The drink of gods and men flowed freely Saturday as Mead Day festival-goers browsed arts and crafts booths, watched open-fire blacksmithing and marveled as knights in full armor battled under the midday sun.
Roughly 800 people were expected for the fifth annual event held at the Chatham Marketplace, said Starrlight Mead co-owner Becky Starr.
Pittsboro neighbors Cynthia Long and Lisa Sommerfeldt sipped on Starrlight’s newly released blueberry mead while relaxing with their families. They have enjoyed many Starrlight Mead events, the women said, and their love for mead, Long said, also has gotten their families involved in Renaissance fairs and the “anachronistic lifestyle.”
“If people want to do something different, this is it,” she said, “and it’s not just for nerds anymore.”
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While generally associated with Vikings, knights and castles, Starr said mead has a much longer history than most people realize. The beverage – made from honey, water and yeast, and often flavored with spices, fruit and hops – is possibly the oldest fermented drink.
“Mead actually predates both wine- and beer-making,” she said. “They know that the ancient Egyptians were making mead. They found evidence in China a couple of years ago that the Chinese were making mead 2,000 years before the ancient Egyptians.”
Starr and her husband, meadmaker Ben Starr, started making mead at home after trying it at a Renaissance fair in California.
“We started going crazy with what else can we throw in it,” she said. “We started making batch after batch. We started giving it away to our friends, because we made too much.”
The first batch they entered in the 2006 International Mead Association’s Mead Festival won a gold medal in its category and then Best of Show out of 212 meads. That mead – Spiced Apple – is still their best-seller, Becky Starr said.
Meaderies and wineries are licensed and make their product in much the same way, Starr said. Since honey is 80 percent sugar, they dilute it with water until it’s 23 percent to 25 percent sugar, she said. They add a winemaker’s yeast to eat the sugar and cause fermentation, resulting in a honey wine that’s about 12.5 percent alcohol, she said.
They’ve produced about a thousand cases, or 12,000 wine bottles, in each of the last two years, she said, using roughly four tons of raw, wildflower honey. The facility has a capacity of roughly 2,000 cases, she said, so they are looking now for land to build a new production facility and a mead hall with vaulted ceilings and a stone fireplace.
Raw, clean honey is important, the meadmakers said. Starrlight Mead, with the exception of one South Carolina supplier, sources its honey directly from small and midsize North Carolina beekeepers.
If people want to do something different, this is it, and it’s not just for nerds anymore.
Modern culture, from “Harry Potter” to “Game of Thrones,” is generating new interest in honey wine, Starr said.
There were only 60 meaderies in the country – including Fox Hill Meadery northwest of Asheville – when they started writing their business plan six years ago, Starr said. Starrlight Mead was the state’s second meadery, she said.
Now there are more than 225 meaderies nationwide, according to the International Mead Association, and nearly as many others scattered around the world. Four are in North Carolina: Fox Hill, Starrlight, Honeygirl Meadery in Durham and now Bee and Bramble Fine Meads, near Asheville.
Meadmaker Diane Currier, who opened Honeygirl Meadery on Hood Street in October, developed her passion at home after being “blown away” by a fireweed mead in Alaska. She also worked at Starrlight Mead to learn how their process works, and now produces eight varieties.
“That really stayed with me,” she said of her Alaska experience. “That connection, that way of being with nature, a way of ingesting nature in a totally different way. I just thought it was utterly fascinating.”