The Read on Mead: Beer’s precursor makes a comeback

By Osayi Endolyn

Here’s the first thing you need to know about Monks Mead: it ain’t beer. Here’s the second thing you should know: it’s gluten-free, and you won’t miss it.

That golden-hued, sparkling beverage, tapped from a keg and weighing in at 12.9 percent is not a Belgian white or a Saison. In fact, the dry, slightly sweet beverage with just enough carbonation to perk things up, is better associated as craft beer’s cousin. But it’s called mead. And it stands alone. At least that’s how Martin Key and Justin Schoendorf, creators of Georgia’s first meadery prefer to think about it. The sentiment is catching on. And new fans are passionate.

“We’ve had a couple people turn into instant salesmen,” says Key. “I had one guy at the Buckhead Beer Fest taste our mead. The entire day he kept bringing crowds of people over. He kept saying, ‘this is the greatest thing I’ve had in my entire life.’”

And as with many great things, the concept is incredibly simple. Mead consists of honey, water and yeast, a recipe that goes back thousands of years across many cultures. Key tells the story like it’s his own personal history. “If you look back at the ancient writings from Asia and Russia, you’ll find talk about mead,” Key goes on.

Same for the Romans, the Vikings and the ancient Egyptians. Everyone was doing it. Honey was all the rage back then, long before explorers of the so-called New World happened upon a cheaper sweetener called sugar cane. “Honey fell out favor,” Key says, because it grew to be too expensive. Mead slipped away, but beer was born.

As with most things adored by consumers, beer became so popular eventually people wanted to make it at home. Key and Schoendorf credit the writings of homebrew master Charlie Papazian with getting them going in 2000. The two had relocated from Chapel Hill to Atlanta, and as roommates they quickly racked up books on brewing and many drinkable experiences – they made everything – dobble bocks, Scotch ales, porters. Everything but that mead stuff that always got mentioned in the back of the books.

“We decided let’s make a mead,” Key says. “We’d never had it, never even heard about it really. It came out tasting . . . interesting,” he trails off.

“To the point that we wanted to continue making it,” Schoendorf finishes. “We tweaked it a little bit here and there and it wasn’t too long before we came up with the recipe that we’re more or less using today.”

Two years in, the roommates had culled a following, still, without having purchased a bottle of mead themselves. Friends would come over as soon as a new batch was done and drink it all up. Everyone would joke that the two should make the mead professionally, but the guys never thought much about it. Finally after two years of blind brewing, Key and Schoendorf decided to order some “real” mead. They had to order it online because it wasn’t yet sold in Georgia.

They found that there are essentially two camps in mead-making world: the honeymakers and the winemakers. Key says that honeymakers, naturally, want the flavor of their bees’ honey to come through. So when their mead is fermented there is more sweetness and less fermentation. Winemakers tend to look for the subtle hints that create complex flavors. Neither make it with carbonation; some of them are almost syrup-like after-dinner liqueurs or dessert wines. At that point, the duo decided to make a go at distributing their own mead. They came to mead from beer, after all, and they felt that sensibility could add something new.

“We’d tasted what was out there, and ours really was unique,” says Schoendorf.

Brewed at Terrapin Beer Company in Athens, part of the Monks Mead distinctive taste is wildflower honey. Key and Schoendorf chose the wildflower variety because it has a little bit of everything in it, and also because it’s readily available. Now they source their honey from Pennsylvania, but are in talks with local producers, too.

“The greatest compliment that I ever got was at the Marlay House in Decatur,” says Schoendorf, where he walked in one day and ordered his own drink. The bartender asks enthusiastically if he’s tried Monks Mead before. Schoendorf says he has. “And she goes on, ‘Oh my God, it’s so awesome!’ And she’s telling me this whole story [about our mead]. It’s just flowing out and I can’t even get a word in to say – hey, I make it!”

When Schoendorf finally got to speak, he says the bartender couldn’t believe she’d just spouted off about Monks Mead to one of the founders. But it couldn’t have made Schoendorf happier to see such genuine, unfiltered enthusiasm.

Now a little older and no longer roommates, Key and Schoendorf are thrilled with their growing success, but don’t want to expand production too quickly. Which is why even though Monks Mead is readily available throughout the city, you won’t see it bottled up in package stores just yet.

“We’re in soft launch mode,” Schoendorf says, of their Atlanta, Athens and Savannah market presence. “We want to make sure everything’s running smoothly.” Eventually they plan on launching special releases, with honeys like orange clover. For now, they’re getting Georgia accustomed to what they hope will become a flagship brand.

Based on how Monks Mead is flowing and the evangelist-like response to its growing popularity, Atlanta can expect a lot more of this homebrew-inspired creation. It’s not everyday that people get excited about an 8,000 year-old invention. But if Atlanta’s collective palate has anything to say about it, Key’s and Schoendorf’s mead will take us all back to our fermented roots.

Monks Mead can be found at several of the cities finest beer bar destinations, including The Porter, Midway Pub, Bookhouse Pub and Manuel’s Tavern.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley is the editor of Atlanta Intown.