What's the Buzz?

All photos by Phil Galewitz. Evan Anderson was a tried and true beer drinker when the owners of a local brewery in Flagstaff, Az. asked him if he had ever tried mead. He says his first thought was, “What the hell is mead?” Then he tried some of the ancient alcoholic beverage made with fermented honey. He found it very sweet but thought he could brew a better tasting version himself.

After experimenting at home, he made 30 gallons of mead for his wedding in 2015. When it was over and his friends and family drank it up, Anderson knew he was ready to move into the mead business and leave behind a career as a fish biologist.

In 2017, Anderson opened Drinking Horn Meadery in a small industrial park just east of downtown Flagstaff.  It's one of three meaderies in the state and about 400 nationwide. Though still small compared to the more 6,000 craft breweries, mead the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in terms of numbers of producers.

The resurgence of this radiant juice seems to be piggybacking on American’s growing desire for locally produced beer, wine and distilled spirits. “People are always looking for the next cool thing and mead is pretty cool,” said Vicky Rowe, executive director of the American Mead Makers Association. Michigan, Washington and California are the states with the most meaderies. A new meadery is opening on average every three days in the United States, Rowe said.

Mead may be the ancestor of all alcoholic beverages, having been enjoyed by royalty and even Greek gods. But its popularity still sagged for centuries due partly to the drop in demand for honey as a sweetener. The draught is staging a triumphant return as the number of meaderies has more than doubled since 2013.

Sweet mead may also be the original aphrodisiac. The origin of “honeymoon” harkens back to the medieval tradition of drinking mead for a full moon cycle after a wedding —with the promise of ensuring a fruitful union that would bear plenty of children.

Mead is fermented with three basic ingredients: honey, yeast and water. It isn’t classified as beer or wine in the typical sense, but stands apart in its own rank of alcoholic beverage. It is often referred to as "honey wine," and my first taste made me think of eating a glob of honey on challah bread during Jewish holidays. But that’s not quite right. Mead is created by fermenting honey, while wine is made from fermented fruit. And though mead is often flavored with various fruits, that does not make it wine. Anderson does not like term “honey wine” used for mead because it denotes a certain flavor that’s not at all what all his meads are like.

In less than a year, Drinking Horn mead has made its way into stores across Arizona and through the Internet has been sold in 40 states. “There’s an educational standpoint to get people to drink mead and to get past the many preconceived notions with some expecting a frothy beer or syrupy taste,” Anderson said while giving a tour of his meadery. “But once people taste it they find its light and easy to drink,” he said.

Evan Anderson with some of the honey used to make mead at Drinking Horn

Evan Anderson with some of the honey used to make mead at Drinking Horn

Drinking Horn’s traditional mead was modestly sweet. It was smooth and dry but I could still taste honey flavor. It’s a taste designed to appeal to both wine or beer drinkers. “Mead doesn’t have to be sweet,” Anderson said.

Like many meaderies, Anderson has fun trying different fruits and herbs and other ingredients to ferment with the mead. Among our favorites on our trip was a terrific coffee mead with roast from a local beanery. A pomegranate and apple mead also were also tasty. Strawberry, watermelon and pineapple were among other flavors. Some meads had a little carbonation which gave it almost a Champagne-like feel.

Anderson was a natural at describing the mead making process and the quaff’s history. “Its fun for us,” said Anderson, whose family kept bees when he was a kid. Drinking Horn uses honey from Mountain Top Honey in Flagstaff and most other ingredients are locally sourced. The average mead takes about four months to ferment and age in the 150 gallon tanks. Their meads average 13% ABV, weaker than many wines but just slightly more powerful than today’s bold beers. With mead though, you have to be careful because its hard to detect any alcohol through the flavors.

There’s a lot of science into making mead — balancing all the right ingredients, filtering water at just the right temperature and knowing how to use the yeast. Anderson, though, knows a lot about biology. He worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helping to save endangered fish for over a decade. But the work meant he often had to travel long distances across the Southwest that would take him away from his family. “The work was important but spending 150 days a year traveling from river to river was too much,” said the University of New Mexico graduate. Anderson and his wife, Kelly, were were also looking for something that would bring Anderson closer to home.

Anderson believes he’s getting in at the start of a hot trend with mead. The name Drinking Horn comes from the typical image of a Viking drinking mead from an animal horn. The Nordics were only one of many cultures to drink mead with the Romans and Greeks and English among the others. If you need another reason to try mead - and you really don’t with so many styles - the beverage was historically imbibed for medicinal purposes. Infusing herbs into a sweet mead made them more agreeable, and different varieties were thought to improve digestion, help with depression and alleviate good old-fashioned hypochondria.

Rowe said the mead craze is being pushed by the under 40 crowd that’s into craft beer and craft cocktails. “A lot of this is the push to buy local and the love of having a cool place that makes interesting beverages,” she said.

For more on mead and how to make it, please click here.