The World’s Oldest, Most Sustainable Alcoholic Beverage You’ve Never Heard Of
There's a buzz in Portland, Maine surrounding mead, a beverage with medieval fame
What do you think the oldest alcoholic beverage is made from? Grapes? Grains? Rice? Actually, we can thank bees. During pre-medieval times in parts of Africa and Asia, honey was being fermented and used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. It later became popular during medieval culture. Rising honey prices at the time eventually meant only kings could afford the drink. Over centuries, it slipped into obscurity overtaken by the more familiar grape- and grain-based drinks we know of today.
Mead as it is known was rediscovered in the 1950’s and 60’s by a group of researchers and amateur makers experimenting with modernizing the production process. A place where mead making is enjoying modern renaissance is Portland, Maine. As part of PSFK’s drive of the 2016 Lincoln MKX, we had the opportunity to check out two of Portland’s most prominent mead destinations.
Maine Mead Works was founded in 2007 and occupies a building in Portland’s industrial district. The company produces all of its mead onsite using locally-sourced ingredients. They offer visitors a behind the scenes tour of the production area and walk through the making process.
Mead is created from wildflower honey with variations made from ingredients ranging from lavender to strawberries. The fermentation process used to take a long time, hindering commercial production. Maine Mead Works collaborated with South African scholar Dr. Garth Cambray to develop a modern continuous fermentation system that cuts production time without reducing the quality of the end product. The system relies on a combination of pressure and heat to reduce the making process from weeks to days.
The Maine Mead Works facility isn’t like a posh winery in the South of France or Sonoma. It looks more like a chemistry lab meets art space. There’s industrial stainless steel tanks paired with graffiti art.
The result of the combination of honey, water and yeast is the HoneyMaker mead. If you’ve never tried mead and expect it to be super sweet, it isn’t. The HoneyMaker Dry is just as it says – crisp and clear. There are semi-sweet varieties that Maine Mead Works makes but these are what you might expect to be closer to a desert wine. The flavors are unique and distinct from what comes from a white or red grape.
Urban Farm Fermentory is a new Portland space combining unique fermentations, food and art under one roof. Just a few blocks away from Maine Mead Works, UFF offers tastings and a place for visitors and locals to gather.
While UFF has mead on tap, it focuses more on kombucha (fermented tea) and farmhouse-style cider. Each is produced by local makers with locally-sourced ingredients.
UFF offers a tasting flight where any four of the up to 16 drinks can be sampled. The offer changes seasonally. The flavors range from very dry on the mead end to sweeter versions of kombucha made from blueberries and sweet fern.
If you have any interest in sustainability, mead is a drink to seek out. The honey used in the production process is partly from bees doing pollenation work on farm crops. Maine Mead Works says that a state shortage of pollinators actually requires blueberry growers to import 50,000 beehives every season. Bees are important agents in preserving plant biodiversity and mead production is another way of keeping that cycle going.
Photos: Dave Pinter