by Mark DeNote
One of the first fermented beverages, mead dates back about 9,000 years to cultures such as China, Greece and Scandinavia. It was written about in ancient epics like Gilgamesh and Beowulf, the drink of kings that was highly valued and loved by warriors and peasants alike.
Today, mead is emerging as one of the fastest-growing fermented beverages in the United States. With tradition and a cult following, mead is more than just wine made of honey, it is the stuff of dreams, combined with a sweetness imparted by the bees.
A new generation of Floridian “mazers” has discovered mead, with a common passion for the Sunshine State and the bevy of honeys the state produces. The possibilities for flavor combinations are as numerous as the bees of a colony.
Joey Redner of Cigar City Cider and Mead points to the indigenous nature of mead as a significant draw. “You can’t do that with beer or cider; the raw ingredients have to be brought in from other places,” he says. “Mead can be a truly 100 percent Florida-grown and produced product.”
Cigar City Cider and Mead started in the Ybor City area of Tampa in late 2014, and has been gaining momentum more for cider than for mead. But with the bottling of The Vincente, a mead made with vanilla and relatively low alcohol (at 7.3 percent), CCCM now has the potential to spread the word outside of the home turf. The cidery/meadery is owned by Joey Redner (of Cigar City Brewing renown) and run by Jared Gilbert, a young meadmaker who believes that the feedback he has gained from the community of beer and mead enthusiasts helps him grow. Gilbert’s honey creations run a gamut of flavors from both honey and fruit, everything from an orange blossom mead to a hopped cherry mead to a meadowfoam s’more mead.
Gilbert looks for unique combinations of fruits and honeys, and that, he says, is his biggest challenge: “trying to be on the cutting edge with new recipe development, with all the great meaderys and mazers in the country.”
Palm Harbor’s Black Fox Meadery was born in accountant-turned-mazer Bob Lasseter’s garage and grew from a desire to spend more time with his grandson. Lasseter has been making meads for more than two decades and found a small storefront in Palm Harbor where he sells his sweet wares.
Lasseter breaks Black Fox meads into three categories: poolside meads (those under 8 percent alcohol by volume), full-bodied meads (those weighing in at about 14 percent), and limited-edition meads. Expect anything from an apple pie mead with spices to mead with chipotle peppers to a mead with merlot.
Black Fox meads have developed a local following in the north Pinellas County area. Limited distribution sees Black Fox into more than a dozen local drinking establishments.
Holding it down in eastern Florida is a collaboration between Anne-Marie Bays and Blair Willacker, two cicerones and beer enthusiasts who took it upon themselves to bring the mead revolution to eastern Florida. Bays and Willacker formed Odd Elixir Meads seeking to make Floridians aware of mead’s lighter side.
“The meads we produce tend to be lighter in alcohol and drier than what is often associated with mead,” says Bays. “People often tell us that what we produce is perfect for the Florida weather because it is light and refreshing … we like to play around with flavor combinations and take many cues from popular beer styles.”
Odd Elixir is housed in The Abbey bar in DeLand, where Bays and Willacker have helped tend bar. These meads are produced in batches of nine barrels at a time in a space smaller than most residential kitchens. The space allows the two mazers the chance to play with flavor profiles and end up with meads that are anything but ordinary.
It is that sense of play that drives Odd Elixir Meads on and those flavor combinations together. Odd Elixir makes meads that blend flavors for a dizzying array of sources. With flavors varying from lemon and tea to coffee, peach, Key lime and cherries, Odd Elixir keeps putting an extra zip in their nectar.
Odd Elixir Meads are available at the Abbey Bar in DeLand, as well as Volusia and Flagler counties, with limited distribution in Orange, Seminole and Lake County.