The Mead ‘Boom’ Hits Alberta
Albertans are falling in love with meads. Some attribute this to the influence of popular TV series like Vikings and Game of Thrones. Others view the progression of our passion for craft beers and spirits to “Made in Alberta” movement. Certainly changing provincial regulations created a more supportive environment for this cottage industry. Whatever the reasons, mead production is booming, and we can all be proud of it.
Mead, simply put, is the alcoholised beverage resulting from the fermentation of honey diluted with water. Of course, this recipe is only the beginning. Like bread (flour, yeast, water), mead is more than the sum of its parts. The type of honey and its treatment along with the addition of fruits, herbs, grape wines, perhaps some aging in wood or carbonation contribute to the creation of styles limited only by knowledge, creativity, and talent. And Alberta has all of this and more.
According to Agriculture Canada, Alberta produces 45% of Canadian honey. It is of high quality and comes from clovers, canola flowers and wildflowers. The seasons, the regions and the diversity of flora also contribute to subtle differences in flavours and aromas. Just like grapes are to wine, honey is to mead, which brings in an exciting notion of “terroir”.
First coined by Cistercian monks in Burgundy, France back in the 11th centuries, “terroir” is how a region’s climate, soil, terrain and even the local culture, affects a wine’s taste (or any local craft products for that matter). As such, a pinot noir in France will be distinctly different from a pinot noir in Canada because the weather, the soil, the geography and winemaking techniques are different.
Many mead producers believe in Alberta terroirs, and the uniqueness each location brings. Prairie honey is different than alpine honey. Similarly, the native wild berries and herbs infused in meads contribute to the uniqueness of the wines.
The Alberta mead industry is still in its infancy but second to none. Old World or New World styles, sweet or dry, high or low in alcohol, flavoured with local berries or herbs – Alberta meads are delicious, approachable, easy to pair with food and the current and potential diversity in styles is mind-boggling.
Japan now imports Spirit Hill’s wines, which are appreciated for their quality and purity. The Fallentimber Meadery cannot produce enough of its “Meadjito” – a twist on the traditional mojito. Both meaderies are in the midst of large expansions. Chinook Arch, Alberta’s first meadery, regularly earns national and international accolades including the 2018 Silver for their Ginger Bochet at the Mazer Cup International. Notable is their leadership in improving production conditions.
The Grey Owl Meadery has promising prospects. Their mead master recently completed the “Advance Mead Making” from the Davis campus, University of California, a world-leading viticulture research centre. Grey Owl recently earned medals for their Apple Honey Wine (Cyser) and their three-year-old Tamarack Jack is carving a niche for its original approach to beer-like meads.
This summer, seek out the meaderies along Hwy 22. Check out their websites for visiting hours. They all have tasting rooms, are eager to show you around and offer you meads. What’s more, they have boutiques with excellent selections of honey and related products. If you can’t make a day trip, then visit your local wine stores or local farmer’s markets.
Be part of the Alberta Renaissance. Discover the buzzing spirit that inhabits the soul of our modern day mead pioneers.
By: Renée Delorme
The Spirit Hills Winery produces internationally recognized award-winning ‘Foothills’ wines – thanks to the bees! Just a little way southwest of Millarville and west of Hwy 22 resides a unique winery that is garnering international attention for its flavourful creations. What makes Spirit Hills so different is they create award-winning wines without grapes, mostly anyway. The sugar base for fermentation is honey and the rest of the recipe includes local fruits and flowers. And just in case extraordinary taste wasn’t enough, lab tests show their wines are super healthy – jam-packed with antioxidants. Spirit Hills opened their doors in late 2012. The winery is owned and operated by the Bonjean family who have deep roots in generations of French winemakers with vineyards in the Auvergne region of France. The bees supplying the honey for their wines do so from foothills wild flowers. They use an ancient honey wine fermentation technique and integrate rose hips, black currants and Saskatoons in the process. Oak barrels are used to age and add flavour to the final product.
The list of wines Spirit Hills produce is impressive. Saskwatch is a well-structured dry red wine that has garnered several awards including Best of Class 2016 & 2017 Alberta Beverage Awards. Dande, their dandelion honey wine, is another award winner and a medium-dry wine best served cold. The coral rose coloured Wild Rosy is made, as you might guess, with wild roses, and won silver in 2017 in the All Canadian Wine competition. There’s a cowboy’s sangria named YeeHaa!, to be served over ice, and a traditional European pre-mulled winter wine dubbed Bonfire, which is served every year at the Lake Louise and Banff, Sunshine ski hills.
Their creations are relatively healthy. One 5 oz glass of Dande contains as many antioxidants as 120 glasses of red wine. One glass of Saskwatch has as much antioxidant as 100 glasses; and, a single glass of Wild Rosy as much as 90 glasses of red wine. Spirit Hills wines are sold in over 300 liquor stores in Alberta and Saskatchewan, 5 farmers markets and in restaurants and bars. And about a year ago, they began exporting their wines to Japan where they are available in luxury stores, superior restaurants and exclusive wine bars. Book your winery tour and tasting at Spirithillswinery.com. Their website provides specific locales where you can pick up a bottle along with more in-depth info on their wines, process, and cocktails.
By: Larry Thomas