Mead Kitchen Revives an Out-of-Favor Drink
There’s no cutting corners for Daniel Cook, whose Mead Kitchen is giving new life to an ancient drink.
Mead can be sweet or dry, involving spices, fruit, and always honey.
Photo by Pat Mazzera
When a fellow home-brewing buddy suggested that Daniel Cook try making mead, Cook’s first reaction was: Huh?
“I thought maybe I’d heard of mead in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Or it had something to do with Vikings,” Cook remembers.
After a bit of research revealed that mead—mentioned in the Rig Veda and by Aristotle, sipped in 7000 BC China and around the world for millennia hence—is made by fermenting honey in water, Cook’s second reaction was: Meh.
“It sounded to me like an incredibly vile beverage, because honey was that nasty mass-produced product that comes out of plastic squeezy-bears,” says Cook, who never developed a taste for the sticky stuff during his Midwestern childhood.
But as a UC Berkeley-trained scientist who relishes challenges, he gave it a try—using artisanal honey and aiming for an unsweet result.
“That’s one of the cool things about mead: You can make it sweet or dry. You can add fruit, spices, and other things. The possible variations on mead that you can make outnumber all the possible beer and wine variations, combined. Sampling my first batch, I thought: What is this? It doesn’t taste like beer. It doesn’t taste like wine.
“Then I got this great buzz.”
It was a career-changer. In 2013, a dozen-plus years after brewing that first batch, Cook opened the Mead Kitchen. Sharing a West Berkeley tasting room and other facilities with Urbano Cellars Winery, it produces 9 percent ABV, slightly carbonated, translucently sunrise- and sunset-hued, lusciously and elusively fruit- and hop-flavored meads whose assertive unsweetness would probably shock Chaucer.
It’s sold at the Lanesplitter, East Bay Spice Company, Albany Taproom, Westbrae Biergarten, Beer Revolution, and elsewhere. And it’s part of the new artisanal-brewing boom. Indie meaderies have been springing up nationwide. Samuel Adams recently debuted Honey Queen, a mead-and-beer blend known during its medieval heyday as a braggot.
Mixologist Jay Porter sources the mead he serves at Oakland restaurants Salsipuedes and the Half Orange from Point Reyes Station-based Heidrun Meadery.
“Because it’s fermented totally dry, and it has the crisp finish from the methode champenoise, it really is all about the essence and overtones of different flowers and honeys, just as wine communicates the essence and overtones of different grapes and terroirs,” Porter explains.
The Mead Kitchen’s orange-ginger mead lilts like a soft clear song about rhizomes. Its ruby-red sour-cherry mead smacks the palate smartly. Its complexly peppery, assertively earthy Simcoe-hops mead chirps Giddyup! Wanna play?
With its microclimates and abundant weeds, “the Bay Area is a great place for honey,” asserts Cook, who extracts some from his own Berkeley hives and buys more from organic Oakland- and Vallejo-based beekeepers.
The fact that pricey, scarce, hard-to-harvest honey is its key ingredient “is one of the reasons mead went away” as a standard everyman’s tipple, he said. It was overtaken in early postmedieval Europe by beer and wine “once brewers realized that you can always grow more grapes or more barley”—but before the late-18th-century invention of sliding-frame hives. “Every time you harvested honey, you had to destroy the hive and kill all of its bees.”
Cook could cut costs by using industrial and/or Chinese honey, but he won’t, because unfiltered natural honey “is part of the story of the stuff. People who drink my mead ask me where my honey came from, and I can actually say I got it from this beekeeper and that guy.”
Such discussions are crucial, because the more people learn about mead, the more willing they’ll be to try it, then buy it, then restore to Western civilization a delightful drink that virtually disappeared for 500 years.
“People are getting to know what mead is,” Cook says, beaming between gleaming stainless-steel kegs. “I’ve seen the general knowledge increase in the two years I’ve been doing this. If you like what you make, you believe in it. Keep it simple, right?”