We’ve entered an age that has popularized all forms of fermentation — from sauerkraut to kombucha — but fermented alcoholic beverages will always reign. The up-and-coming beverage to buzz about is mead, or a fermented honey beverage with about a 13 percent ABV. It's been around for centuries but is now picking up popularity in the States. San Francisco Mead Company, a small-batch meadery owned and operated by husband and wife Sarah and Oron Benary, schooled me on the basics of mead-making.
The ingredients in mead are simple: honey, water, yeast, and (in SF Mead Company's version) toasted wood chips. It takes about a year for the sugars in the honey to completely ferment out. Unlike wine or beer, mead doesn't require temperature controlling as it ferments. However, once bottled and stored, it should be consumed at cellar temperature in standard wine glasses. It tastes best with cheese, spicy foods like Indian, and desserts.
Though the finished mead smells honey sweet and incredibly floral, it tastes quite dry with a hint of smoky woodiness. “This is the driest mead you will have ever tried. Your brain tricks you into thinking you are drinking something sweet,” explains Oron. The particular bottles we tried were still quite young, and Oron recommended aging mead for three to five years. “The smell is always ahead of the taste,” he added.
Since mead production is a relatively new to the States, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has yet to nail down logical standards regarding the labeling of mead. SF Mead Company scouts out the best local honey available, but it is forbidden to disclose that information on the label. In addition, mead labels cannot contain the vintage year. Can you imagine a wine label that didn't reveal the origin or the vintage of the grapes? However, as more meaderies open up and challenge the labeling standards, the Benarys hope that the Bureau will amend some of its policies.
The couple also prides itself on developing strange and enticing mead flavors. Just as beer brewers are experimenting with adding various spices, fruits, etc., so too is SF Mead Company. The couple has made everything from blueberry chai mead to black walnut mead. But the most successful find is a cyser, or honey, apple juice, and spices fermented together, which the company calls Apple Pie. The couple let us compare its six-month-old California cyser made from organic apples and local honey against a finished cyser from its other meadery, Brothers Drake based in Ohio. At six months fermentation and without having been filtered, the mead tastes sweet and cider-like, with a touch of sourness. But at over a year, the mead transforms into bottled Autumn, with the essence of cinnamon and roasted apples. The California Apple Pie cyser will be bottled in the Fall and available for purchase on Oct. 1.
San Francisco Mead Company's bottles can be found in Whole Foods around the San Francisco Bay Area as well as its meadery in the Dogpatch. However, the company encourages those new to mead to search for meaderies local to them to try out this unique fermented beverage. And after my first experience with mead, I would have to agree that it's worth the investigation.