In-Depth

​Drink Mead, Save Bees

The ancient beverage has some surprisingly modern benefits.
The team at Meadiocrity, (L-R John, Nate, Andrew, and Mark) maintain 150 hives of bees that make honey for their California meads. Photo courtesy of Meadiocrity.
The team at Meadiocrity, (L-R John, Nate, Andrew, and Mark) maintain 150 hives of bees that make honey for their California meads. Photo courtesy of Meadiocrity.

Mark Oberle relies on a team of 10 million bees to produce mead for Meadiocrity.

Making honey wine would be impossible without “the girls” in his beehives and, without the meadery, the bee population in Escondido, California, would be down by 150 beehives. And, as the buzz over the honey-based beverage continues growing, Oberle, founder and mead-maker at Meadiocrity, will need even more “workers” to keep up with the demand.

“We wouldn’t be in business without bees,” Oberle says.

Meadiocrity maintains 150 beehives to supply honey for its craft mead. Photo courtesy of Meadiocrity. Meadiocrity maintains 150 beehives to supply honey for its craft mead. Photo courtesy of Meadiocrity.

Mead is believed to be the oldest alcoholic libation, the drink of Vikings and medieval knights. It’s often referred to as honey wine and it does share similarities to grape wine, including multiple sweetness levels from sweet to dry, but it can also be fermented with ingredients more commonly associated with beer, such as hops and grains. Regardless of the brewing style, honey is always the base ingredient in mead. It can take up to three pounds of honey to produce a single gallon of mead.

The ancient beverage is making a comeback. There are more than 400 mead producers in the U.S., up from just 30 in 2003, according to the American Mead Makers Association and keeping up with the demand requires ever-increasing amounts of honey.

Mead-makers are skipping cheaper, imported honey (often cut with high fructose corn syrup) in favor of sourcing pure honey directly from beekeepers. As bee populations decline thanks to disease, pests and Colony Collapse Disorder, mead creates a demand for local honey and new incentives to raise bees, helping increase pollinator populations.

“The resurgence of mead has coincided with the awareness of the plight of bees and its popularity can only help bees,” says Oberle.

Taking care of the bees is an essential part of making mead. Photo courtesy of Meadiocrity. Taking care of the bees is an essential part of making mead. Photo courtesy of Meadiocrity.

Since opening in 2016, Meadiocrity has expanded from 30 hives to 150 hives at sites throughout southern California. Despite harvesting 2,100 pounds of honey last summer, it was not enough to quench the thirst for the ancient beverage, so the meadery partnered with local beekeepers to source additional honey — but local beekeepers are often unable to keep up with the demand.

When Maine Mead Works opened in 2007, all of the honey used in its meads was sourced from local beekeepers, but there were too few apiaries to keep up with demand. Founder Ben Alexander started purchasing honey from True Source Certified international apiaries, featuring Maine honey only in its (higher priced) reserve meads.

Over time, Alexander hopes there will be more opportunities to support local producers, explaining, “We’re willing to pay a premium [for local honey] because we want to include Maine flavor profiles in the mead and we want to support local beekeepers. As the industry continues growing, it’s absolutely having an impact on the market for local honey.”

In Durham, North Carolina, Honeygirl Meadery maintains three beehives but needs honey from upwards of 300 hives to meet the demand for its meads. Owner and mead-maker Diane Currier purchases honey from several beekeepers, buying as little as 10 gallons from a hive to take advantage of the terroir of a specific region. She also purchases honey from verified international sources, noting, “The threats to honeybees are worldwide and supporting them is a global issue. When we make mead, we’re honoring the bees.”

Honeygirl Meadery uses bee-pollinated fruits such as figs, oranges, blueberries and strawberries in some of its meads. Photo courtesy of Honeygirl Meadery. Honeygirl Meadery uses bee-pollinated fruits such as figs, oranges, blueberries and strawberries in some of its meads. Photo courtesy of Honeygirl Meadery.

Bees provide more than just honey.

Meadiocrity, Maine Mead Works and Honeygirl Meadery make meads fermented with fruits such as blueberries, strawberries and apples — all crops reliant on bee pollination — making meaderies even more dependent on bees and committed to their wellbeing.

Oberle believes that the inextricable connection between mead and bees is one of the reasons for the resurgence of the beverage, explaining, “People feel good about drinking a drink that helps support bees.”

Jodi Helmer North Carolina beekeeper and journalist Jodi Helmer writes about food and farming for National Geographic Traveler, NPR, Civil Eats and National Culinary Review among others.

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