Mead and cider make a comeback in Maryland

Earthy and surprising, Maryland's mead and cider wines are the newest old thing

April 10, 2013|By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

Make room for cider and mead.

In Maryland, cider was last popular in Colonial times. Mead never has been.

But a new generation of mead and cider makers, with their feet planted firmly in Maryland soil, are rethinking these age-old fermented beverages and introducing them to new audiences.

The meads from Orchid Cellar Winery in Middletown and the small-batch cider wines from Millstone Cellars in Monkton are showing up on the shelves of boutique wine and liquor stores. Bartenders are crafting them into cocktails at restaurants like Woodberry Kitchen and Bluegrass.

Andrzej Wilk Jr. of Orchid Cellar and Kyle Sherrer of Millstone are the new agers, inspired by and committed to the attitudes about methods and sourcing that have inspired a generation of farm-to-table chefs.

The respect is mutual.

"One of the reasons we're so excited about Orchid Cellars and Millstone," said Connor Rasmussen, head bartender at Woodberry, "is that their size and attention to locality and their commitment to this region yields products that are completely in line with our sourcing methodology at Woodberry."

Rasmussen uses cider wine and mead as finishing touches on cocktails concocted with homespun ingredients like molasses, maple and raw honey gin.

When it comes to fermented ciders, American drinkers are more accustomed to hard ciders than cider wines. Hard ciders like Woodchuck, which behave like beers, are found in most corner taverns. Cider wines, especially ones like Millstone produces — with their focus on local ingredients — are a newer thing.

For Wilk, 27, and Sherrer, 24, having their products poured at Woodberry Kitchen is nothing but good news, both for brand exposure and for affirmation, like a musician hearing his song on the radio.

Orchid Cellar is owned by Wilk's parents, but he has the title of meadmaker and runs the Orchid's tasting room and daily operations. Kyle Sherrer co-owns Millstone with his father. Both fathers are biochemists.

That could be more than just a coincidence.

"[Meadmaking] is both and art and a science cloaked in a veil of magic," said Chris Webber, president of the American Meadmakers Association. Millstone, on its own website, calls cider making, "half science, half artistry." Gauging how a blend's character will change in the aging process and knowing when a batch is ready for the bottle are the skills of the trade.

Working alongside their fathers, Wilk and Sherrer are intimately involved with every step of the process, from sourcing to fermenting to aging, and they're both eloquent spokesmen for their family's craft.

Learning a trade is nothing new. Sons have been learning from their fathers for millennia. But it's Wilk's and Sherrer's devotion to local sourcing that makes them worth paying attention to, said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wine Association.

"What makes Maryland cider and Maryland mead special is Maryland soil," said Atticks, who will be helping to welcome winemakers from all over the United States to Baltimore on Saturday for the annual Drink Local Wine Conference.

Atticks said that he's impressed with the two men's respect for agriculture.

"[Sherrer] is thrilling to work with over a period of time," Atticks said. "He has that attitude of 'I'm willing to try and produce anything.' He has local ginger. He has local hops. And he's going to make a product that's really good."

The support from the wine association and from Baltimore's bartending community — Sherrer recently gave a presentation at the Baltimore Bartenders' Guild — is helping Wilk and Sherrer introduce their products to new audiences.

Wilk wants newcomers to know that the new meads are not the cough syrup you drink once a year at the Renaissance Festival. Mead is ready for the dinner table, he says, and not just for dessert. The next time you're looking for something to pair with Chinese or Mexican food, Wilk wants you to think of mead.

Wilk has timing on his side.Mead is catching on nationally. The number of meadmakers has tripled in the past 10 years, according to Webber, who says there are now 151 commercial meadmakers in the United States. (Not all are "meaderies," a term reserved for operations that exclusively produce mead.)

"Mead is the greatest new old thing out there," said Vicky Rowe, organizer of the Mazer Cup, the world's largest mead competition.

Rowe said modern American meadmaking took off first in Colorado, where it attracted craft-beer makers, and in California, where it caught on with winemakers.

"The beauty of mead is the variety of mead," Rowe said. "It can be everything from bone-dry to tooth-numbing sweet, and everything in between. If [people] are tired of the same old merlots and chardonnay, then step over to the wild side and try something different."

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