Mead might finally be having a moment.
The fermented honey beverage hasn't taken off the way craft beer has, especially in Austin. This hotbed for local beer can now claim to have about 70 breweries in the city limits and surrounding Hill Country — but still has only one place in town where mead is made. Meridian Hive Meadery is in the midst of explosive growth, however, and hopes a new crowdfunding campaign on wefunder.com will propel the company forward.
Meridian Hive's campaign launched just a few weeks before arguably the biggest event in Texas for all of the state's mead makers: the Texas Mead Festival. Nearly a dozen meaderies will pour their wares in Seguin on Oct. 27, in the hope of introducing new customers to the array of flavors that mead can take.
Made from honey and often other ingredients like fruit or herbs, mead can be sweet or dry, still or effervescent, with an alcohol content as low as a session beer or as high as a red wine. This versatility is both a boon and a downfall, according to Matthew Coley, co-owner of Blessed Bee Winery in Bastrop and the president of the Texas Mead Association, which is in charge of producing the festival.
Mead is no longer the super-sweet elixir common at Renaissance festivals, but that perception of the honey-based drink has lingered.
"When you think of mead, you won't find two people in the same room to describe it the same way," Coley said. "It's a very wide open category with many options in the dry and sweet range of the spectrum. But I think if we continue going to events and educating people about what it can be, we'll help people find their sweet spot on that spectrum, and (mead will) start gaining popularity."
Coley isn't sure about the total number of meaderies in Texas, but he can say there are nine meaderies that are members of the Texas Mead Association, an organization integral to spreading the word about the fermented honey beverage. Seven meaderies and wineries will participate in the festival this weekend, including Dancing Bee Winery, Enchanted Manor, Mystic Oak, Rohan Meadery and Texas Mead Works. Meridian Hive and Blessed Bee are also offering tastings at the event.
Now five years old, Meridian Hive still finds a certain level of education at events like Texas Mead Festival is necessary, CEO Cayce Rivers said, because "the average consumer still doesn't know what mead is, or that they could really love it."
An original investor with the meadery, which produces 1,200 barrels annually out of a warehouse facility just off U.S. 183 and U.S. 290, Rivers became CEO of the company in 2016. That year, the meadery updated its branding design and also introduced mead in cans, two important moves that led to 100 percent growth in 2017.
"We did some consumer market research and found that people didn't even want to try the product because of the packaging, but when we didn't bring the packaging, they wanted to try the product. So we felt there was a sort of disconnect," Rivers said. "The old labels were great artwork, but the branding overall was targeted toward a niche audience. To bring mead to the masses, which we really want to do, we had to change up the look and feel."
Now, the brightly colored Meridian Hive cans — in flavors like Rhapsody, made from honey and raspberries, and Frontier, made with honey and Meridian hops — stand out on store shelves, and they're also common in local brewpubs that like to have beer alternatives on hand. The half-dozen or so draft mead options, as Meridian Hive calls them, are lightly effervescent, light in alcohol and very refreshing, Rivers said. And they are key to the Austin meadery's success.
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"A traditional mead is not very refreshing. You don't want to have it nine months out of the year in the Texas heat. But with these, people enjoy the variability and the flavors," he said.
Of course, traditional mead is also available. Meridian Hive's head mead maker, Mike Simmons, makes still (read: more winelike) meads that come in long-necked bottles, such as Huajilla, which showcases honey from the Southwest Texas desert. Simmons — an old college buddy of Rivers at the University of Texas — is forever experimenting with new projects. He remains the only person to win four gold medals in a single year at the Mazer Cup, the world's largest mead-making competition.
If the crowdfunding campaign meets its financial goal, Simmons will continue to work out of Meridian Hive's current space at 8120 Exchange Drive #400, but locals may one day be able to visit a tasting room closer into town. He'll also be producing a lot more mead for more markets.
So far, it's more common to find meads in Texas like Huajilla that are winelike, higher in ABV and without carbonation. The offerings at Coley's Blessed Bee, which also include a honey and raspberry mead, tend to be in the 11 percent ABV range, but the entrepreneur has plans, too. In the future, he "wants to make some beer-style meads, I want to make ports, and I want to make grape wines," he said. He's also planting a pear orchard for cider.
Not sure which style of mead is for you? The Texas Mead Festival is a good starting point, he said. Coley even has a festival strategy.
"Walk around, talk to the mead makers and see what they have, and once you find what you think you’ll like, use your tickets for the tastings," he said. "You'll get eight tasting tickets, a tasting glass and one heck of a good time."