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Canadians revelling in resurgence of ancient alcoholic beverage, mead

HALIFAX - It's a drink that has been shared among Greek gods, Vikings, mythical dwarves and magical wizards.

Made using honey, water and yeast, the origins of mead have been traced back nearly 10,000 years, predating wine and beer. Its popularity has ebbed and flowed through time and throughout the world, popping up in places like ancient Greece, northern China and Ethiopia.

Now, Canadians are buzzing about mead — one of the world's oldest alcoholic beverages. The so-called nectar of the gods has made a resurgence in Canada over the past decade, with meaderies multiplying across the country.

Vicky Rowe, owner of the U.S.-based Internet mead hub Gotmead.com, said she counted about four meaderies in Canada in the mid-2000s. That number has since grown to more than 30 meaderies from coast-to-coast.

"We started seeing more and more Canadian meaderies cropping up. I mean, just all over the place, like they were growing on trees," said Rowe, who's operated her website for about 20 years.

Its North American comeback began south of the border in the mid-20th century at Renaissance festivals until the 1980s, when people began producing it commercially, said Rowe. Much like its accelerated growth in Canada, the number of meaderies skyrocketed in the 1990s in the U.S., where there are now more than 200.

Rowe believes that the spike in popularity can in part be explained through an age-old idiom: "Everything old is new again."

"It's unique, it's different, it's trendy," said Rowe in an interview from her home in Youngsville, N.C. "We've got a young generation that's coming up and looking for new and exciting beverages."

It's also easy to make and easily adaptable, said Rowe. Things like fruit, nuts, spices, hot peppers and chocolate can be added to create distinct flavours that tickles both the taste buds and a mead maker's creative juices, she said.

"Because we don't have a 400-year-old set of rules that is built up around what constitutes a merlot, people feel like they can get out there and they're free to express their creativity in the making of it," said Rowe. "There's always that yearning for something new and interesting."

Popular culture has also lent a hand in its resurrection, said Bob Liptrot, co-owner of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery on Vancouver Island, B.C.

Mead is widely drank among the wizards and witches in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. It's enjoyed in middle-earth, with several references to it in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series and The Hobbit. Mead is also prominently featured in the epic of Beowulf, which depicts a grand mead hall called Heorot.

"People have read about it in their English (literature) classes," said Liptrot, whose family has been making mead for more than 50 years, commercially for about 15 years.

"There's a lot more general knowledge out there. But I also think there are people that are looking for something besides chardonnay and cabernet ... for pairing with food."

Canadian beekeepers are also looking to mead as another way to sell their honey and expand their business, said Liptrot.

It's what prompted Micheal Magnini to start the Midgard Meadery in Scotch Lake, N.S., last year.

"I was exploring things to do with bee products. In the exploration, I came across the ancient drink of mead."

Part mead merchant, part historian, Magnini said his product often captures the interest of customers at local farmers' markets throughout Cape Breton and Halifax.

"There's a large percentage of people who are unaware of mead. They don't know it exists, they don't know how it's made or what it's made from," said Magnini, adding that close to a pound of honey goes into each 750 ml bottle.

But the fear of the unknown isn't deterring people from buying up his supply. Magnini said he sells "every drop" of his mead, which is roughly 50 bottles a month, enough to spark expansion plans at his small operation in northern Cape Breton.

Rowe said she doesn't expect mead will lose momentum any time soon. This spring, the American Mead Makers Association celebrated its first year and is looking at expanding into Canada, said Rowe.

"Everything goes in cycles," she said. "But there's so many possibilities that are yet unexplored. The sky's the limit."


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