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Beer, Beer, & Better Beer

Mead: Not Just for Vikings
Kyle Montgomery, HopCat Madison Beer Program Manager | April 10, 2018
Mead

When it comes to mead, there are a lot of commonly held beliefs that are, well, downright false. If the mention of mead immediately renders thoughts of horned helmet-wearing, axe-wielding, bearded barbarians, it’s time to reevaluate your perception of mead (not to mention your idea of historically accurate Viking attire). You’re not wrong to make that association. After all, mead was an important element of Norse mythology, even serving as the source of poetic inspiration.

Mead is much older than that, however. Pottery vessels dating back to 7,000 BC have been found to contain the remnants of honey and organic compounds associated with fermentation. In fact, mead had enjoyed widespread popularity throughout Europe, Asia & most of Africa before the Vikings even existed. 

While mead is certainly a historically significant and ancient beverage, it is also an exceptionally modern product. With over 300 commercial meaderies operating in US, and more in the planning stages, mead is carving its well-deserved niche in the American craft beverage industry.

Understanding Mead

But what exactly is mead? At its simplest, mead is a fermented beverage made from water and honey. When it comes to peoples’ understanding of mead, this is roughly the point at which common knowledge ends and common misconceptions begin.

When I describe mead to someone, I’m careful avoid using the term, “honey wine.” This is for two reasons. For one, it doesn’t pay mead the respect it deserves as its own class of beverage. Beer is beer. Wine is wine. And mead is mead. After all, we don’t refer to cider as apple wine. 

Additionally, “honey wine” tends to bias peoples’ expectations of the beverage. They may anticipate something wine-like, which is not always the case. There are many beer-like and cider-like meads that exist, as well as wholly unique meads that can’t be likened to any other type of fermented beverage.

Perhaps the most common preconceived notion about mead is that it must be sweet. Honey is sweet. Mead is made with honey. Ipso facto, mead must be sweet, right? … Not exactly.

As it turns out, mead can be exceptionally dry. Honey plays the same role in mead as grapes in wine, barley in beer, or rice in sake: sources of fermentable sugar, and thus, potential alcohol.

Mead: Perhaps the Most Versatile Beverage on Earth

What’s really unique about mead is its remarkable versatility. It can resemble wine, or beer, or cider depending on the types of ingredients and methods of production employed. It can be dry or sweet, session-strength or considerably alcoholic, and highly effervescent or still. A 15% ABV, still mead produced from a blend of honey and Merlot grape must is more likely to resemble a wine, while a 7% ABV mead made from a combination of honey, malted barley, and hops or other bitter herbs will share more of beer’s defining characteristics. Alternatively, a beautifully simple, unadulterated “show” mead can highlight the subtle and alluring characteristics of the honey itself.

If you’ve tried one mead that you didn’t enjoy, don’t let that dissuade you from keeping an open mind. As with wine or beer, there is tremendous variation in styles, as well as quality (and trust me, there are some bad meads out there).

Mead Recommendations

If you’re an avid wine drinker, you may enjoy the rich, complex offerings of Schramm’s Mead in Ferndale, MI. If quality is important to you (and why wouldn’t it be?), it is abundant here. Ken Schramm quite literally wrote the book on mead, and accordingly, he and his team know a thing or two about making it.

More of a beer enthusiast? You’ll unlikely be disappointed by the session-strength, sparkling meads offered by nearby Cellarmen’s and B. Nektar. If you live outside of Michigan, you’re more likely to find B. Nektar’s products at your local retailer (or on tap at HopCat), but if you ever find yourself visiting the Detroit area, I highly recommend stopping by the Cellarmen’s taproom in Hazel Park. In addition to their Moscow Mule-inspired mead, they offer an excellent selection of other meads, beers and ciders in a unique space that formerly served as a lumberyard.

Should you find yourself craving a little bit of both, Crafted Artisan Meadery in Mogadore, Ohio and The Colony Meadery in Allentown, Pennsylvania produce some of the best full-strength and session-strength meads in the country. I regularly feature Crafted’s meads on tap at HopCat, and while The Colony’s meads are not yet available in in the state of Wisconsin, they are available for purchase online.

If you live in the Madison area like myself, and you haven’t tried the meads of Madison’s own Bos Meadery, you’re doing yourself a serious disservice. Bos offers a wide array of world-class meads, both culinary-inspired and traditional, ranging in strength from 6-14% ABV. Most often, you can find them on tap HopCat, or at their newly opened Mead Hall, located less than a mile from the state capitol. This new venue hosts some of my favorite events in the area, including live music and comedy shows, as well as their undeniably unique and infinitely entertaining Mead & Metal Festival.

