Follow the Mead Trail
It is a beautiful spring morning in the Alberta foothills and I am rolling down Hwy 22 south on my way to visit the first of three meaderies. The white-capped mountains are glistening in the crisp morning sun. There is magic that comes with warmer days. The rolling hills are tender green and the first birds have arrived. Beethoven’s pastoral is playing on the radio. I feel bliss.
Alberta produces 1/3 of Canada’s honey and has no grape wine industry. As mead is being rediscovered by connoisseurs and consumers alike, the production of mead is rapidly becoming a cottage industry with incredible potential. Its history is in the making by local mead producers who are the embodiment of the western spirit: bold, creative, and passionate about what they do.
Mead, a.k.a. hydromel or ambrosia, may be the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage. The Greeks celebrated mead as a god-sent elixir with magical and sacred properties as reported by Virgil’s Georgics. Mead could prolong lives, increase fertility, build strength, and impart wit and poetry. Quite a noble calling! However, I also picture another kind of mead: that of the Vikings… rather hairy and “rustic” figures drinking mead from horns and brawling their way along the European coast in search of young virgins to steal and carry back on their shoulders. Either way, mead has permeated western cultures and carries with it a rich folklore that we are slowly rediscovering.
At its most basic, mead is a yeast-fermented mixture of honey and water yielding a degree of alcohol. Today, this basic recipe has been elevated to an art form by our local mead producers, expanding the range of styles, aromas, and tastes to new heights.
Aproaching Spirit Hills, a family owned winery, I am welcomed by friendly dogs and an expansive view of the undulating Alberta foothills. Ilse de Wit invites me into her winery designed and built by local craftsmen. For Ilse and her husband Hugo, Spirit Hills is all about celebrating mead for what it is: a high quality beverage that lends itself to innovation. Using methods similar to wine making, Ilse and Hugo control all aspects of the production. Honey is harvested from their beehives once a year, integrating the flavors of wild and pasture flowers that grow throughout the warm season and ensuring consistency from batch to batch. Next, the honey is warmed up to beehive temperature and mixed with water and various fruits or herbs depending on the style of mead. Champagne yeast is added as it favours rapid fermentation and imparts unique flavours. The fermented mead is then filtered, sometimes aged in wood, and finally bottled. Spirit Hills’ total mead production is about 2000 cases and growing rapidly.
Spirit Hills is located close to the Millarville Farmer’s Market. Appointments must be scheduled to make sure the owners are on hand to give you a guided tour complete with a taste of their meads. This is a perfect activity to follow a visit of the market.
Also close to Millarville, and just west of Okotoks, Chinook Arch Meadery is located in what can best be described as big sky country. Art Andrews has been producing honey for over 20 years and mead for eight years, making him the first to produce mead commercially in the province. Today Chinook Arch offers a full complement of services including an educational centre that teaches young and old about bees and honey, and a wellappointed boutique and mead tasting bar. Art’s style of mead is more traditional, meaning sweeter, in style but is no less creative.
In fact Art, like Hugo from Spirit Hills and Colin Ryan from the Fallentimber meadery, is somewhere between a mad chemist and an artist mead vintner. Self taught, they revel in exploring new styles of meads, new flavours, and new production methods. This is what keeps their passion going—the realization that they are pioneers in their field as they help to develop the Alberta mead industry one bottle at a time.
Fallentimber is located near Water Valley, a 30 minute leisurely drive north of Cochrane. Tucked in the woods of the foothills, it is a family business that started 46 years ago as a honey farm. Five years ago, Colin Ryan started “experimenting”. Today he cannot meet demand and the business is growing quickly. Perhaps the
largest of the 3 meaderies in terms of production, Fallentimber wishes to provide their customers with a full country experience. Open year round, their farm offers lovely picnic areas and the possibility to explore the forest in their midst. Their tasting room is warm and inviting with multiple honey and mead products made solely of wild flowers. You can visit their mead-making room and perhaps have a taste of Colin’s latest concoction. Add to your visit a stop in the quaint hamlet of Water Valley, and you have yourself a beautiful Sunday outing.
This summer set aside three beautiful days, one for each meadery. Visit, taste, compare, and learn the differences between these three highly creative and exceedingly good mead houses. You will treat your palate and undoubtedly discover gems to pair with any of your favorite dishes. Once you set your heart on your favorite meads, visit the Liquor Connect’s website (liquorconnect.com) to locate your chosen bottles in a store near you. In doing so, you will help Hugo, Art, and Colin add another exciting chapter to the history of mead making.
By: Renée Delorme
A local sommelier who offers private tastings.
For more information visit her website at tastingpleasures.ca