You may know mead — an ancient alcoholic beverage made from water, honey, and yeast — as a drink that’s popular among Renaissance fairgoers and Game of Thrones fans.
Meadmaker Andrew Geffken is on a mission to add another group to that list: the average beer drinker. At Charm City Meadworks in Baltimore, Md., he’s experimenting with modern takes on this age-old drink.
The current problem, Geffken says, is that mead just isn’t cool enough to woo hip craft beer drinkers. But with a little help from hops — many a beer drinker’s favorite ingredient — he thinks he can change that.
Geffken isn’t the only meadmaker attempting to revive this old-timey beverage — mead’s popularity has risen rapidly in recent years. Charm City — which Geffken opened with co-owner James Boicourt in 2014 — currently makes enough mead to burn through 5,000 pounds of honey each month.
Still, there are only about 150 meaderies in the U.S. — whereas there are about 4,000 craft breweries. To gain a foothold with beer enthusiasts, Geffken is blurring the line between the two beverages.
Right now, mead consumption is still limited primarily to wine enthusiasts, he says. Despite the fact that modern-day mead can be dry, Geffken believes many beer drinkers won’t touch the stuff because they expect it to be sickeningly sweet. “What will get people to try our mead? If we can make it closer to a beer, that might help,” he says.
In addition to producing the more traditional, still meads in glass bottles with alcohol contents comparable to wine, Charm City also produces carbonated meads in cans, with lower ABVs similar to beer.
For the past year, Geffken has also experimented with adding different varieties of hops to his mead. The final product, a mead named Hops, will hit bars and bottle shops in the Baltimore and D.C. areas on Aug. 17.
Geffken says the bitterness of hops goes nicely with the subtle sweetness of his mead. And to prove it, he invited me to his meadery for a taste.
So, on Tuesday morning I found myself standing beside massive metal tanks of fermenting mead — the same kind beer brewers use — with thousands of pounds of honey perched on shelves above my head. In front of me was a single tap, labeled “Project X.”
Over the past year, many a hopped mead made its way through the Project X tap. First, Geffken let me sample a couple of the less successful prototypes. Some of the hops varieties that Geffken experimented with imparted resin-like notes that made the mead too bitter.
Then, he hooked a keg of what Charm City calls Flatbrims and Flannel up to the tap. The two hop varieties in this brew — citra and centennial — are citrusy and floral. The result is a light, bubbly drink that tastes fruity, slightly sweet, and ever-so-slightly bitter.
Although Geffken is still fine-tuning the recipe, the prototype is close to the version that’ll soon sell under the name Hops. Like all mead, this beer-inspired variety is made much like wine. “Mead is wine from honey instead of grapes,” Geffken explains. “We don’t brew or distill the way you would for beer or spirits.”
To make hoppy franken-mead, Geffken and his team start by mixing water, honey and yeast. They let the mixture ferment for a couple of weeks and then age for three to five months.
“The honey varietal we use and the yeast strain are the two main flavor determinants in a base mead before we add anything else,” Geffken says. Once they have this base, they can infuse it with fruits, herbs or other flavors — much like infusing water with a bag of tea.
Hops, like the prototype I tasted, will be infused with a satchel of citra and centennial hops varieties and finished with a touch of extra citrus blossom honey. In a final step, the team adds carbonation by forcing carbon dioxide into the mead, just as many beer brewers do.
Is this beer-y mead enough to tempt consumers who’d normally order a nice cold lager or IPA?
Derek DeFilippo, a programmer analyst and avid beer drinker based in Bethlehem, Pa., says he’s game to try it. I tracked him down after noticing his many tweets about IPAs (he’s a big fan). He told me he’s never gotten around to trying a mead even though there’s a meadery not far from his home. “I don’t know what to expect [from mead] now, but if I heard there was one with a hoppier taste, I would definitely like to give it a try,” he says.
For those who have already turned to mead as an alternative to beer, the new variety will likely be a tougher sell. Baltimore-based Web developer Jayvie Canono is a fan of Charm City Meadworks’ Basil Lemongrass variety. But he has his reservations about the new variety, Hops. “I don’t quite like IPAs, he says. “But if they can provide the hop flavor without the need for very heavy malts, I’m open to trying it.”
But for the beer enthusiast, brewer Nathan Rice thinks that Hops will be a hit. He says that Geffken is expanding what a beer drinker thinks a mead can be. “Most meads are still like wine,” he says. “The level of carbonation and dry light flavor he’s bringing is probably more appealing to beer drinkers than that heavy, sweet thing that most people think of when they think of mead.”
Rice, as lead brewer at 3 Stars Brewing Co. in D.C., recently worked with Geffken to produce another beverage that further blurs the mead-beer line: a medieval beer known as a braggot that calls for a large portion of its fermentable sugar to come from honey.
Dubbed Two-Headed Unicorn, the braggot will be available at 3 Stars Brewing Co. and select bottle shops in D.C., Virginia and Maryland within the next month.
“The majority of [the braggot] is still a beer component, so for a beer drinker, it is still familiar,” says Geffken. But he hopes the honey component will make them think about trying mead next.
Geffken says he’ll know his efforts to win over beer drinkers have paid off when he reaches this simple benchmark: “I want people to walk into their corner neighborhood bar and think about ordering a mead when they watch the game on Sunday.”