Making Mead at Home

Don’t have access to the quality or variety of mead you desire in your area? Luckily, mead is exceptionally easy to make at home, and there are plenty of helpful resources available online to help you make mead according to your own taste. Just remember, the quality of the honey dictates the quality of your mead, so you’ll want to avoid using grocery store-bought honey. Making mead at home is also a fun excuse to peruse your local farmers market for fresh, high-quality honey this summer.

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Craft Beer 101: The Oud Bruin is a perfect gateway sour
By Adam Roberts, HopCat Regional Beverage Program Manager | February 22, 2018
craft beer, Sours

Oud Bruin (Old Brown) also known as Flanders Brown, is a beer style that originates from the East Flanders province, within the Flemish region of northern Belgium.

A lightly soured style, Oud Bruin is considered a close relative of the Flanders Red style, as they have many similarities. Names can be deceiving though, as color largely overlaps with Oud Bruin's, reaching only slightly further into the darker spectrum, and Flanders Red into the lighter. Oftentimes beer will be labeled using both color descriptors, such as Flemish red/brown ale, making clear categorization a bit more difficult. The most noticeable differences between the two are that Oud Bruins are brewed with more dark malt, resulting in more malty, caramel-like, and dark fruit flavors, and are generally aged in stainless steel rather than wood barrels, which produces a softer acidity.

Using multiple yeast or bacteria strains, known as mixed fermentation, produces a beer of great complexity. Ale yeast in addition to multiple souring bacteria's, most often added intentionally, but sometimes spontaneously by letting the wild yeast in the atmosphere takeover, will produce the soft sour character typical of the style. After fermentation, they are generally aged for several months or years, and then blended with young (freshly brewed) beer, to tone the acidity down, add some sweetness for balance, and provide some new sugars for conditioning in bottled versions.

While freshly brewed examples are quite good, this style only benefits from extended aging, which produces a more pronounced sour character and sherry-like qualities from gentle oxidation, among other benefits. Cellaring these beers for 10 years or more is common. Even with age though, these beers should never be overpoweringly sour or vinegar-like.

The best examples can exhibit flavors and aromas of raisins, figs, cherries, chocolate, caramel, and nuts. Bitterness is very low, and hop flavors are generally unnoticeable. Brewers often use these advantageous flavors when blending the base beer with fruit to produce variations. Try the Liefman's Cuvee-Brut or Kriek Brut blends. They're among my favorite fruited beers.

Liefman's brewery, with roots as far back as the 1600's, exemplifies the Oud Bruin style admirably. They produce several variations, with Goudenband being a higher ABV blend of more mature (older) beers. This is a perfect mid-level sour enthusiasts choice. If you're is looking for an approachable sour without the extreme lip puckering quality often associated with sour beers, you have found a perfect match.

Adam Roberts is a Certified Cicerone.

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Craft Beer 101: Separating Wee Heavy myth from fact
By Adam Roberts, HopCat Regional Beverage Program Manager | February 7, 2018
craft beer, wee heavy, education

Also known as “Strong Scotch Ale” or simply “Scotch Ale” (and not to be confused with the tamer “Scottish Ales”), Wee Heavy is the strongest of the range of Scottish origin beers.

With ABV ranging from 6.5%-10%, these beers are rich, full-bodied and malt-forward and have very low hopping rates, producing sweeter beers of considerable complexity that have strong caramel or toffee components, and smooth but noticeable alcohol character.

Aroma will generally mirror flavor. Color can range from light copper to dark brown and is traditionally derived mostly from pale malt. Wee Heavy’s use high mash temperatures and kettle caramelization rather than depending on darker malts for color, except a small amount of roasted barley.

The modern yeast varieties used ferment at the lower (cooler) range of Ale types, resulting in a slower fermentation, producing less fruity esters, and letting the caramelized malt character shine through as the star of this beer. The small amount of esters that develop may suggest plum, raisin, or other dried fruit.

While commercial examples do exist that use Peat Smoked Malt to add a smoky Scotch type character, as this is sometimes thought of as being historically accurate, there is little evidence to suggest that this is true. The best examples should exhibit extremely low levels of smoky presence, if any.

Another romantic -- but probably, or at least debatably, historically inaccurate -- popular belief is that the low hopping rates came from Scotland's desire to remain as independent of England as possible. Because of the near-impossibility of growing hops in Scotland, hops would have to be imported from England, thus the Wee Heavy’s mythic creation from importing as little of the highly taxed English hops as possible.

Later, factual research of trade records indicate that Scotland may have actually imported and used a comparable amount of hops as England and exported hoppy versions of Scottish beers to many locations around the globe.

My favorite Wee Heavy is Founders Dirty Bastard, as this beer drinks brilliantly on a cool night in the fall or winter. This should be paired with rich foods such as roasted or grilled game, beef, smoked salmon, softly smoked cheese, caramel or chocolate flavored desserts. If you’re at HopCat, try it with the Vladimir Poutine!

Adam Roberts is a Certified Cicerone. 

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