Mead leaves the dark ages behind

Mead, that drink of viking saga and medieval verse, is making a comeback. But this ain't the honey wine of our ancestors.

Traditional mead is made with three ingredients - honey, water and yeast. The biggest hurdle has been overcoming that centuries-old misconception that something made from honey has to be sweet.

But Vicky Rowe, owner of the internet resource is quick to point out grapes can be pretty sweet too.

"And just like wine, mead can be as dry as a bone or it can be so sweet it makes your fillings hurt," she says. "And it depends on how it's made."

The honey, water and yeast are just the base. There are fruit-flavoured meads called melomels; there are methyglyns, made with herbs and spices; and then there are what Rowe calls "weirdomels, which is mead made with lots of other things".

The wine rack in Rowe's basement holds bottles from mead makers in nearly every US state - from a New Jersey man who makes authentic Tej with Ethiopian gesho, a hops-like bittering agent, to a guy in Anchorage, Alaska, who flavours his meads with everything from locally picked currants to coriander, Indonesian Koryntje cinnamon and hot peppers.

There are even veggie meads.

"I had a beet mead that was screaming pink, like, fluorescent pink, and actually was quite tasty," says Rowe. "I've had mead made with nuts, with exotic honeys you've never heard of. You know, pretty much anything you can throw into a liquid and ferment."

Because it requires no human intervention, many believe mead is the world's oldest alcoholic beverage. Traces of a mead-like substance were found in a 9000-year-old Chinese burial chamber.

Until about 1500, mead was the alcoholic beverage of choice, Rowe says.

"Because cultivated grapes were only for the rich, and at that point in time the poor folks, they couldn't get it," says Rowe, who earned the nickname "mead wench" after years of wandering Renaissance fairs laden with wineskins full of her own homemade meads.

"They had thin beer that they could make at home or they had mead, because honey was readily available to anybody."

In Beowulf, the old English epic heroic poem, the great mead-hall Heorot is the scene of most of the action. It is where King Hrothgar "with fair courtesy quaffed many a bowl of mead", and where the "fell monster" Grendel slaughtered 30 thanes passed out "after the drinking of the mead".

Chaucer's 14th-century Canterbury Tales contain several references to mead or "methe". But with the opening of the New World and its sugar plantations, Rowe says, "mead began a slow decline... and by the 1700s was almost nonexistent".

That began to change in the 1960s, when the hippie culture rediscovered the joys of mead. Then, with the spread of Renaissance fairs and re-enactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the growth of the craft beer industry, this musty old drink was suddenly seen as a "new and interesting and potentially wonderful thing", says Rowe.

"It's just like skirt lengths, you know? They're long, they're short, they're long, they're short. It's that kind of thing."

Picking up where Chaucer left off, JK Rowling has introduced a whole new generation of readers to the honey wine. Devotees will no doubt recall how Ron Weasley was nearly done in by a poisoned bottle of Madame Rosmerta's oak-matured mead in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Wine and beer makers are aiming for a slightly older demographic.

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware in the US markets a mead-like ale called The Midas Touch. Based on the residue from drinking vessels discovered inside the golden king's 2700-year-old tomb, the concoction is described as "biscuity" and "succulent", with hints of honey, saffron, papaya and melon.

Mead producers in the US are riding the craft-beer wave and taking advantage of the "locovore" craze. Jon Hamilton's White Winter Winery in Iron River, Wisconsin, did a bourbon barrel-aged cyser, but that's about as exotic as it gets.

"You won't see an orange-blossom mead coming out of our shop, because we don't grow oranges up here," says Hamilton, a former psychotherapist who runs the business with his wife, Kim, a former teacher.

"We use black currants; we use strawberries; we use raspberries; we use blueberries; we use apples and apple cider - all those kinds of things that are found here in our neck of the woods."

But Mike Faul, founder of Rabbit's Foot Meadery outside San Francisco, says his production is growing about 30 per cent a year. He distributed 6000 cases last year to customers as far away as Japan and Ireland.

"In fact, in this bad economy, this year may turn out to be my best year ever," he says. "In good times or bad, people drink. But in bad, they seem to drink even more."

But this is still a far cry from mead's heyday in the Middle Ages.

"Your average meadery is a couple of guys or a couple or a single person who all their buddies said: `Wow, that stuff that you make is really good, you should sell that'," says Rowe, who currently has a five-gallon (19-litre) glass carboy of dark spiced mead fermenting in her kitchen.

"I know a lot of people that started out in their garage or their basement, and now have tasting rooms and a whole meadery."