Mead: Wine, Beer, or Something Else?

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 09-20-2016

Larsen MeadworksMead is the oldest known alcoholic beverage, with lineage back to 7000 B.C. It predates wine and beer by thousands of years. But it’s only now gaining favor among American consumers. The American Mead Makers Association’s inaugural Mead Industry Report showed mead to be the smallest but fastest growing segment of the American alcohol industry. In the past decade, the number of commercial meaderies in the United States has increased nearly tenfold, from approximately 30 in 2003 to now close to 300 in 2016.

Mead is growing. But it has yet to solidify its identity with the drinking public. Part wine, part beer, but not wholly either, mead is a strange beverage. Those who know it as honey wine are shocked to encounter something dry or even hopped, instead of something viscous and saccharine. It’s perhaps mead’s resistance to classification that has turned off drinkers for so long. But it’s also what’s fueling its current momentum, especially among novelty-craving Millennials.

I recently encountered mead in an unlikely place—Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. That’s where Larsen Meadworks is quietly producing some of the freshest, most creative and delicious concoctions I’ve ever tasted (see my brief notes below the fold).

Nate Larsen, who opened his Mechanicsburg tasting room in late 2015, has only been making mead for three years, but in that short time he’s become proficient at achieving balanced and brightly nuanced meads. He uses only the freshest local ingredients—no concentrates and no evident backsweetening—and brings together techniques from winemaking and brewing. Fermentations are done completely in open-top containers, lasting anywhere from two to four weeks, with different ingredients added in stages. This incremental approach imbues the mead with distinct layers, which unfold almost sequentially, allowing you to taste every bit of each ingredient. The rapidity of the process says beer, but the complexity and alcohol level, which ranges from 10 to 15 percent and is dangerously imperceptible, says wine.

When it comes to ingredients, everything is intentional. As a former bartender, Larsen knows the difference between a lime that is juiced and one that is pressed—and chooses the latter in his mead making because of the rind essence that it produces. And for anyone who knows what it’s like to eat a fresh stalk of rhubarb, the Larsen Meadworks Aura is just about as close as you can get to the real thing.

The lineup of meads at Larsen is long, but each is interesting in its own way, not least for the backstory. You’ll want to read my notes below, but to list some of the ingredients that come into play: strawberry, rhubarb, cascade hops, ginger, mango, passion fruit, peppermint, peach, turmeric, saffron, maple syrup, and almond meal.

Larsen meads are now available for order nationally on Vinoshipper.

Somewhere between wine and beer, mead is carving a niche all its own. There is great pressure, say some, to turn mead into something wholesale and sugary, sold in six packs. Thankfully, mead makers have yet to acquiesce.

Larsen Meadworks Aura
One of Larsen’s first creations and my favorite. Three ingredients: local wildflower honey, strawberry, and rhubarb. Light effervescence. Off-dry. Larsen’s version of a brut rose. Fruit forward. Distinct and delicious layers of rhubarb and strawberry.

Larsen Meadworks Jelsa
Named for the Larsen family farm in Norway. Inspired by brut champagne. Only three ingredients—honey, passion fruit, and raisin—yet still complex. Pleasantly effervescent. Nice acidity. Reminiscent of a saison.

Larsen Meadworks Missionary’s Downfall
Inspired by an antiquated tiki drink recipe. Four ingredients: honey, pineapple, peach, peppermint. Fermented in three stages. A perfect reflection of Larsen’s approach to fermentation. Hints of anise and white pepper. No carbonation on this one.

Larsen Meadworks Honey Hop
Made with only two ingredients: honey and raw cascade hops. Dry and sparkling. Larsen’s reinvention of the archetypal lite beer.

Larsen Meadworks Ginger Hop
Made with four ingredients: honey, raw cascade hops, ginger, and orange. Like a lite ginger beer with a hint of orange.

Larsen Meadworks Breakfast in Bed
Cold steep of blonde coffee imparts a mellow coffee flavor. Also made with dark cocoa powder and organic orange zest and juice.

Larsen Meadworks Zoborodo
Inspired by a Nigerian softdrink for children. Ingredients include hibiscus flower, organic lime zest and juice, vanilla bean, saffron, and grain of paradise.

Larsen Meadworks Cello-Verde
One of three meads in Larsen’s Cello series, all of which have a base of honey, mango, and vanilla bean. Verde has the addition of lime rind. Balanced and not too heavy on the vanilla.

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