“Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote …”
If you ever had to memorize the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, names of the varieties at Starrlight Mead in Pittsboro will sound vaguely familiar, and just as perplexing: Cyser. Melomel. Metheglin.
You may be conjuring up images of chain mail now, but not to worry. Visitors arrive at Starrlight Mead’s tasting bar wearing jeans, not suits of armor. Still, owners Ben and Becky Starr know what most people expect, from Beowulf Vikings to medieval feasts, so they’re in the mead-education business as well as the mead-making business.
Mead, Becky explains, is the world’s oldest fermented beverage, dating back to the ancient Egyptians. The reason for that longevity is simple chemistry. In winemaking, the sugar in grapes ferments with yeast and becomes alcohol. Mead is wine made with honey instead of grapes. Honey is sugar. Wherever there are honeybees, there’s honey. So if, say, ancient Egyptian Ramesses filled an earthen pot with honey and forgot about it, rainwater would collect in it, and free-floating yeasts — which are essentially molds and fungi — would settle in the honey-water mixture. By the time Ramesses rediscovered his olla, the honey would be wine. Mead, rather.
Honey and herbs
This traditional version of mead is called just that on Starrlight’s menu: “Traditional Off-Dry Mead.” The taste, though lightly sweet, is more floral than sugary. Beekeepers make two annual honey extractions. The spring extraction, logically, is full of sweet, flowery flavors. The fall extraction tastes earthier, with grassy overtones. The Starrs mix honeys for more complex flavors. “Most of what we buy is wildflower honey, which is code for ‘we don’t know where the bees went,’” Becky laughs. A state map on the wall with honeybee stickers shows all the locations where their honey comes from.
In 2000, the Starrs arrived in North Carolina from California, where they’d participated in Renaissance fairs, and tasted — and liked — mead. They began dabbling in home brewing. Winning Best in Show with their first-time entry in the International Mead Association’s Mead Festival inspired a plan for a commercial meadery, and in 2010, they opened Starrlight Mead in the Chatham Mills complex in Pittsboro.
Fifteen meads are available for taste and purchase, and this year, the Starrs will introduce seven new varieties. “We start with ‘What goes well with honey?’” Becky says. “For example, I drink honey in my herbal tea.” Hence a selection of herb-infused meads — sage, ginger, chamomile. Fennel, caraway, and anise flavor the Nordic Blend, a riff on the Scandinavian drink aquavit. “We call this ‘sandwich mead.’ If you imagine a Reuben on rye bread, you can already taste the caraway,” she says.
The Spiced Apple Mead outsells everything else two to one. Served warmed in winter, or chilled in summer, the mead seems an innocent version of apple cider, but, after a mug or two, you might very well fall into the fireplace or out of the hammock. (Mead’s alcohol content is the same as wine, around 12½ percent.)
Mead hall to kitchen table
Another popular flavor — perhaps because of its sprightly name — is the Pomegranate Pink Peppercorn Mead. In this case, pomegranate juice instead of water is used to dilute the honey. Pink peppercorns bring out the tartness of the pomegranate, plus a prickle on the sides of your tongue. If a taste can have a sparkle, this is it. So banish that movie perception that mead is thick and syrupy.
Still, if you’re feeling more medieval than modern, more Erik the Red than Reuben sandwich, the Starrs hold medieval days every two months. Grape stomping not available; chain mail not required. But if you long to sip mead from a pointed horn, be assured: Starrlight Mead will make your Guinevere yen come true.