Mead conjures up images of leather-clad Norse men with an impossibly large tankard in one hand and a drumstick in the other. But the world’s oldest beverage is a fast-growing trend in the craft-drink world. Although Nova Scotia is home to only four dedicated meaderies, as we’ve seen with beer styles, drink trends take a while to migrate to Canada. The American Mead Makers Association boasted over 300 meaderies in 2016.
The first thing to know about mead is that it’s not a wine or a beer. While Nova Scotian mead makers need to have both a brewery and a winery licence to produce it, mead is its own category.
Mead at its base is a blend of honey and water fermented with yeast. As the yeast in beer eats the sugar steeped from grain, the yeast in mead eats the sugar in the honey to create alcohol. (Yes, alcohol is yeast poop.) Because honey has so much more sugar than grain, the yeast needs extra nutrients to help it say alive and keep eating throughout the fermentation process.
That’s a simplified version of the process, but for those like Nathaniel Jarvis, partner in the family-owned Ursan Meadery in Kentville, N.S, the complexity of honey is what draws him to mead.
“I could be making mead in exactly the same way as someone in British Columbia or someone in Ireland or South America,” says Jarvis. “It doesn’t matter: the technique could be exactly the same. But if you’ve got a different honey, you end up with a different product.”
Ursan sources its honey, like most ingredients, in the Annapolis Valley. Jarvis says that honeys made in different parts of the province add different flavours and aromas. Additionally, seasonal shifts affect the flavour and colour of the honey. “It’s about finding the right thing to do with the honey to really make it shine,” he says.
Ursan makes a number of different flavoured meads, but they break down into two main categories. Traditional mead tends toward a 10% ABV, a more wine-like consistency, and a sweeter flavour. Short mead, also known as quick mead, tends to have less alcohol (5%–7%), a drier finish, and feel like a light beer in your mouth. For Ursan’s flavoured meads, the Jarvis brothers add fruits and spices before fermentation so the flavours meld as the batch ages.
Mike Gillespie, head brewer at New Scotland Brewing, got hooked on mead making as a home brewer. While New Scotland focuses on beer, he’s quietly trying to get us all to at least try mead.
“Making beer is all about manual labour and process,” he says. “You do it because you love beer. Mead is a whole different side of things. It’s faster to make, you can sling together some water and honey pretty easily, but it takes months to ferment and age.”
To compare the two, Gillespie says brewing a batch of beer for New Scotland takes about 12 hours, compared to three for a batch of mead. But less time doesn’t mean less work. “There’s a fight between the honey and yeast because honey is a natural antiseptic,” he says. “You always have to be spurring the yeast along [adding yeast nutrient].
Unlike Ursan, Gillespie usually takes a different approach to mead by making one big batch of short mead and flavouring it separately. While he tends to stick to traditional beer styles for New Scotland’s taps, his uses his mead as an opportunity to get weird.
“You can make meads do anything because they offer a lot of room to add other flavours, he says. Highland Stinger features strawberries and peppercorns, and Mojito Mo Problems features mint and lime.
Gillespie says he strives to keep at least a flight worth of cider and mead on tap at any given time for the non-beer loving friends of beer enthusiasts. “You’d be surprised how often people come in and ask if we have ‘not beer.’ Someone behind the bar will steer them toward the mead. They almost always order a second.”
As the name suggests, this traditional mead is on the sweet side. The honey imparts a floral aroma, and in your mouth it feels more like a wine than a beer. Find it in 750-ml bottles at the Seaport Farmers’ Market in February. The team is pausing its production in January to expand the meadery.
New Scotland Brewing
If you think you won’t like mead, this one may change your mind. Before you take your first sip smell that rich aroma of Chai tea from World Tea House. The Chai in the flavour is more restrained and complemented by hints of blueberry amid the tight bubbles. Find it on tap at the brewery.