Friday, May 16, 2008

Wine 101: Honey Wine

"Imagine a world without honeybees. Now imagine the world without tasty pears, luscious raspberries, and juicy strawberries…" So reads the opening page at Haagen Dazs Help the Honey Bees website. Honeybee pollination is directly responsible for over 30% of our food supply – that’s over 100 crops and does not include indirect contributions to beef and dairy production through alfalfa and other feed products. Alarmingly, the population of honeybees is decreasing rapidly in the United States (37% in 2007). Scientists site several factors, one being Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), where bees simply leave their hive and die. These scientists are not sure the specific cause for CCD, but they site a few possible causes: viruses, mites, chemical exposure, and poor nutrition. After reading several articles on CCD, we decided to contact several honey wine producers to see how this crisis is affecting their operations.

Honey wine, and in particular Mead, is often considered merely a cult beverage served at Renaissance Festivals or Medieval fairs. Yes, honey wine has an ancient history and has been produced in all corners of the globe, from Africa, and Asia, to the more familiar, Medieval Europe. Meads history is fascinating reading and most Meadery websites contain a history page – one of our favorites is at Medovina. However, those that dismiss this beverage are missing out on several tasteful and interesting concoctions. Traditional Mead is made from three ingredients: honey, water, and yeast and can be made into many different styles – no different from grape wine – dry, semi-dry, or sweet. Plus the mead can be produced from different honey varietals, such as clover, wildflower, orange blossom and buckwheat. Honey wine can also take several different forms. Metheglin is mead made with herbs and spices. Melomel is mead that contains fruit, whereas Cyser is mead fermented with apples. Pyment is a fermented combination of honey and grape juice while Melomel is mead blended with fruit. Tej is an Ethiopian version of honey wine augmented with domestic spices. Finally, we learned about Braggot, where mead is blended with malted grains and sometime hops to create a close relative to beer. Quite a variety of styles and in the appendix of this article you can view the large array of products made by the meaderies contacted for this article.

Fortunately the current CCD crisis is not affecting the vast majority of honey wine producers that we contacted, although they are fearful of the future – particular rising honey prices. Most mead producers either extract honey from their own colonies or procure it from local beekeepers. These local sources have not been affected by CCD primarily because their bees avoid several known stress factors. New Mexico’s Falcon Meadery and Winery is typical when they state that “Our bees forage on diverse wild plants; there are no large mono culture crops nearby, no genetically modified plants, no exposure to pesticides, the bees are not trucked to farms for pollination and are therefore not exposed to additional parasites, stress and diseases. Plus half of the honey is left in the hives for the winter food source. We take good care of our bees.” This does not mean that small beekeepers do not lose bees. According to Medovina, they can lose 50% of their bees even though their bees are immune from known stress factors. And in Indiana, New Day Meadery’s supplier, Wildflower Ridge Honey, lost several hives in 2007 due to wild fluctuations in the weather.

On the other hand, it appears that bees used for crop pollination are more susceptible to CCD. We learned from Medovina that bees are transported across the country in order to pollinate specific crops. For instance, bees must be transported to California to pollinate almonds. Think of the stress on these bees: shipped hundreds of miles in tractor trailers, feeding on one pollen source that has been sprayed with pesticides, at the same time being exposed to mites and viruses from a new territory. And in Colorado, Australian honeybees are being imported to pollinate crops. These non-indigenous bees contain a new source of mites and viruses in which our native bees must build immunity. Unfortunately we don’t seem to have other short term choices in order to pollinate fruits and nuts we savior: almonds, pears, cherries, raspberries, and strawberries.

In the long term, this problem is exacerbated by the loss of beekeepers. The number of beekeepers that produce 6000 lb or more of honey annually has decreased from 3,000 to less than 1,000. No wonder bees must be shipped across country – there are simply not enough in California – and elsewhere - to pollinate crops. As beekeepers lose honeybees from CCD or other factors, they must decide whether the cost of purchasing new hives justify staying in business, and unfortunately, in recent years, it has made more economic sense to cease operations. Without relying on government bailouts - which create their own problems - any solution must increase the demand for honey products. With increased demand, at the very least, the rate of beekeeper loss will slow and quite possibly the number of beekeepers may even increase. How to increase demand? The average American consumes one and a half pounds of honey annually. A bottle of honey wine requires two pounds of honey. The math is simple – drinking two bottles of honey wine annually more than doubles the average consumption. We at Wine-Compass.com are striving to drink one bottle a month – not only to support the bees but as Medovina states, “Our honey wine is natural - the honey is made from 45 different types of wild pollen, sulfites are not added to the mead, and the operation is completely sustainable – no tractors or pesticide use.”

Mead Producers:

Medovina – Niwot, Colorado
Classic Mead; Sweet Melissa; Stinging Rose; Ancient Mead; Harvest Cyser; Paonia Peach

Linganore Wine Cellars – Mt. Airy, Maryland
Medieval Mead; Tej

Sky River Mead - Sultan, Washington
Sky River Sweet Mead; Sky River Semi-Sweet Mead; Sky River Dry Mead

Falcon Meadery and Winery – Sante Fe, New Mexico
Mountain Mead; Strawberry Mead, Blackberry Mead, Cherry Mead, Peach Mead, Raspberry Mead, Dry Peach Mead, Dry Blackberry Mead

Blacksnake Meadery – Dugspur, Virginia
Wildflower Honey Wine; Tupelo Honey Wine; Sourwood Honey Wine; Meloluna; Sweet Virginia; Cyser; Melomel; Pyment; Bee Brew with Hops; Bee Brew with Lime

New Day Meadery - Elwood, Indiana
Dry Mead; Dry Peach Honey Wine; Dry Blueberry Honey Wine; Dry Red Raspberry Honey; Semi-Dry Mead; Semi-Sweet Black Raspberry Honey Wine

Long Island Meadery – Holbrook, New York
Strawberry Mead; Peach Mead; Black Raspberry Mead; Strawberry/Raspberry Mead; Traditional Mead (Wildflower); Traditional Mead (Clover); Blueberry Mead; Pear Cyser; Pineapple Mead; Vanilla Mead; Apple Cyser; Red Raspberry Mead

White Winter Winery - Iron River, Wisconsin
Dry Mead; Sweet Mead; Black Harbor (Black Currant Honey Wine); Strawberry Mead; Black Mead; Cyser Apple Mead; Raspberry Mead; Blueberry Mead; Braggot (made with malt)

Earle Estates Meadery – Himrod, New York
Honey Mead Semi-Dry; Pear Mead; Traditional Honey Mead; Creamy Apricot; Cherry Charisma; Strawberry Shadows; Blackberry Blush; Apple Cyser; Honey Mead Semi-Sweet
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