Written for the Burlington Free Press by Jeff Baker http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/2016/09/29/meads-cider-and-wine-fans-try/91162364/
Lobster rolls aren’t the only thing happening in Portland, Maine. The city has become known as a buzzing metropolis in the craft brewing scene and is home to over a dozen breweries and brewpubs. Local coffee roasters, micro-distilleries and cideries are also enjoying a renaissance period, embracing beer tourists with open arms and full tasting glasses. On a recent trip to Portland I decided to veer off of my usual M.O. of hitting all the breweries, and instead sought the town’s celebrated meaderies, makers of honey wine.
At Urban Farm Fermentory (200 Anderson St.) nothing is business as usual. The tasting room is a blend of rural farmhouse tinder construction and urban street-art, resulting in a feel of a post-modern apothecary shop. Founder Eli Cayer has been keeping bees and making mead since 2002 and his expertise has influenced many other producers in the region. In 2010 he founded Urban Farm Fermentory (UFF) with the goal of it being “an experimental urban farm, fermentation factory, and community engagement hub.” Eli and his team produce everything from meads and wild-fermented ciders to naturally alcoholic kombuchas and herbed Gruit ales.
For the UFF meads, his team uses their wild cider yeast blend to produce a naturally robust honey wine with earthy and fruity aromas. My favorite on this visit was the “Strawberry Mead,” which came in at 10 percent alcohol and was served on draft. Lightly carbonated and pleasantly subtle it offered a light, refreshing tartness which carried whispers of wild strawberries and wildflower honey. UFF produces a wide range of meads throughout the year, Eli told me, infusing them with everything from “dandelions and rose petals to locally sourced fruits and herbs like sage, thyme and mint.” UFF’s draft meads are carbonated, but bottled versions are “still” (not carbonated).
Just a ten minute walk away is Maine Mead Works (51 Washington Ave.). Founded in 2007 by Eli Cayer, Maine Mead Works is now owned and operated by University of Vermont Ben Alexander and his team. Maine Mead Works is perhaps best known for its line of honey wines under the label “HoneyMaker,” which are produced with a proprietary “continues-fermentation system” that was developed in collaboration with mead expert Dr. Garth Cambray of South Africa. I find that lots of meads made in the U.S. are either too sweet or can have unusual aromatic profiles that can be off-putting to some consumers, but the HoneyMaker meads are mostly dry and crisp and have a bouquet, or aroma profile, that most would describe as being very clean and very much akin to white wine. All of the HoneyMaker meads are around the same alcohol strength as white wines.
Fans of pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc wines will be at home with the driest of the HoneyMaker range, which is appropriately called “Dry,” and exhibits aromas of wild flower honey and a just a hint of oak. “Semi-Dry” will appeal to those looking for a mead closer to a rich Chardonnay, as it has a bit more body and just a touch of residual sweetness. Want something a little outside the box? Try the blueberry or lavender meads. If you’re not much of a wine drinker, but enjoy sipping cocktails, the blueberry and lavender meads also make excellent cocktail bases for gin and silver rum drinks.
In addition to still meads, Maine Mead Works also produces a line of sparkling meads that are blended down to a lower alcohol strength, around 7 percent, under the name “Ram Island.” The “Iced Tea Mead” would make a fitting tribute to the recently departed Arnold Palmer: mead infused with black tea, fresh lemon juice, mint and honey. I’m particularly partial to the “Lavender Lemonade,” which brings English lavender and mint together with mead and lemon juice. All of the Ram Island versions are carbonated and may be most appealing to craft cider drinkers. Maine Mead Works just released a cider under the label “CiderMaker,” but I was unable to try it on this visit.
Know of another Maine-based mead producer that I should check out? Send me a note on Twitter @aPhilosophyOf. I’m always looking for new places to visit.
Jeff S. Baker II is the Curator of the Curriculum for Farrell Distributing. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @aPhilosophyOf. Jeff co-hosts the “It’s the Beer Talking” podcast found on iTunes and Soundcloud. More info at www.burlingtonfreepress.com/news/podcasts