Ancient Greeks called mead “the nectar of the Gods,” descended from heaven as dew. Think wine, but instead of grapes, honey and water via fermentation with yeast. Spices, fruits, or grains enhance the flavor.
In recent years, lovers of the drink have found more options popping up. But not just run-of-the-mill mead. No, we’re talking award-winning mead. Bluewood Brewing happens to be one of the few breweries I’ve found with their own meadmaker on staff.
Scott Kurtz found early success as a homebrewer after his younger sister sent him a one-gallon homebrewing kit from Brooklyn Brew Shop. In 2012 Kurtz was living in rural Southern Maryland at the time working as a defense contractor and was looking for a hobby. After brewing three batches of beer, he was hooked.
“I’d heard about mead in old medieval literature (Beowulf and the like) and tried it at one or two wine festivals in Maryland as well. Wasn’t super impressed with it, even though I knew next to nothing about mead at the time it felt like something was wrong with it,” said Kurtz.
So, he took it upon himself to try it out. See what his take might taste like. He found a beginner recipe and gave it a go. The response from his family was positive, which was reason enough to continue making it.
In 2013, Kurtz moved back to St. Louis and became involved in the local homebrewing community. Through that, Kurtz met Cam Lund, Grant Lodholz, and Jerry Moberg, who would open Bluewood Brewing.
“In 2019, they reached out to me and invited me to their open house at Bluewood’s current space,” remembered Kurtz. “When I got there they gave me a job offer to come on board as an independent contractor to make mead and occasional batches of beer.”
Since then nearly everything Kurtz has made there has been mead, but he has stepped in to help on batches of beer on occasion when there’s been a problem. He even got to brew a remastered version last year of a Belgian Dark Strong Ale, which turned out well.
The Art of Making Mead
Many mead makers have described the secret of making mead is embracing your creative side. Beer, wine, cider, distilled spirits, all have guidelines on ingredients, flavor, aroma, texture, and visual appearance to be followed if you want to be true to their styles. Mead, while there are guidelines in a sense, has much more room for interpretation.
“Take a traditional mead for example, which is made simply from honey, water, and yeast,” said Kurtz. “The National Honey Board officially recognizes 300 different varieties of honey in the United States alone, so there are endless possibilities and combinations available. Start factoring in different fruits, spices, wood aging, and the sky’s the limit.”
Beer and Mead
Two big differences between brewing beer and making mead are where all the work is done and fermentation management. With beer, all the work creating the flavors, aromas, and mouthfeel are usually done upfront before fermentation begins, aka the mashing and boiling processes.
Mead is a back-end heavy process, much like winemaking, where there are constant adjustments being made during and after fermentation starts to get the desired profile.
“As far as fermentation management goes, beer is easier to ferment due to the wort having all the complex sugars and nutrients the yeast need to eat,” said Kurtz. “Honey is a simple sugar that offers extremely little to no nutritional benefit to the yeast, so it needs a lot of help from premanufactured yeast nutrients. Otherwise, a mead can develop rocket-fuel-like flavors and sulfur aromas extremely quickly.”
Making award-winning Meads
To date as a commercial mead maker Kurtz is starting to collect some hardware, picking up seven medals since fall 2020 along with a runner-up Best in Show at a competition in Colorado. The five most recent ones came from the 2021 National Honey Board Meadcrafters Competition and the Texas Mead Cup.
Bluewood’s unofficial flagship mead, Viking Lunchbox, picked up a silver medal at both competitions. Viking Lunchbox is a peanut butter jelly mead that uses four different kinds of red grape juice and one white grape juice, then gets a healthy addition of macadamia nut honey from their supplier who has contacts in the South Pacific along with several pounds of PB2, which is a dried peanut butter. A French red wine yeast pulls it all together.
Three other meads picked up bronze medals at that competition as well. Clarice, a barrel-aged mead made with California Chianti grape juice, Very Berry Jerry (VBJ), which used carrot blossom honey and multiple pounds of mixed berries, and Desert Rain’s Kiss, a traditional mead made with mesquite honey from Texas and based on a recipe Kurtz created as a homebrewer that won him multiple gold medals and a Best in Show title in Wyoming four years back.
There are several meads in the pipeline that will be debuting or returning in the coming months.
“Our Somm Series meads, which are meads we created with local Sommelier Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, are ones we’re really looking forward to, including the return of the very successful Riesling mead we did with her,” said Kurtz. “Another mead that I did in conjunction with Cam was a barrel-aged Pinot Noir mead that uses meadowfoam honey, which has a taste and aroma extremely similar to marshmallow cereal.
Another round of Viking Lunchbox will be released this spring as well. Kurtz has been experimenting with drier meads using red grape juices that fans of big, bold, tannic red wines will likely enjoy, a collab with St. Louis Hop Shop will be released sometime this spring.
“Honestly, I love making mead. There is so much more room to be creative with it than there is for beer, wine, or cider,” said Kurtz. “It can be as simple or as complex as you want it. Mead’s potential in the craft alcohol market is underutilized, unrecognized, and the future is bright.”