BY PAUL TOWERS
Bees across the country are declining at an alarming rate. But with the attention to the plight of these pollinators has come a bright spot: increased interest in bees and the products of their labor. Enter the oldest alcoholic beverage know to humankind: mead.
Mead is not just a drink of ancient texts or fantasy novels. The history of mead and beekeeping date back thousands of years, touching parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. A combination of honey, water, yeast and sometimes fruit or spices, good mead is the product of just the right balance of ingredients, along with the time allowed for fermentation. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau regulates it like wine, though not without some lingering confusion.
One of the oldest, if not the oldest, commercial mead makers in California is Chaucer's, part of the Bargetto winery founded in Santa Cruz County in 1964. And there haven't been a lot of new entrants into the market, until recently. According to the American Mead Association, 42 new mead-making businesses opened in 2014 and produced a total of 138,632 more gallons of mead, a 46% increase from the year before.
The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, part of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science, hopes to accelerate and support these emerging meaderies.
"It was an accident, serendipity," said Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center. "A beekeeper approached me at a conference in San Diego and suggested we create a new program on mead. The thought had never crossed my mind. But within a week I spoke to the chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology, and within the year we offered our first course."
That was spring of 2014. Interest exploded and the class was soon at capacity, including visitors traveling from across the country and around the globe.
The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center is building on last year's success to host an intensive two-day course in mid-November entitled "Beginner's Introduction to Mead Making", to learn about, taste and make small batches of mead, working with the Department of Viticulture and Enology's winemaker Chik Brenneman. Professional mead makers from California and across the country—including Mike Faul, the proprietor of Rabbit's Foot Meadery, and Ken Schram, author of The Compleat Meadmaker—will also take part.
"You learn your grapes with wine, but there isn't that level of knowledge yet with mead," Harris said. During the class, participants will have a chance to leverage the smarts of mead makers and the scientific prowess of university researchers, sampling and learning about the main varieties of mead.
Harris also plans to expand the course next spring to bring in more advanced levels of mead makers, and notes that there is a "great need for research on mead. Beer and winemaking have tremendous resources, but mead is still in the dark ages. [No two mead makers do] it the same way, and there's a need to better understand how honey and sugar levels interact with yeast."
That is good news for the emerging mead makers.
An increasing number of meaderies has opened up in California since the 1990s, including Rabbit's Foot in Sunnyvale (1995), Heidrun in Point Reyes Station (1997), Golden Coast Mead in Oceanside (2010), The Mead Kitchen in Berkeley (2012) and San Francisco Mead Company (2013).
One of the rare examples in the Sacramento region is Dan Slort who founded Strad Meadery in Fair Oaks in 2011, making traditional mead as well as apricot, Chardonnay, pomegranate and strawberry varieties.
Harris, whose family also runs Z Specialty Food, a gourmet honey and nut butter business, acknowledges honey prices are on the rise, and this can be challenging for a country that imports 70% of its annual honey usage. The continued loss of honey bee populations adds another serious challenge for meaderies.
According to the most recent data from the government-sponsored Bee Informed Partnership, bee populations are declining at unprecedented levels, over 40% in California last year—twice the loss rate considered sustainable.
An international research authority, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, recently reviewed over 800 studies and found that scientists are increasingly 38 | EDIBLE SACRAMENTO FEAST 2015 EDIBLE SACRAMENTO FEAST 2015 | 39
linking bee declines to pesticides. The chemicals are either killing bees outright or weakening them and leaving them susceptible to other factors like pests, disease and poor nutrition.
The Sacramento City Council declared the city a Honey Bee Haven in March, and councilmembers have been working to decrease pesticide use while also increasing healthy forage for bees.
Tim Clark, owner of Brew Ferment Distill in Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood, said the uptick in local beekeeping has been one of the drivers of interest in mead and mead making. And that's good news for businesses like his that equip people with the tools to make "fermentables."
"When you've got an abundance of honey, you can be more creative with how you use it," he said. "Honey can be expensive to purchase unless you have a plethora available. But now we see more and more people ready to experiment."
He also noted that while many have tried and been turned off by large-scale commercial varieties of mead, people should try making their own, or visit the emerging craft makers. "Some commercial varieties can be cloyingly sweet and not pleasing to the palate. Homemade or craft varieties, by comparison, can be much more effervescent and nice."
To encourage people to try making it for themselves, Clark hosts classes with local advocate David Teckam, an Elk Grove home brewer and grand master beer judge.
"It's too easy not to make mead," said Teckam. "Without a doubt there's growing interest in mead and more California meaderies help prove that."
Clark and Teckam note that the interest in beekeeping and mead are growing in tandem.
According to Bee Culture, the average age of beekeepers is nearing 70 and only 8% are under the age of 40. But that's fast changing. A new crop of emerging 20- and 30-something beekeepers calling themselves the Next Generation Beekeepers Initiative are leading the way and hosting a gathering in mid-November in Sacramento as part of the annual California State Beekeepers Association convention.
"The sticky, sweaty, stingy, nomadic life isn't for everyone. When you factor in bee losses and financial hits, our vocation becomes less attractive. It's the most challenging time for beekeepers, and also the most exciting time for new ideas, opportunities, and growth," said Sarah Red-Laird, executive director of Bee Girl, and one of the leaders of the new initiative.
The success of beekeeping and mead are both wrapped up in the success of bees that make the honey. That's an awful lot resting on the shoulders of these powerful pollinators. And, according to Red-Laird, a lot on policymakers to keep them buzzing.
More information and registration for mead-making classes at UC Davis is available at honey.ucdavis.edu/mead. Registration is available through November 6.
More information about the statewide get-together of young beekeepers in Sacramento is available at beegirl.org or californiastatebeekeepers.com.