"More mead for my men!"
Only a few years ago, this rallying cry was the stuff of B-grade Viking movies. But as Americans get more adventurous with food and drink, mead fans are springing up all over, supporting something of a New World renaissance for this ancient beverage.
If you've never heard of mead or know it only through mentions in Shakespeare, Chaucer or Beowulf, you might want to get acquainted with fermented honey.
It's quite possibly the world's oldest beverage, aside from water. Provided you like the taste of honey and don't mind some sweetness in your wine or ale, it can be a very good sip, or at least an intriguing one.
Although mead retained a following in Britain and some other countries, it was virtually unknown in the United States until home brewers discovered it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They fanned enough interest to encourage wineries and microbreweries to produce it commercially, and even to support a few meaderies.
Mead can be fermented like wine or brewed like ale. Arguments as to which is more authentic are probably pointless, as the origins of mead are lost in the mists of legend and lore.
Indeed, as the only beverage that ferments all by itself, it's likely that mead was not so much invented as discovered. David Myers is a Baltimore native who opened Redstone Meadery in Boulder, Colo., two years ago. He imagines a likely scenario involving a beehive in a tree, rainwater and a cave dweller.
Honey is too dense for yeast to live in, but once rainwater dilutes honey, yeast from the air can survive in the liquid. Time passes and soon some lucky human discovers the beehive and tastes the runny honey - and the rest is history.
Later on, humans discovered how brewing and fermenting other substances can produce all kinds of interesting things to drink. These days, Marylanders can sip a variety of styles of mead.
In Mount Airy, Linganore Winecellars has been making mead for years. Its brand, Medieval Mead, re-creates the honey wine of the Middle Ages and is featured each fall at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. It's also available in some area wine stores. The winery suggests serving it chilled in the summer with ham or salmon or warmed with cinnamon and cloves in cooler weather.
In Delaware, the Dogfish Head Brewery in Rehoboth Beach has made its Midas Touch mead a regular offering. You can find it on shelves with specialty beers and ales at some liquor stores around town. Midas was a ruler of the kingdom of Phrygia in central Turkey around 700 B.C. He is known in legend as the king whose touch turned everything to gold. (Unfortunately, he couldn't eat or drink gold.)
In 1957, a team from the University of Pennsylvania unearthed a burial chamber that likely belonged to King Midas. The tomb included equipment for preparing, serving and drinking a funeral beverage. Molecular archaeologists went to work on the residue inside the vessels and determined that it contained grape wine, barley beer and honey mead.
Using that chemical evidence, Dogfish Head made its own version of the ancient elixir and dubbed it Midas Touch Golden Elixir.
Mead has come a long way in the past couple of decades, but it's still not a common drink. That may change because it seems to be attracting fans among younger drinkers. Some tips for those who buy fermented (wine-style) mead and find it too sweet: Think of it as a dessert wine, sip it warm or add a little to pork chops or other dishes when you're cooking.
Myers says that although mead is not yet popular enough to be its own industry, its recent growth in popularity clearly shows it has great potential in the marketplace.
As he sees it, "We need more meaderies to make more customers."