Homegrown: Mead in New England
Welcome to my glorious winery,” says Ian Bennett as he opens the door to Isaaks of Salem. The high-ceilinged room, in a gritty, semi-industrial neighborhood of Beverly, Massachusetts, is stacked with gallon jugs of spring water, pails of honey, boxes of bottles, and fermentation equipment. And that’s about it; no hand-carved oak tasting bar, no crystal glasses lined up to receive a two-ounce swirl of this year’s vintage.
“Yeah,” says Bennett, who founded Isaaks in 2009, “it’s a guy in a garage.” Maybe so, but all over New England, other guys in other garages are all busily working behind the scenes to nurture a revival of mead, a.k.a. honey wine–perhaps the world’s oldest fermented beverage and now the newest darling of craft brewers.
“Probably 10 years ago, there were maybe 35 meaderies in the country,” says Michael Fairbrother, founder of Moonlight Meadery in Londonderry, New Hampshire. “Now there are more than 150.” And New England is a hotbed of mead, with numerous artisan producers throughout the region. Lots of these mead makers began as basement hobbyists and have since moved on to garages and the like; the modest start-up cost for a meadery, as compared with a winery, is part of the appeal in a region where farmland is prohibitively expensive and grape growing dicey.
At its most basic, mead consists of fermented honey and water–but few of the new makers are content to leave it at that; these inveterate tinkerers add fruits, spices, and seasonings to give the drink a range of flavors. Bennett uses Maine raspberries in his “Popp Road Raspberry Wine”; Fairbrother’s best seller is “Desire,” with blueberries, black cherries, and black currants.
Mead may be sweet, but some versions are very dry, inducing in the taster a kind of cognitive dissonance. (Imagine, if you can, the flavor of honey–the aromatic floral and fruit notes–without the sweetness.) Each mead has its own flavor, but the best ones have an underlying character not unlike that of fine white wine. Fairbrother adds that many first-time tasters are surprised, in a good way: “They say, ‘Whoa … where has this been all my life?’”