Texas Mead Fest Strives to Bring Mead Into the 21st Century

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If you've ever wondered what Lord of the Rings characters are drinking that gets them so drunk, you finally have a chance to find out.

Mead – LOTR dwarves' drink of choice and, yes, that alcohol from Beowulf – is coming to the Houston area. Eight meaderies from around the state will bring their wares to this year's Texas Mead Fest, which will take place on September 24 at the Lake Conroe/North Houston Kampground of America in Montgomery. Yet despite mead's historic and fantasy associations, the Texas Mead Fest aims to move the honey-wine away from being known as a specialty drink.

“You're not going to see any costumed characters running around,” said Bruce Leslie, president of the Texas Mead Association, which is organizing the Mead Fest, and owner of Griffin Meadery in Willis. “We're making it more like a wine festival, where you come in and try all these different meads.”

The recipe to make traditional mead is pretty simple: Blend honey and water together, add yeast and wait for the mixture to ferment. Of course, as Mystik Oak Mead co-owner and master brewer Ron Bentley said, “It's not all rotten honey.” When it comes to making mead actually taste good, there's a bit more nuance involved. Even the type of flower that the bees used to pollinate the honey can influence a mead's flavor.

Mead is one of the most versatile alcohols out there, said Leslie, who's experimented with adding everything from black currants to beets to his mead brews. It can be sweet, semi-sweet, dry, spiced, hot, chilled, even carbonated. While at Griffin Meadery, this reporter sampled a variety of meads, including a golden-colored drink dubbed “Ambrosia” – apparently, the nectar of the gods smelled strongly of cinnamon – and a mead spiced with jalapeño peppers. (Leslie even poured some Bloody Mary mix into the glass, a surprisingly delicious addition.) Mead is neither wine nor beer but somewhere in between, both in taste and alcohol content.

But not many people know even that much about the drink. Educating the public about mead, let alone selling it to them, hasn't been easy for Leslie, who's been in business since January 2014. Few Houston bars offer mead, or are even interested in his sales pitch. “I'd say 90 percent of the people I talk to don't even know what mead is,” Leslie said. “So getting them to taste it and getting them to try something different, that's the big test.”

“You put a glass in front of them, they're going to at least try it,” said Cameron Crane, co-owner of Mystik Oak Mead, which is participating in Texas Mead Fest for the first time. He estimates that attendees will have the chance to sample between 30 and 40 meads in total. That's the whole point of the Texas Mead Fest – to get those glasses in front of those who otherwise might never encounter mead.
However, the Mead Fest offers attendees more than just the chance to sample some booze. A $5 general admission ticket will also give guests access to many Lake Conroe/North Houston KOA amenities, such as its pool and playground. Since the Texas Renaissance Festival is sponsoring the event – mead apparently being popular amongst medieval fair-goers – anyone who buys a tasting ticket will receive a complimentary ticket to either the Renaissance Festival's opening day or to any Sunday the festival is open. (While supplies last, of course.) There will also be bands and food trucks to enjoy. And if people are worried about being able to drive home afterward, Leslie advises everyone to stake out a campsite or cabin and spend the night.

There will also be a Texas Mead Cup, a tasting competition for both amateurs and professional mead brewers. Though judging is already underway, since hundreds of entries were submitted, the results will be announced at the Mead Fest. Holding those types of competitions, demonstrating mead's diversity, is crucial to establishing mead as a drink on par with wine or beer in the public consciousness, Leslie said.

“We're where craft beer was, probably eight or nine years ago, when everyone was saying, 'Oh, that's just a phase,'” Leslie said. It's frustrating for now, he said, but, “Hopefully, it'll get there.”

The Texas Mead Fest will last from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on September 24 at the Lake Conroe/North Houston KOA. General admission is $5, while a tasting ticket for eight drinks is $20 in advance or $25 at the event.

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