Portland adores its abundant craft brews and renowned local wines, and now the city is embracing an up-and-coming beverage: mead. A new meadery opens in the United States every three days, according to a 2017 national survey by the American Mead Makers Association. Portland — home of donut-inspired beers and tahini-spiked cocktails — isn’t about to get left behind on a booze trend.
“Portland is a little weird — we’re very inventive,” says Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor, a Portland-area mead producer and author of The Art of Mead Tasting and Food Pairing. “We have more brands of kombucha than probably anywhere else, we make ice cream in weird flavors and we care about the environment. Of course we don’t want to drink the same thing as everyone else, so mead is a great match for Portland.”
Made from fermented honey, mead (aka honey wine) can be sweet or dry, still or sparkling and traditional or iconoclastic. In short, there’s a mead for everyone, whether you prefer ancient recipes or newfangled experiments with coconut and lime.
Urban beekeeping is also all the rage in Portland. With just a $12 permit, residents can legally house bees in their backyard. Not ready to start your own rooftop beehive or brew your own honey wine? Not a problem! You can make a toast to our buzzing buddies at this range of local mead destinations.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF TERROIR
Vinophiles are familiar with the concept of terroir, which posits that the unique qualities of the land affect how grapes (and then wine) taste. Mead is no different, with the honey used to make it flavored by whatever flowers the bees visited nearby (like mountain wildflowers or clover). Portland mead connoisseurs take advantage of these one-of-a-kind flavors.
In its Northeast Portland taproom, Hi-Wheel Fizzy Wine Co. serves sips from on-site Fringe Meadery, which crafts wine-like meads from seasonal fruit and fresh herbs. Fringe works with small producers to highlight the terroir of the unique honeys they use, from local clover batches to tropical flower honey from Hawaii.
MEAD-FRIENDLY BOTTLE SHOPS IN PORTLAND
In recent years, mead has made its way into urban taprooms, being poured alongside ales and ciders. Belmont Station, for example, features mead on some of its many rotating taps. Among the bottle shop’s more than 1,400 offerings, you can find both local and international meads to enjoy later.
In addition, legendary beer store John’s Marketplace in Multnomah Village features an entire mead section. Offerings include traditional meads from Norway and quirky options flavored with coffee, pumpkin and (for IPA fans) Scandinavian hops. There’s no mead on tap, but you can enjoy a chilled bottle in-store with a burger or sandwich from the kitchen.
A MEAD FIELD TRIP
While the Portland mead scene is creating its own buzz, visitors can taste even more examples of this ancient drink just outside the city.
Seventeen miles (27 km) southeast of Portland, the HiVe Taphouse pours meads from Batch 1 Brewing and Shattered Oak Brewing. Try a Hop n’ Honey ale or one of a half-dozen meads and ciders on tap at the steampunk spot in Oregon City. Then bulk up on your trivia by learning the difference between a braggot and a cyser. (Spoilers: Braggot is made with honey and barley malt; cyser is a blend of honey and apple juice fermented together.)
Yamhill’s Kookoolan World Meadery, located 45 miles (72 km) southwest of Portland in wine country, sits on a working farm. There, you’re just as likely to run into a friendly cow or chicken as a honeybee. Schedule a private tasting by appointment and sample award-winning semisweet mead alongside a dessert version or a pyment (mead made with the farm’s estate pinot noir grapes).
ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS OF MEAD
Although trends in honeybee deaths from colony collapse disorder have slowed and even slightly reversed, nationwide honeybee populations are a tenth of what they were two decades ago. Mead expert Manion Zaerpoor says that backyard hives as well as commercial colonies — and the mead industry in general — support this vulnerable but vital pollinator.
“It’s not a stretch to say that mead-making helps protect honeybees,” says Manion Zaerpoor. “Mead makers are willing to pay a premium for the best quality honey because that’s the only ingredient that flavors their product. And you get excellent honey only from well-kept bees that forage on flowers instead of being fed sugar or corn syrup.”
The demand for top-notch honey encourages beekeepers to cultivate chemical-free land and build homes for honeybees. You could say, then, that developing a taste for mead helps these vital pollinators survive in a world of dwindling wild habitat and rampant pesticide use.
So go ahead and do what you can for the cause — especially if that involves raising a glass of Oregon mead to your health and to Mother Earth’s.