Mention mead and many people immediately think of the Vikings’ beverage of choice, or raucous gatherings in Middle Ages castles where cups of the thick, sweet brew overflowed.
But a Kelowna meadery is changing that. And it’s winning awards at home and abroad in the process.
Meadow Vista Honey Wines, which has been making mead since 2009, is one of just two meaderies operating in the Okanagan and seven in B.C. It produces a lighter version of mead, similar to the award-winning wines that have put the Okanagan on the vintner’s map.
Related: Sample mead at Kelowna’s Viking bar
At the recent World Mead Challenge, part of the World Wine Championships, Meadow Vista’s dessert mead took home a gold medal. Earlier this year, at the Canadian Wine Championships, two of its other products were also awarded gold medals.
Unlike wine, where grapes are the key ingredients, with mead, it all starts with honey.
Honey is mixed with water and fermented with yeast to create basic mead. From there, the sky’s the limit in terms of adding other ingredients to create flavoured mead.
“It starts with the bees,” says Meadow Vista’s Emily Vanderschee, who along with her sister Electra Logan, owns and operates the business.
Together with mead maker Ben Butz, the sisters have a passion for what they do, and it shows in every bottle they produce.
Mead is arguably the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world and dates back thousands of years in Europe. Because it can be produced with many ingredients to create a myriad of flavours, the combinations are endless.
While still a small part of the overall wine industry, the popularity of mead is growing.
According to the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch, there was huge jump in the volume of mead sold in B.C. government liquor stores between 2014/15 and 2015/16 when the number of litres sold jumped to 1,082 from just 153. Last year, the number grew again to 1,462 litres sold. But the amount only accounts for 0.0012 per cent of all the wine sold in the province over the last three years combined.
Still, according to Vanderschee, in the last few years she has seen the product catching on with North American drinkers and Meadow Vista is finding its products are available now in a growing number of private liquor stores.
One of its meads, the very popular Bliss sparking honey wine, is available in government liquor stores in B.C.
And, she said, just last week, a Vancouver agency contacted her to ask to represent Meadow Vista in the Vancouver market.
Blair Baldwin, executive director of the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society said research done by the society has shown that consumers are looking for an experience when they come here for wine.
“Any time you have an interesting brand and have a story to tell, you have the potential to hook people,” said Baldwin.
And that, he said, is the case with a product like mead, which has such a history.
“People are looking for something different. And that’s where you see a company like Meadow Vista doing well. Our customers want an interactive experience and (meaderies) clearly have a story to tell.”
Vanderschee said the reasons people are turning to mead are varied. For some it’s strictly taste, for others, with issues such as allergies to wine, it may be health related and for others it may be an environmental choice.
The declining bee population and the impact that is having on food production is well-known. But Vanderschee said the creation of mead helps propagate bee colonies because their pollination is needed.
“Every bottle of mead we sell supports the bees,” she said.
Operating on a 5 1/2-acre farm in south-east Kelowna, Meadow Vista has 50 hives and a bee-keeper to tend to them. Many of the ingredients used in the farms creation of the six meads it produces are grown on the farm. Operating under the same type of licence that B.C. wineries require, the meadery must use B.C.-produced ingredients.
But, unlike a winery, the range of options and flavours available for mead are virtually endless. That gives mead-maker Butz plenty of room to experiment with new flavours.
“Because of the many combinations, test batches are really important,” he said.
While there are many similarities between mead-making and wine-making, he said there are some important differences too. One is timing. With wine, grapes are key. And they have a growing season. Honey, on the other hand, is available year round.
“With mead, you can work to your own schedule,” said Butz.
As the the only non-perishable food source in the planet, honey can be stored for future use. Vanderschee said it takes about two months to create a batch of mead and once produced, it can be drunk right away or, in some cases, cellared for a few years.
“But often it’s better to drink it right away as the flavours are the freshest,” she said.
Because Meadow Vista creates a lighter style of mead, it can be paired with food in a similar way to wine, something much more difficult to do with traditional sweeter and heavier styles of the drink.
Meadow Vista currently produces about 4,000 cases of mead per year while that keeps the farm busy, there is still time to experiment with new flavours and new styles.
And that experimentation is helping create a “buzz” about the award-winning meadery and its move to bring drinkers back to the future.
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