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John Bryans grew up with bees. His family has been beekeeping for four generations and, for nearly 50 years, they have owned Ontario's venerable Munro Honey farm, founded in 1914.

But only recently did Mr. Bryans, 46, realize that he could transform honey into the nectar of the gods.

The intoxicating nectar is mead, an archaic drink made by fermenting honey with yeast and water. The elixir was reputedly the booze of choice for Zeus and other Olympians.

The drink fell out of favour in most of Europe more than 500 years ago. But today in North America, mead is enjoying a renaissance. In Canada, almost two dozen meaderies have opened in the past decade, and connoisseurs are quaffing the ancient libation.

Mr. Bryans started producing mead seven years ago with honey from his 2,500 bee colonies. He now sells about 10,000 bottles of mead annually, mostly out of Munro Honey's gift shop, but also to Japan.

"A lot of people come in and their perception of mead is that it will be very heavy and sweet," says Mr. Bryans, who co-owns Munro Honey with his brother Davis. Instead, "they're surprised at how refreshing it is and light on the tongue."

Elana Roth, who lives in Toronto, recently drove three hours to buy two cases of mead at Munro Honey in Alvinston, Ont.

Ms. Roth first tried mead five years ago and "fell in love with it," she says. Now she drinks grape wine "only when we can't get the mead, but otherwise, there's always a bottle of mead in the fridge."

Like wine, mead is aged for several years. It can be dry and crisp, or as sweet and viscous as port. But since honey has no tannins, mead makers often add fruit juices for acidity and spices to pique the taste buds.

For some mead makers, processing the honey is almost a science.

André Abi Raad studied chemistry in Lebanon before he was hired 10 years ago to make honey wine for Canada's first meadery, Intermiel of Mirabel St-Benoît, Que. One of his secrets, Mr. Abi Raad says, is a technique of warming the honey for filtration with an electromagnetic heater devised by Hydro-Québec.

Mr. Abi Raad says he is now working on a mead-based eau de vie (a colourless spirit) using a still imported from Europe.

Intermiel sells about 80,000 bottles - about $600,000 - of his mead each year. Among them are a golden-rod mead with an alcohol content of 9 per cent and a dry apple-blossom honey wine with 13-per-cent alcohol. Both sell for $10 (for a 750 millilitre bottle) and both won gold at the 2007 International Mead Festival, the world's largest mead competition, held in Denver.

Artisan honey-wine shops are an extension of the microbrewery trend, mead makers say.

Honey wines can be found at liquor stores in provinces such as Quebec and Ontario, but most sales are at the source, where proud meadophiles offer tastings of their flowery, herbed or oaked creations.

In British Columbia, Middle Mountain Mead has become an agri-tourism destination since it opened two years ago on Hornby Island. Middle Mountain varieties include Green Tea Elixir, a dry mead infused with ginger and a blend of teas, which pairs well with Asian food, according to mead maker Darryl Bohn. "It's our version of sake," he says.

The Middle Beach Lodge in Tofino, B.C., has served Middle Mountain meads for two years. "People have really taken to it," says the lodge's food and beverage manager, Simon Gillett. "Our repeat guests order it the most."

Mr. Gillett says he pairs the drink with cheese and crackers, offers it as an aperitif and uses it in dishes of lamb or duck.

In Sooke, B.C., the Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery has garnered a following among fine restaurants as well as university students. Open since 2002, it's a frequent stop for windsurfers heading back from the nearby Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Not all mead makers have their own beehives, though.

Alley Kat Brewing in Edmonton became Alberta's first commercial mead maker when it introduced a spiced variety last Christmas, using honey supplied by local beekeepers. The sparkling mead sold out in liquor stores within days, says Alley Kat owner Neil Herbst.

"Once they try mead, people tend to like it," he says.

The first sip is often steeped in legend, he adds. "I think mead has a certain mystique about it because it's sort of Arthurian and medieval."

The history of mead is older still. Mead may be the original hooch, since the oldest residues of alcoholic beverages - discovered in Chinese pot shards dating to 7,000 BC - contained honey.

According to Norse mythology, mead was served in Valhalla, home of the Valkyries. The drink also appears in Beowulf, Dante's The D ivine Comedy and countless other texts. In 19th-century Europe, mead was considered a tonic and touted to cure everything from baldness to old age.

Although its curative powers are questionable, for sulphite-sensitive drinkers, mead may be healthier than grape wines, since honey has natural preservatives and minimal chemicals are added.

Mead is certainly a boon for apiaries. In Alberta, which has more honeybee colonies than any other province, mead making could generate between $14.5-million and $28-million for the beekeeping industry in the next five years, according Alberta Agriculture and Food.

But one thing that could put a sting in the mead revival is the mysterious decline in North America's bee population. Honeybees have been dropping like flies in recent years, and scientists are not entirely sure why.

For Munro Honey, it was a particularly bad spring. "I would say we've had a 30- to 40-per-cent loss and we consider ourselves very lucky," Mr. Bryans says.

With hives at risk, beekeepers can only hope for the best - and keep making mead with a markup of up to 40 per cent. The retail price of mead ranges from $10 for a 750 ml bottle of good quality honey wine to $23 for a 375 ml can of vintage mead.

Although it costs about the same as an inexpensive bottle of grape wine, mead is no threat to merlot or chardonnay.

"It's a specialty product, more like an ice wine or a cider," Mr. Abi Raad says. "It isn't something you drink every day."

Meads to know

Like wine, mead can be dry, aged, sweet or sparkling. Mead comes in at least a dozen varieties - including tej, an Ethiopian mead - but these are the most common in Canada:


Mead brewed with malt or beer brewed with one-third or more honey as the source of sugar by weight.


Honey and apple juice fermented together.


Mead made with fruit (some melomels have specific names, such as cyser).


Mead made with herbs or spices, such as cinnamon, sage or cloves. Derived from a Welsh word, the name refers to meads once used as folk remedies.


Honey fermented with red or white grapes.


Mead made with rose hips, rose petals or rose oil.

Sack mead

Sweet meads with a viscosity similar to that of sherry (once known in England as "sack").

Adriana Barton

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