Maine Roots

A blog about all things Maine


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Mead: Made in Maine

National Mead Day was celebrated over the past weekend on Saturday, August 3rd.  Unfortunately, I missed getting this post out on that day (due to furniture shopping… which was pretty fun!), but I would still like to capitalize on the opportunity this week to talk about mead and a couple of companies in Maine that are making it.

What is mead, and why would you want to enjoy a glass? Mead, also known as honey wine, is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting a solution of honey and water.  It is generally regarded as the ancestor of all fermented drinks (which is a good enough justification for me to try it!).

I have always had a passion for history; I suppose on some level, it goes hand-in-hand for any English major.  We do read an awful lot of classics.  As a result, researching this post was fascinating for me and I could go on about the history of mead at length.  Instead, I’ll provide the cliff notes version.

Mead is known from many sources of ancient history throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, but the earliest known archaeological evidence for the production of mead dates to around 7000 BC.  Pottery vessels containing a mixture of mead, rice, and other fruits along with organic compounds of fermentation were found in Northern China.  Much later, mead is referenced in the Old English epic poem, Beowulf, as being consumed by the Danish warriors.  (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read Beowulf throughout the course of my education).

The alcohol content of mead can range quite widely, from 8% ABV to 18% (this stat courtesy of Fat Friar’s Meadery website).  In addition, it may be dry, semi-sweet, or sweet, and may be still, carbonated, or naturally sparkling.  Flavors may change depending on local tradition or recipes, and it may be flavored with spices, fruit, or hops, which produces a more bitter, beer-like mead.  I had no idea mead could be so varied, although I suppose it shouldn’t come as a big surprise – it seems most fermented drinks have wide-ranging styles and flavors.  I hope to try a variety of styles of mead very soon.

I particularly enjoyed this infographic on the Maine Mead Works website, which takes you from bee to bottle – check it out!

As you likely know, the great state of Maine is home to a number of craft brewers and wineries (check out the Maine Wine Trail here).  It is also home to at least two makers of mead – Fat Friar’s Meadery and Maine Mead Works.  Today, my mission is to call both of them, learn about their businesses, what makes their mead unique, hopefully be able to procure some mead (depending on shipping permits and regulations to NC), and then, sometime over the next week or so, report back to you on my findings so that you might venture out to visit them!

Is there anything you’d like to know about mead that I should ask?  Questions for the businesses?

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Something Sweet: The Honey Exchange

At 494 Stevens Avenue in Portland, you will find a bright, inviting yellow house, now home to a business, that simply beckons you inside.  This bright, cheery store is The Honey Exchange, and it offers a wide range of products, including honey and honey bi-products as well as mead, wine, and all décor that is bee-related.  I was charmed the moment I walked through the entry and was welcomed by one of the owner / operators, Meghan Gaven.   She and her husband, Phil, are beekeepers who have turned this retail operation into a place where people of all ages can learn about honey, the bees that make it, watch these bees at work in their Observation Hive, and purchase honey and related goods.

The Honey Exchange

In addition to the storefront aspect of their work, Meghan and Phil, who recently received his Master Beekeeper Certificate, act as connectors and supporters of the local beekeeping community.  People who may not have the space to keep bees, but would like to have the opportunity, as well as those who perhaps have the space and even the hives, but not the desire or time to beekeep, both approach them and the Gavens work to connect these individuals.  They also provide a number of classes, taught in their back room, to educate new beekeepers and others about the care and significance of these special insects and the honey they create.

The Observation Hive!  It has a little outlet through the wall for the bees to venture into the great outdoors.

The Observation Hive! It has a little outlet through the wall for the bees to venture into the great outdoors.

Meghan was friendly, down-to-earth, and took the time to briefly chat with my mother, my sister, and me about their work in beekeeping, extracting honey, and assisting other beekeepers with the extraction process.  They named their establishment The Honey Exchange because it is, in a fundamental sense, an exchange.  They harvest their own honey as well as others, and in return, jar and market the honey, labeling each container with information about the origin of the honey and the bees that made it.  Meghan also spends part of her time educating children about bees and their work, and how critical they are to keeping our world blossoming (pun intended).

An assortment of honey to taste!  Check out all of the different colors - a result of the bees and what type of flower or plant they took nectar from!

An assortment of honey to taste! Check out all of the different colors – a result of the bees and what type of flower or plant they took nectar from!

Like most of you, I have appreciated honey for a long time – using it to sweeten coffee and tea, smearing it on toast with butter and cinnamon, and even mixing it with soy sauce to make a sweet sauce for beets.  In addition to being tasty and natural (a vast improvement over Splenda and other manmade sweeteners), one of the things I love about honey is its nutritional benefit; as a natural anti-inflammatory, honey is an excellent addition to the diet of a runner like me.  To learn more about honey and its nutritional benefits, check out this blog entry by Anne Pierce, a Master Nutritionist in Denver, CO.  Because this nutritional benefit is important to me, I feel compelled to share one of the more surprising things I learned from Meghan: she recommended that I look closely at the label when purchasing honey – because some products that are labeled “honey” may have very little honey – or absolutely no honey – in them at all!  Natural honey, particularly some types, tends to crystallize quickly – so some manufacturers use a very minimal amount of real honey in their “honey” products to prolong its syrupy texture and appearance.  My recommendation: buy your honey from a reputable, local source… like The Honey Exchange.

My first venture into The Honey Exchange took place during a Thanksgiving trip to Maine in 2011, shortly after they opened.  My mother has raved about it to me many times and she promised to take me in.  When I began this blog, I knew I wanted to feature The Honey Exchange (and places like it), so I returned during our Christmas trip to gain the additional information I needed.  The Honey Exchange is an excellent representation of a Maine entrepreneurial endeavor – its owners, Phil and Meghan Gaven, make their living as owners of this small business – a business that not only contributes to the economy, but also serves an important environmental need by promoting the beekeeping industry and educating people about bees, these unique insects that truly make our world go round.  A perfect example of the significance of bees in pollinating our world relates to the Maine blueberry industry – it takes 50,000 hives to pollinate Maine’s 60,000 plus acres of wild blueberries (because this number is so high, many hives actually have to be trucked in from out-of-state).  For more on the Maine blueberry, see my HoME Grown post here.

Assortment of wines and mead

Assortment of wines and mead

I highly recommend venturing in to see this wonderful store – you will have a chance to support the local economy and learn about the important role bees play in our day-to-day life.  It’s bigger than we realize, and we could all take a lesson from this approach to life – do something you are called to do, however simple or complex, work hard at it, and prosperity will follow.

Learn more about The Honey Exchange online at thehoneyexchange.com or reach them by phone at 207.773.9333.

A very cute bee!

A very cute bee!