Brewer Preaches Mead's Many Qualities in Quest for Converts
February 22, 2007 in the Anchorage Daily News
Down the Hatch [ With Dawnell Smith ]
Last Modified: March 9, 2007 at 12:38 AM
In a small hovel at the corner of a Midtown business hamlet, an elder home brewer and mead maker stirs up something old and sweet. His cauldrons reek of medieval aristocracy and peasantry, time and toil, succor and whimsy. From his tanks and barrels pour the smirks and chuckles of world-worn souls.
Call it mead or call it honey wine, but don't dare call it a thing of the past, for soon you will understand why Michael Kiker has ushered Celestial Meads into a retirement plan of worth and substance.
With steady income from the state's retirement fund and a good job as a database manager with a Native corporation, Kiker decided to invest in a small mead-making business born of love. He loves mead, wants to turn people onto it and thinks the Anchorage market can handle the nectar of the gods.
"There are a tremendous variety of flavors and aromas available in honey and mead," he said. "Aside from the variety of honeys — every flowering plant produces honey with its own flavors and aromas — there are all the possible fruits, herbs, spices and blends with beer and wine."
At a recent mead festival in Denver, he tried a host of lackluster meads from commercial meaderies along with standout versions from small mead makers who add ingredients such as rose petals, maple syrup, birch sap and so on.
I can vouch for his enthusiasm. Mead feels like rose petals on the tongue and looks like every hue of dawn; it tastes entirely unlike wine and beer but mixes nicely with both; it sustains the essence of honey but avoids tumbling into the oversweet and cloying.
Some meads break all these rules, but not his. Kiker started making mead at home in 1995 after years as a home brewer and now makes mead from honey bought at Costco and honey ordered straight from the apiary. He adds everything from black currants picked in Alaska to berries shipped from the Lower 48. He also seeks out a range of honeys from basswood and sourwood to tupelo.
A mead maker is a honey connoisseur; a mead maker knows the plethora of bounty from the earth.
"There was a time when mead was the drink of choice by the elite in Northern Europe, but then wine moved up from the Mediterranean area and replaced it," he said. "Grapes and barley are easier to cultivate. Technology and the relative low cost of barley, hops and grapes made mead slip almost out of sight."
He wants to rejuvenate interest in mead, ideally with local products. So far, honey from Alaska is cost-prohibitive because beekeepers kill off their bees every year and buy new ones each summer, tapping into the tourist market with small bottles of local honey. Others want to change that by keeping their bees alive all winter; Kiker might even start a few hives and supply himself someday.
For now, however, he just wants to get his mead into local stores, bars and restaurants such as Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse, Cafe Amsterdam, the Brown Jug and Oaken Keg liquor stores, Gold Rush Liquors and La Bodega. Other restaurants will follow, he hopes, along with foot traffic directly to his meadery.
His bottled meads should hit local liquor stores by April, if not March, and he expects a May grand opening at his Midtown spot. He knows that success depends on education, and he plans to spend a lot of time explaining to potential customers what mead is.
Popular wines like chardonnay taste good but betray nothing of their raw ingredients — mead definitely carries the characteristics of honey. That intensity and sweetness often turns people off when they're expecting wine.
"A lot of people won't drink anything unless its bone dry," Kiker said. "Some people expect no residual sugar."
Yes, mead wallows in its honey-sweet origins in the most pleasing way, and one's lips curl rather than pucker, the mouth feels full and sated rather than thirsty.
Keep in mind that I say this as a beer and red wine drinker who avoids most sweet whites. Yet after trying several of Kiker's meads — particularly the tupelo aged in oak — I'm a convert.
And that's what it's going to take to make a small mead operation thrive: converts. We beer, wine and flavored-booze drinkers will have to embrace something new, maybe by starting with the more mild cysers and then relishing the fineries of good mead.
"I don't expect people to switch to mead, but I hope I can convince them to add mead to the repertoire of life," Kiker said.
In the end, he said, "I'm going to be the mead evangelist."
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