Meadery celebrates its modern-medieval mix

Pittsboro couple builds business from honey-flavored hobby

jneff@newsobserver.comAugust 4, 2012 

— Saturday was national Mead Day, and the meeting at the meadery rendered a verdict: The ancient honey wine is thoroughly modern yet entirely medieval.

Hundreds of tipplers, mead wenches, knights in armor and home brewers flocked to Starrlight Mead, one of two meaderies in the state, to celebrate and study this heady mix of honey and water.

“There’s a mystical connection to Robin Hood and the Vikings,” said Sharon Hill of Durham. “It’s a drink related to an era that we’ve romanticized.”

One of the world’s oldest tipples, loved by ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, mead is elemental: water, honey and yeast. There are many variants with cool Norse-sounding names: cyser (honey and apple), pyment (honey and grape), melomel (honey and fruit), and braggot (honey and grain).

Legend has it that the word “honeymoon” comes from the practice of bestowing a month’s supply of mead to a newly married couple, for fertility and fun. Chaucer’s fastidious knight Absalom tries to seduce the urbane Alisoun with “mead for her desire.”

Mead’s literary role is action as well as rom-com. Beowulf set off to kill the monster Grendel after Grendel destroyed the king’s mead hall, true fighting words for a mead lover.

Fighting was on display at Saturday’s fair, as The Knightly Order of the Fiat Lux staged full metal battles to raise money for children with special needs. Sir Thomas (Thomas Burchhardt of Raleigh, in a dog face helm and wearing 100 pounds of chain mail and armor) faced Sir Buck of Doom (Buck Holmes, also of Raleigh, with a mere 85 pounds of armor and a Templar helm). The two smashed, thwacked, jabbed and slashed each other with heavy steel swords, coaxing the occasional “Ugh” and “Urgh” from each other and pouring rivers of sweat in the 90-degree heat.

Like the knight of yore, Sir Thomas and Sir Buck repaired to the mead hall only after battle was done.

There’s a strong do-it-yourself ethos among mead-lovers. Thomas Vincent said he became a fan of mead at a Renaissance fair in college. He’s been making it at home for 20 years and is prone to proselytizing mead’s breadth and depth, elixirs that one could mistake for champagne or port wine.

And if nothing else, mead commands respect.

“It can be light like beer, but with the stronger kick of wine,” Vincent said.

“If you aren’t careful, you can get in trouble.”

Ben Starr, who founded Starrlight Mead with his wife, Becky, first tasted mead at a Renaissance fair in the late 1980s in southern California. A frequent traveler for work, Starr searched out bottles of mead on his trips. After moving to North Carolina in 2000, he began making mead and found the process intoxicating. It brought out an inner mad scientist as he tinkered with recipes and explored new ingredients.

The Starrs made so much mead they gave away most of it to friends, who urged them to go into business.

“We figured they said that because they were getting free booze,” Ben Starr said.

In 2006, they attended the International Mead Festival in Colorado and entered several bottles in the amateur completion. Their spiced apple mead (technically, a cyser, which is mead made with honey and apples) won a gold medal and best in show.

The couple came up with Plan B, a scheme to start their own mead business in case either lost their corporate day jobs. After Becky was laid off, the couple spent four years getting financing, permits, equipment and a building.

Two years on, their mead menu is a mix of modern and traditional. Their mainstay mead fills the mouth, viscous and honey-flavored but with muted sweetness.

But they also dip into unlikely combinations: mead flavored with orange, cranberries and the smoky chipotle pepper, or a mead with lime and spearmint paying homage to a mojito. A blackberry mead soaked in oak chips conjures up a fruity pinot noir.

Starr recently purchased honey from made from meadowfoam flowers in Oregon. The honey has a vanilla marshmallow flavor, and he plans to soak the mead in cocoa nibs. He has a name picked out: “SmoreMead.”

Neff: 919-829-4516

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