by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
When Carson Lloyd turned the tap on his small cask of oaked mead, it was the culmination of more than a year of effort. Mead, an alcoholic beverage derived from honey, is perhaps the oldest form of potable alcohol in human history, and it takes a great deal of patience to make properly. Lloyd dispensed three different varieties of mead on March 1 at his home in Capitol Hill. Each one was distinct in character, each was ideal for a different part of the evening, and each is now, sadly, just a memory. A year of work and waiting for the sake of a single but delicious night. That’s the paradoxical mix of delayed gratification and in-the-moment indulgence that mead embodies.
“For this batch, I got the honey wholesale online. One of these days, I’m gonna do an all-local batch. That’ll take some doing,” Lloyd said. Though it’s not well known yet, Seattle has a promising local honey market. Groups like the Ballard Bee Company and the Seattle Urban Honey co-op produce in backyards and rooftops throughout the city. The latter began with two hives in 2008, and now sports 40 participating hives in various zip codes around the city.
There’s great potential in using this local honey for a product like mead. The majority of honey consumed in the United States is processed, which means that it is heated, filtered, and sometimes mixed with other sweeteners to produce a clean, uniform flavor and texture. Raw honey, which is what small apiaries and local producers bottle, is essentially honey straight from the bees. It’s only filtered to the point that particulate matter, like parts of the hive structure and the bees themselves, don’t end up in the bottle. The result is a complex honey, owing to the wide variety of flowers that feed the bees in urban gardens. Translated to mead, raw honey would add layers of nuance similar to the difference between clean, mass-produced cider and the earthy notes of small-batch cider.
“The base product is fine, but I think it benefits from something extra,” Lloyd says of his three different flavors of mead this year. On Saturday, his offerings included a sweet and fizzy orange mead, a semi-sweet spiced mead, and a crisp, dry oaked mead. Each was remarkably distinct, coming from the same honey but brewed with different additional ingredients toward the beginning of the process.
For those interested in producing their own, mead is made by adding a large quantity of honey (no less than 12 pounds to yield five gallons of final product) with gallons of pure water and a measure of yeast. The honey is slowly dissolved in the water at as low as 120 degrees, and as high as 170 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the recipe, resulting in what is known as a “must.” The must lives in a sanitized, plastic fermenting bucket for two to three weeks while the yeast works, then is “racked” into a glass carboy with flavoring agents for another four weeks. The mead is racked again to remove sediment and improve clarity, often staying in this second carboy for three months. At this point, the mead is technically drinkable, though it will improve in a bottle for the next six months to one year.
In the case of Lloyd’s brews, the orange and spiced meads went into large canisters to mature, while the oaked mead went into a small sherry cask where it barrel-aged. This made the oaked mead take on a clean, sherry-like flavor, ideal as an aperitif, or “before-dinner” drink. Barrel aging allows alcohol to mix with some of the essential oils in the wood of the cask, adding complexity to the flavor.
The first to run out for the night was Lloyd’s orange mead. It was a naturally fizzy product made with orange juice and rind. While some variations on the standard mead recipe call for hops, the herb used to give beer its distinct bitter profile, none of Lloyd’s recipes made a beer-style mead. The carbonation was a result of the extra sugars in the orange juice giving the yeast some additional fuel. The orange mead was more of a dinner beverage, easy to drink and pairing well with the selection of smoked meats and hearty vegetables Lloyd’s guests provided. As a dessert drink, the spiced mead performed admirably. It had clove and allspice as its forward notes, rounding off at the end with cinnamon stick. Though only coming out semi-dry, the spiced mead satisfied many a sweet tooth in the room.
“It’s a real challenge because a lot of stuff can go wrong in the beginning. I actually lost a few early batches because the darn yeast just wouldn’t take,” Lloyd said. “I’m proud of these, though. It’s tough ’cause I keep wanting to experiment with different ingredients and it takes so much time to make even a gallon.”
Thankfully for enthusiasts like Lloyd, mead rewards the patient. It’s worth the wait for an ancient treat and worth its weight in honey-colored gold for those who have acquired the taste.