Virginia’s Exploding Micro Meadery Scene
By Matt Fitzsimmons
Virginia’s Exploding Micro Meadery Scene
This past February, Silver Hand Meadery was awarded 6 gold medals during the 2021 Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition, tying for the 2nd highest gold medal tally of any winery, cidery, or meadery in the state. While this haul surprised many in the wine industry, in retrospect it shouldn’t have. Silver Hand and other Virginia meaderies have been making great beverages for years; the public is just catching up to this fact.
Part of mead’s popularity can be attributed to the rise of historic fiction or fantasy TV shows. Even now, many meaderies capitalize on this theme with Viking-style names and an emphasis on mead’s backstory as the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage.
But mead has a following that goes beyond Renaissance fairs. For the past few years, mead has been one of the fastest growing niches in the beverage market, and Virginia is no different.
While Hilltop Berry Farm in Nellysford has served mead since 1998, in the past three years alone the number of Virginia meaderies has tripled to around a dozen businesses. In 2020, two new meaderies – Honey & Hops Brew Works and Saga Meadery & Winery – opened in Front Royal alone.
Part of mead’s popularity is the desire to ‘drink local’, which allowed the state’s craft beverage industry to grow by leaps and bounds for the past decade. Most meaderies source from local farms whenever possible. Some, like Valley View Farm in Delaplane have created their own aperies.
Another factor is meads have become more creative. The most recent Mazer Cup international mead competition had over 20 categories for different mead styles and levels of sweetness. Virginia meads likewise have a range of options, with everything from beverages made in the traditional method to crazy combinations of cinnamon or orange blossom.
Mead – It’s Not Just for Vikings
Despite mead being around for thousands of years, it’s still unfamiliar to a lot of people. Owner Kim Pugh of Hilltop explained “Now we’re seeing more and more people specifically because we have mead. But for years, we’d have customers who were totally unfamiliar with it and we’d basically just tell them it’s alcohol fermented with honey. I love the history and we can use that and turn it into something bigger. But it needs to be a drink that people are willing to drink now. Mead is wonderful if people give it a chance”.
This theme of valuing but not overemphasizing mead’s historical and fictional tie-ins was echoed by a number of meadery owners. Stephen Ausband, owner of Atheling Meadworks in Roanoke stated “I appreciate it but don’t want to hang my hat on it. Mead is more than that weird drink you try at Renaissance festivals”.
While mead shares many similarities to wine, it’s a mistake to treat it like wine (or beer). If anything, mead occupies a unique space in the market between these beverages. Isaac Rushing of Honey & Hops may have said it best: “It’s the right place and the right time for mead. You can think of mead as wine for beer drinkers, or a beer for wine drinkers”.
That’s likely part of mead’s appeal. Today’s beverage market is becoming increasingly diverse, with hard ciders, alcoholic seltzers, and sparkling drinks gaining an increasing market share at the expense of beer (and eventually, perhaps wine as well). Mead fits the description of something that’s different and tasty, qualities people are looking for.
Understanding What’s In Your Mead
Only three ingredients – honey, water, and yeast – are necessary for your basic mead. And fun fact, mead is one of the few alcoholic beverages that can occur spontaneously in nature!
But mead’s production is costlier than other beverages, which contributes to its relative scarcity. A bee hive typically produces around 40-60 lbs. of honey, which equates to give-or-take 13-20 gallons of mead. By comparison, 15 gallons of ale can be made with water, yeast, and 50 pounds of different malts and hops.
There are also many types of mead. Melomels are fruit-based meads. Cysers are meads fermented with apple cider or juice. Braggots are made of mead and beer. Pyments use grapes. A metheglin is a traditional-style mead with added spices. The list goes on.
It’s not just about the styles of mead that makes them different; it’s the honey they use. Silver Hand Meadery owner and meadmaker Glenn Lavender explained “We consistently use 10 plus types of honeys to emphasize this variety in our mead. It’s like a winemaker using merlot vs. cabernet sauvignon.”
Virginia has a huge lineup to choose from, but here are some favorites:
- Atheling Meadwork’s: Eir’s Song (pyment). Made with merlot, Eir’s Song is semi-sweet yet robust. It has a lot of floral notes and strong wine-like characteristics.
- Hilltop Berry Farm: Voyage (honey mead). Slightly sweet with some fruit notes, it’s hard to beat this old-school mead. Extra points for being made from the owner’s family recipe.
- Honey & Hops Brew Works: Stacks (bochet): Made from mead with honey that’s been caramelized, bringing out a complex flavor of graham crackers and toasted coconut.
- Saga Meadery: Winter Cheer (metheglin). It doesn’t need to be Christmas to enjoy Christmas in a glass. Mulling spices warm you up, with notes of orange. Try this warmed up if you want the spices to get big and bold.
- Silver Hand Meadery: Gold medal winners. How can you pick one of these? With six gold medals Silver Hand broke new ground not just for Virginia mead, but the entire Virginia wine industry. Four of these meads melomels, with a cyzer and traditional rounding out the pack.
Be sure to visit Virginia’s many meaderies, including Atheling Meadworks, Black Heath Meadery, Blacksnake Meadery, The Capital Hive Meadery, Haley’s Honey Meadery, Honey & Hops Brew Works, Hill Top Berry Farm & Winery, Hinson Ford Cider & Mead, Misty Mountain Meadworks, Saga Meadery, Silver Hand Meadery, Stone House Meadery, Valley View Farm, Windchaser Meadery, and Zoll Vineyard.
Author: Matthew Fitzsimmons is a wine blogger who has visited almost every one of Virginia’s nearly 300 wineries. Track his progress on https://winetrailsandwanderlust.com/.