Calgarians drink a lot of suds at National, a chain of four rollicking craft beer bars, each with more than 60 taps. But across them all this summer, the bestselling keg is a mead.
That’s right. This medieval staple is making a comeback. Made simply by fermenting pure honey with wine or beer yeast, the drink’s resurgence has been predicted by some mead makers for more than a decade. However, even cameos on Game of Thrones and The Vikings couldn’t catapult this honey-based wine onto Canadian patios and bar tops. But session or draft mead, a new category of sparkling, low-alcohol mead that’s often drier than your average beer or cider, just might put it into the mainstream.
At National, the most popular keg is Fallentimber’s Meadjito – a 5.5-per-cent, off-dry, bubbly mead made with lime and mint. Before pouring a bottle of Meadjito into a pint glass over a stack of ice, if you tilt the bottle to stir up the sediment, you’ll see it’s cloudy and white, like water with a squeeze of lemon. .
It drinks more like a low-sugar cooler than a cloying honey wine – and that’s the idea when it comes to most session meads. “Meadjito was inspired by the cocktail, and its flavours are driven by the lime and mint we add, not as much by the honey,” says Dan Molyneux, chief executive officer of Fallentimber. “Whereas, our traditional meads showcase more of our clover honey’s complex flavours.”
Molyneux, his cousins, aunt and uncle started Fallentimber on their apiary in the Foothills of Alberta in 2010. They are third-generation beekeepers and Molyneux and his cousins wanted to move back to the farm, so they looked for a way to make a product on-site that could employ more than one person. That’s when they found mead. They opened with traditional meads, and after tasting session meads in the United States, they began brewing their own in 2012.
Session mead outsells traditional mead 12 to 1. Thanks mainly to Meadjito, the company recently expanded its capacity 16 times and grew to a staff of 12 from five partners.
Session meads are so popular in the United States that some meaderies, including Charm City Meadworks in Baltimore and Author Mead Co. in Washington State, are making just that style.
“Session meads are popular because they’re a whole lot faster to make than a full-on mead at 11- to 14-per-cent ABV [alcohol by volume], and you’re using less honey so the cost to produce is lower, letting makers do larger batches and reach more people,” says Vicky Rowe, executive director of the American Mead Makers Association and founder of North America’s biggest mead website, gotmead.com.
“And from the consumer side, lower ABV meads in cans are a more casual and approachable beverage – people can drink it at the beach and drive home afterward. There’s a fun factor."
In Canada, only half a dozen companies are making session meads. In British Columbia, Jeff Gillham and Pierre Vacheresse run Humblebee Meadery, making just bone-dry session meads, inspired by culinary flavours. The Bee’s Knees, for instance, is made with green tea and kaffir lime leaf.
In McLeod Hill, N.B., Pollen Angels Meadery, founded by the husband-and-wife team of beekeeper Deb Wilson, and mead maker John Hay, is making a name for itself with its sweet session mead. Its bottles swept the sweet session category at the world’s largest mead competition in 2016. Hay isn’t precious about appreciating the mead.
“You can blend it with just about anything, even cold-pressed coffee,” he says, “One restaurant goes through a keg of it every weekend making ‘meadmosas’ [half mead, half OJ] at brunch service,” he says.
In Ontario, the founders of New Skew were convinced dry, session mead was the next big thing after trying some at a popup dinner hosted by famed Scandinavian restaurant Noma in 2017. They started Royal Canadian Mead (RCM) in 2018, brewing it on contract at Niagara College this year.
Their first product, named Feels Like Friday, hit Liquor Control Board of Ontario shelves this June. Packaged in an artsy can, the product calls out the drinking occasion and vibe, rather than celebrating nerdy mead culture. But the flagship mead doesn’t shy away from expressing the terroir of the Ontario buckwheat honey sourced from a family farm in Bath, Ont.
RCM has four more meads in the pipeline, including a cherry mead. The company’s hopes for mead’s future are high. “We’re convinced that five years from now, mead is going to be where cider is now,” says Matt Gibson, the company’s president, “where you’re surprised if a bar doesn’t carry at least one craft cider on tap or in the fridge.”
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