Beer Geek

Go old-school with mead, a sweet honey wine

Aug. 23, 2012 at 12:04 PM ET

Jim Galligan /
Mead, a honey wine, offers a taste of the medieval, minus the fantasy role-playing.

I have a confession to make: My irrational fear of the Renaissance Faire has kept me from drinking mead, a storied form of honey wine that’s popular with people who like to pretend in public.

Every time I think of mead, I immediately picture a burly fella in homemade tunic, pretending he’s a merry medieval peasant, lifting a rough hewn pewter pitcher and saying “a flagon of mead to yer ‘ealth, m’lord!” I’ll be honest, stuff like that gives me the creeps.

Of course I shouldn’t take out my uneasiness for medieval make-believe out on mead, one of mankind’s oldest social lubricants. The earliest found traces of mead date back as far as 7000 BC, when the residues of a fermented beverage made with honey, rice and fruit were found clinging to pottery jars unearthed in Jiahu, China. 

Mead has been found in many places and forms throughout human history, and has been enlivened with many different ingredients, from spices, to hops, to fruit.

I decided to sample three very different meads to see if this ancient elixir might help me loosen up a little bit and get in touch with my inner Loki, a Level 22 chaotic-good dark elf. That’s right, I’ve rolled a 20-sided die or two in my time, but always kept the Dungeons & Dragons in the basement where it belongs!

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The first mead I tried was Viking Blod, a Nordic honey wine brewed with hibiscus and hops by Dansk Mjød. Viking Blod’s recipe dates back to the 1700s, making it an old-school offering and a great place to start.

It pours a rich golden amber, reminiscent of Thor’s flowing locks.  Viking Blod assaults your senses from the moment it hits your glass, sending sweet scents of honey and herbs racing across the room to conquer your nasal passages.

The first sip surprised my palate with a gush of honeyed sweetness followed by a peppery and clean herbal finish.  This stuff has huge flavor, which was true for all meads I sampled.  This Viking Blod warmed my guy-from-New-Jersey blood going down, which makes sense as this Danish delight weighs in at 19% alcohol by volume.

The bottle suggests heating Viking Blod in a mug to create a winter warmer, and doing so made it easy to imagine myself sitting in the mead hall during a feast, and singing songs of pillaging and plunder, warmed to the bones with the sweet taste of home. 

This was the most expensive mead of the trio I tasted, retailing for $32.95 for a 750ml bottle, but with such a high alcohol content and no bubbles to go flat, Viking Blod should last several sessions.

Next up was Iqhilika Honey Sun, a South African mead infused with coffee. Now if you think that honey and coffee don’t mix, you’re right. 

One whiff of this mead sent my brain reeling back to my childhood, when my mom, a heavy smoker and coffee fiend, would dab a napkin on her tongue and proceed to clean my face. Iqhilika Honey Sun smells like a mash up of stale coffee, tobacco and the cosmetic sweetness of freshly applied make up. 

A sip starts out thinly sweet, and then an unpleasant coffee flavor crashes down, followed by an oddly dry and spicy finish, and then a touch of warmth in your chest.  It’s almost like a blend of apple juice concentrate and Folgers grinds, served in a dirty astray with a small grain alcohol chaser.

This bottle retailed for $25.95 for 750ml, money better spent on maypole ribbons or a new pair of leather gauntlets.

The last honey wine in my trio was the one I was most excited to try, a cherry chipotle mead made by B. Nektar Meadery in fabulous Ferndale, Mich.

B Nektar Cherry Chipotle pours a thin ruby red, and smells both sweet and rich, almost like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Take a taste, and the flavor comes at you in three huge waves. First it’s a blast of honey sweetness, followed quickly by a puckering crush of tart cherry.  This sweet-tart combo is then set aflame by a chipotle kick on the back end that fades away just as the 12.5% alcohol by volume gently warms your chest.  Magical!

This is less of a mead and more if a crazy concoction that just happens to be brewed with honey, similar to showing up at BlizzCon, the World of Warcraft convention, dressed as some absurd mash up of a dragon/mechgnome/zombie and having it work wonderfully well.

B Nektar Cherry Chipotle mead costs $13.95 for a 325ml, making it affordable, especially when you realize a little bit of this tasty grog goes quite a long way.

While mead didn’t make me want to do any medieval fantasy role-playing, I did learn that you shouldn’t let something silly like a cringe-worthy mental association stop you from expanding your horizons.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to put my irrational fear of circus folk aside and attempt to go purchase a bottle of Clown Shoes Hoppy Feet Black IPA.

Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits. Follow him on Twitter.  

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