to at least 8,000 years ago. Archeologists have determined that mead originated in Africa as far back as 20,000 or 40,000 years ago. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, honey was commonly mixed with water as a sweetener. All it took to make what is thought to be the world’s first intoxicating beverage was airborne yeast settling into an uncovered and unattended vessel of honeywater. Second, honey is the only natural food that doesn’t spoil. The chances of it being unattended without rotting were higher than normal. Mead was considered divine until cultivating and agriculture made beer and wine easier, cheaper and quicker to produce. Mead became a somewhat forgotten beverage.

Mike Kiker started making beer years ago. It wasn’t long before he found some mead recipes in a home brewing magazine. Although it takes mead much longer to ferment — upwards of a year in some cases — than it does beer — as quickly as a couple of weeks — Kiker gave it a shot and liked what hit the goblet on the other end.

“This was shortly after I started brewing beer,” Kiker explained. “I found out that the longer the mead aged, the more I liked it, and I found myself brewing more and more of it. A few years ago, I just about stopped brewing beer and focused on mead almost exclusively.”

With not much else to do between separating from the 9-to-5 world and a real retirement maybe 10 years away, Kiker was looking for something he wanted to do in life, rather than what he had to do. He thought about his goals with mead and decided to take a very risky step in opening Anchorage’s first commercial meadery.

What makes it a risky venture isn’t the competition. It’s actually the lack of competition and consumers’ limited awareness of mead. “I don’t like to have to call this stuff honeywine like everyone else does,” said Kiker, “but there has to be a hook somewhere and this seems to fit with everyone.” Where mead’s not beer, it certainly is not wine either. The issue is confused, because mead’s alcoholic strength can easily approach and surpass that of wine — pushing 18 percent in some cases. There are types of mead called pyments, which are grape melomels (fruit meads) that use grapes for both flavor and additional fermentable base. Confused? Your palate will be, too, at first taste.

Mead can be dry, sweet, semi-sweet, still or sparkling. Extended aging, rather than filtration (as is common in beer), produces typically crystal clear mead. It’s not hard to see how it can be confused with wine. Aside from pyments and melomels, there are metheglins, braggots and cysers. It’s a whole old world out there that people have problems pronouncing, let alone experiencing. Still, there’s something about the allure of fermented honey that draws in the curious. It’s often easier to woo in a wine drinker than a beer drinker, something Kiker has to grapple with as he launches his new business.

I’ve always contended that Anchorage has a very mature and open palate. This is probably as good a place as any to grow a market for a poorly understood alcoholic beverage. Kiker uses only the best original-source honey from the beekeepers or apiaries themselves and doesn’t deal with middlemen. He’s still getting pure, unblended honeys from around the world, even with such stringent standards.

Plan on attending the grand opening celebration from 12 to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 19 at 700 West 41st Avenue, off of Arctic Blvd in the industrial area between 36th and Tudor. Call Kiker at 250-8362 if you need directions or specifics.

You can sample fermented delicacies: meads made with Tupelo honey from Florida, tulip poplar honey and sourwood honey from North Carolina, black locust and basswood mead from Iowa, desert wildflower and mesquite honey from Arizona and sage blossom honey from California. Celestial Meads’ products are becoming available at better grog shops and on tap around town. Be careful with the stuff because it’s alluring and potent. If you drink too much, you might go berserk like the Norsemen did as they drank with abandon and tore their shirts off after victory in battle.