It’s no secret that we’re all huge beer nerds here at the Cellar. But we can’t deny that other craft beverages like cider and mead are becoming more mainstream, too. Enter Maine Mead Works. Founded in 2007 by Ben Alexander and Carly Cope, the launch of the meadery was inspired by Dr. Garth Cambray, a South African mead maker. Cambray’s research on the history and fermentation process of mead are what piqued Alexander’s interest, and after contacting Cambray about his technique, the pair struck up both a friendship and business alliance. Cambray helped Alexander and Cope launch Maine Mead Works (whose brand is HoneyMaker) and now they produce about 5,000 cases of mead per year, thanks Alexander’s cousin Nick Higgins, the head mead maker. And since we have the Portland, Maine-based meadery in house for a tasting today (from 5 to 7 p.m.), we had a few questions for Alexander.
The Maine Mead Works website says that mead making and popularity declined 500 years ago . why is that?
The decline happened in Europe and was due to a combination of factors. Beer and wine producing technology was improving and at the same time there were shortages in the supply of honey, which drove prices up. Ultimately, economics prevailed and the less expensive beer and wine grew more popular across Europe.
And why the more recent resurgence, do you think?
Homebrewers have played a role in this. Similar to craft beer brews did in the ’70s and ’80s, they’re sharing recipes and experiences fermenting honey. Knowledge of mead fermentations is growing and there are now more commercial meaderies making high quality mead, which helps raise awareness of the category.
Walk us through the mead making process.
Mead making is generally similar to wine and beer making but instead of using barley, wheat, or fruit as a sugar source, the primary sugar source (more than 50%) is from honey.
Our process is referred to as “continuous fermentation” rather than “batch fermentation,” which is most common among beer, wine, and mead production. We begin with a “must,” which is a mixture of honey and water. We pump the must very slowly through our tower fermenters . these are fermentation columns that are unique to our process. The yeast inside the columns converts the sugars in the honey to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.
Do you ever experiment with wild yeasts?
We have done some experiments with varying results. There is wild yeast in honey so if you add water to honey, it will spontaneously ferment. The mead can be very good but more often it can be very bad. So the risk is pretty high that you won’t get good results from wild yeast and with such an expensive raw material like honey, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
Which mead(s) would you recommend to a diehard craft beer drinker?
Our hopped mead is great. We use cascade hops in a boil and a post-fermentation dry hop. It’s 12.5 percent ABV and non-sparkling. We’ve just launched a new line of mead called Ram Island, which are sparkling and have a 7 percent ABV. The Iced Tea Mead has been especially popular among beer enthusiasts.
Speaking of dry hopping, how do those meads turn out?
Our dry hopped mead has been described as a “pure” hop experience as there is no malt to cover up the flavor of hops. Our hopping process involves two steps. First, we boil hops in water and add that hop water 3/4 of the way through the honey fermentation. This gives the yeast a blast of nutrients as it ferments to dryness. Then, we whole leaf dry hop after fermentation. The result is a slightly bitter flavor up front that finishes very fruity and citrus-like . both of which are balanced well with the sweetness of honey.
What are some of your favorite foods to pair with mead?
Spicy food for sure. Also lots of different types of seafood including raw oysters, scallops, sushi.
How do different types of honey affect the final flavor of a mead?
The kinds of flowers the bees were pollinating has a huge impact on the flavor of the mead. That being said, we’re currently using a wildflower honey from a number of different sources. It’s available in significant quantities and therefore we can have greater consistency. We do plan to experiment with varietal honeys in the future.
That being said, tell us about the flavor profiles that mead can have.
Our first meads were made primarily with goldenrod honey and had a “meadowy” flavor. You can also pick up some wax-like flavors which are interesting and very unique to mead. The really neat thing about mead is that honey compliments a lot of things and can be used a base for so many other flavors resulting in an endless number of potential mead flavors and styles. We’ve chosen to focus on things that are grown in Maine and so our blueberry, lavender, strawberry, elderberry, cranberry meads, and apple cyser are all used in varying amounts to complement the honey.
Are you working on any new flavors or with any new ingredients?
A few years ago farmers in Maine were able to grow ginger in greenhouses. The harvested root is very different from what most people think of as ginger. It has a crisp, delicate flesh more like an apple and is delicious. We’re looking forward to our first Maine ginger mead later this year.
We have to ask: what are a few of your favorite craft beers?
I discovered Allagash House Beer recently which is a session belgian pale ale and only available at their brewery. It ‘s become my go to. Being from Maine, I am really impressed with all of the diversity in the beer that is being crafted there. Maine Beer Co. Peeper Ale and Rising Tide Daymark are two other local favorites. Okay, I’ll admit that I drank my first Heady Topper only a few days ago on a trip to Burlington and despite all the hype, it was quite tasty!