Brew from the Depths of Time

Photo: liquor.com

The Re-Discovery of Mead and Its Growing Influence in Canadian Beer

By: James Burt

Ancient Elixirs

“Mead’s one more thing that people can add to their basket on a sampling night,” said Trafalgar Brewery co-founder Eric Dornan of Oakville, Ontario. “Sure it’s a niche market but people are starting to dabble in it more and more.”

Trafalgar Brewery has seen growing interest in mead firsthand with its Chai Mead and Mead Braggot releases. Dornan pointed to today’s media as an influence in driving people to discover mead for themselves.

“With all the popularity around Vikings and Game of Thrones on television or in print, fans see the characters drinking mead and want to seek it out for themselves. It’s interesting even how Trafalgar came to mead: fifteen years ago, the former owner was asked to brew it for a renaissance festival—a pumpkin-cranberry mead. We’ve been making it ever since then.”

Dornan’s references to historical fiction are perhaps necessary to understand both the history of mead and its revival in the modern age. Reading on the history of beer, one will inevitably discover mead, the ancient alcoholic drink that dates back to both ancient China and later prominently in Ancient Greece. Unlike beer, a drink based in fermented grain, mead comes from fermented honey. Any party that kept beehives through time, from monasteries to Norse armies, could make mead, flavouring it with fruit and spices.

Today, mead is often a choice product of select wineries.

“Mead has the same base as ice wine, just without bubbles. Something sweet being fermented,” said Planter’s Ridge Winery’s Janine Radul of Port Williams, Nova Scotia. “We add the bubbles later, in a brewery. For some of our drier meads, we stop fermentation early to get the flavour we want.”

Crossover Potential

It’s not surprising that amidst the revival of lost or vintage styles of beers that mead is gaining prominence. What is surprising however is its modern incorporation aspects of beer in its brewing process, resulting in the form of the mead-beer crossover of braggot.

“We are a brewery so we use hops and barley as we have before,” said Dornan. “But with mead, we only use marginal amounts of both to create the braggot. In the end, it’s about fifty-fifty of wild flower honey and barley.”

The mixing of grain and honey to make braggot has paralleled with brewers creating meads the same way session brewers concoct experimental beers. Trafalgar has expanded its product line with mead to include its Chai mead, a mixture of masala chai tea, mead, and barley, plus a Braggot and Peach Mead line.  

“You often have to explain these products to everyone and the public can be a bit suspicious,” said Dornan. “It’s half this and half that, but people are often willing to give it a go once you do.”

Regional Resources and Growth

Just as small batch and independent beer has helped facilitate wheat and hop production, mead has also lent itself to the growth of regional resources that go into mead’s production, allowing even more systemic growth in several offshoots of the beer and beverage industries.

“We source our honey from bee keeper Perry Brant in Wolfville, Nova Scotia,” said Radul. “He’s got ninety-five hives and is working as a sustainable beekeeper. Four hundred pounds of honey yields five hundred litres of mead, so we tend to use quite a bit.”

As Planter’s Ridge’s director of sales, Radul has also concocted unique ideas to promote their mead lines.

“Since people aren’t very familiar with mead, we’ve found that doing meal events where we can present a flight of mead to pair the drinks with the food.”

“There are government hits you have to get over to get meads on the shelves,” added Dornan. “But how different is that from beer today? Mead doesn’t have the same competition level as beer today does so it’s interesting to consider how the future will play out for mead and braggot.”