"At last Gandalf pushed away his plate and jug - he had eaten two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and drunk at least a quart of mead - and he took out his pipe."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
With new Hobbit movies and the red-hot series Game of Thrones in the cultural consciousness, mead-swilling characters from medieval environs abound. So it is with admirable timing that Colleen Bos has just opened Madison's first facility dedicated solely to mead, combining her backgrounds as a homebrewer and medieval historian. Her Kickstarter project reached its goal in mid-August, and now a clean, professional meadery at 849 E. Washington Ave. is open for business.
Mead is fermented honey, water and yeast. Mead-making likely started when a sack of honey would catch some rain, which leads to fermentation. Consuming what's in the bag would create a state of inebriation, which of course led people to experiment with making more. A process evolved.
The process would have involved waiting about a year for the beverage to properly ferment - but Bos isn't sure the ancients would always wait. "I think they drank some pretty crappy beverages because they didn't have the patience. What we are doing here is making mead in a scientific, 21st-century manner." That requires the right equipment, know-how and ingredients - honey comes from three Wisconsin farms - to make it ambrosial, as opposed to merely alcoholic.
The meadery resembles a laboratory. First honey and water are mixed, and that solution is pumped into a 124-gallon Letina stainless steel fermentation tank and allowed to develop for two weeks. "Oxidation is the enemy," says Bos, so everything is sealed drum-tight.
Yeast is added, but not all at once: "The yeast can't quite keep up with the sugar, so we add it gradually. It's cleaner and faster," Bos says. Instead of one year, it takes two weeks of fermentation in the Letina and then four weeks in a smaller clarifying tank, meaning Bos needs only six weeks to make a properly finished mead. The yeast is continually regenerated in batches from a single, prime source.
I sampled the Wildflower, which tasted like drinking Wisconsin flowers - light on the tongue, with an earthy undertone. The Buckwheat made quite a contrast: A strong grassy taste conjured the flavors of peat-heavy single malt Scotch. This 14% ABV drink could stand up to rabbit, wild game meat or even spicy Thai food.
It's an exciting project. Because the meadery setup is so nimble, Bos is able to produce small-capacity runs, specialty batches and seasonal bottles - and they can be taste-tested by the public before more is made.
A tasting bar is in development, but right now this is just a production facility. Tours are available by appointment, and the meads will be available at Barriques, Star Liquor, Cork 'n Bottle, the Old Fashioned, the Malt House, and other local taverns, restaurants and retail outlets.