The Magic of Mead
Through the Looking Glass – Craft Beer to MeadCon
What is mead?
Magical mystical mead
The elixir of life
Derived from life-building bees
The pollination of plants
Building blocks of life
Nectar into honey
The bees gift to us
Nature's gift, natural wild fermentation
Godisgoode, the yeast working magic
Providing delectation and therapeutic inebriation
We the yeasts' stewards taking a hand
Learning and refining the magic of honey and mead
Traditional ceremonial mead
Fruit additions, flavor combos
The new brewers making session styles
More accessible to the masses
Mead makes a 21st century reappearance
From hive to hand
Bee to belly
Buzz to buzz
By Tony Forder
About 30 years ago a door opened for me. That door was craft beer and I spent three decades exploring, poking, sipping, drinking, cheersing, traveling, writing, editing and publishing in that space with Ale Street News which I launched with my brother-in-law Jack Babin. It was my life. Then I went out the back door. And then there was Covid.
During Covid one of the things I started doing was making mead...and another door opened. I tiptoed in and followed a corridor to MeadCon, the National Mead Makers Conference in Baltimore.
What I found was not unlike what I imagined the Craft Brewers Conference to have been like in the late 1980s – a bunch of creative, passionate people in pursuit of fermented perfection. There were only 100 registrants, but that certainly, like craft brewers (microbrewers as they were known at the time) in the 80s, added to the intimacy.
My first Craft Brewers Conference (excuse me Microbrewers and Pubbrewers) was in 1993 in New Orleans. It too was intimate and super friendly. I attended what became CBC practically every year for the next 25 years and saw it evolve to a giant 12,000 registrant animal.
The big difference right away for MeadCon was the fact that professionals and amateurs are on an equal footing. In the beer world, the AHA American Homebrewers Association) caters to the homebrewers, although there were usually plenty of wannabee pros at CBC. AMMA caters to both.
I registered as a volunteer for MeadCon and on arrival met another refugee from the beer world – Josh Lampe, now Executive Director for AMMA (American Mead Makers Association), who used to work for Weyerbacher Brewing in PA. Other meadmakers (Mazers) started out homebrewing beer and many were familiar with Ale Street News.
Coming out of Covid and a 2-year hiatus, MeadCon 2022 was probably a little light. Some of the bigger players were missing, including former AMMA president Sergio Moutela of Melovino Mead in my home state of New Jersey. But there were plenty of positives. The energetic current president Brian Wing of Greenbench (beer, ciders and meads in St. Petersburg, FL), and his board put together a pretty diverse selection of seminars for the 2-day conference.
Topics ranged from beekeeping, terroir influences and the honey market, to business concerns like self-distribution and trademark issues, to meadhouse operations like filtering and pasteurization. Veteran meadmaker Brad Dalhofer of 14-year B.Nektar talked about bench trials – scaling from small to large batches; Ben Chaney, who opened the 4th meadery in Arizona – Scale and Feather – in 2019, gave an animated presentation on business opening pitfalls, and how he survived the pandemic.
Globetrotting bee and honey researcher Brian Woerner shared his adventures in remote honey producing areas of Ethiopia and South America. Renowned amateur meadmaker Kevin Meintsma conducted an in-depth analysis and group tasting of the effect of different water profiles on meads. Meadmaker of the year Allen Martin and OGs Jim Price and Matt Mead shared some tips on competing for medals. And reflecting the high percentage of female owners in the mead industry (compared to the brewing industry) four women meadery owners shared their stories on a Women Mead Bosses panel discussion – Diane Currier of Honeygirl, Jeri Carter of Queens Reward, Becky Starr of Starrlight, and Lyn Marie from Charm City.
Also in attendance were reps from the government's Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) which oversees formula and label approval for alcohol, including the up-and-coming world of new wave mead production. While the TTB staff did their best to field questions, their theoretical advice didn't always jive with attendees practical and sometimes frustrating experience which led to some lively discussion. Most agreed however that TTB is much improved and has good intentions.
Conferencees were a diverse bunch – from Arizona, Texas, Mississippi and Colorado with a large complement from nearby Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and PA, although oddly none from the West Coast. Furthest traveled was definitely Gosnell's of London.
Owner Tom Gosnell said he and his meadmaker Will attended MeadCon because "it is the biggest mead industry in the world...by a long way." Poland would be second. "Traditional mead in the UK kind of died out," said Gosnell, but new wave meaderies such as his are popping up. The pair brought plenty of their session-style canned meads to share.
The tradeshow was, to be honest, a bit underwhelming. Only half a dozen participants
– TTB, National Honey Board, Arriveyd POS, Amoretti purees and concentrates, Bee Seasonal organic honey and Northeast Barrel, living away samples of Amburana wood from Brazil which is awaiting approval in this country.
Bottle shares were de rigeur and James Boicourt opened the doors of his Charm City Meadworks for an evening of hospitality. The location of the conference was great too – the Royal Sonesta on the Inner Harbor – the staff of the hotel proved efficient and helpful.
Josh Lampe is in his second year as Executive Director said he was attracted to the organization by the passion of the meadmakers. "Most do it for the love of making mead which is kind of awesome. And that's reflected in the camaraderie you see here. I like the idea of fostering that."