How Game of Thrones Saved the World's Oldest Drink

We've got the need for mead. 
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We've got the need for mead. 
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It's the drink trend 8,000 years in the making. Mead, the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world, is back—and we have the Game of Thrones-fueled fantasy boom to thank.

It's about time. For most of human history, mead, or honey wine, was the drink of choice. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors discovered it in old beehives, where honey mixed with wild yeast and fermented. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle drank it. So did William Shakespeare. Vikings guzzled mead out of hollowed-out bull horns; Anglo-Saxon warriors dedicated entire buildings to it.

And then, beer and wine happened. Grapes and grains are easier to grow, and are therefore much cheaper, than honey. As medieval brewers refined their beer and wine-making techniques, mead prices skyrocketed. Mead became the purview of the upper classes. Eventually, it fell out of favor altogether.

In recent times, it's been hard to find mead outside of home brew competitions and Renaissance fairs. But that's changing. Thanks to fantasy entertainment like Game of Thrones and video games like Skyrim, everything medieval is cool again—mead included.

Just look at the stats: According to the American Mead Makers Association's 2015 report, mead sales surged 84% between 2012 and 2014. Last year, American meaderies produced 144,987 gallons of mead, almost 130% more than the year before. That still pales in comparison to the 6.5 billion gallons of craft beer produced in 2014, but give meaderies some time. They're working on it.

Some mead makers call this rise in sales "the Game of Thrones effect", even though mead has never actually appeared on the show. (Tyrion Lannister subsides almost exclusively on red wine.) But consider that the mead industry's recent growth spurt started about five years ago, roughly the same time that HBO's beloved fantasy series hit the airwaves.

That's one theory, anyway. Other mead makers, including David Myers, founder of the Colorado-based Redstone Meadery, don't think that the entertainment industry is the key to mead's recent resurgence. "Do people have Game of Thrones opening night parties, and is there mead? Of course there is," Myers says. "But I think it's a part of the popularity, not the real contributor."

Myers has different explanation: the expansion of what he calls the "craft beverage industry." Over the past decade or two, craft beer's growing profile has spilled over into other drinks, and the past seven or eight years have seen a massive rise in the popularity of craft cider, artisanal spirits, and—you guessed it—locally-produced mead.

Like beer, mead comes in a variety of different styles. "Pilsners and stouts are both beer, but that's about the last thing they have in common," Myers says. "Mead is just as wide-ranging of a beverage."

Mead can be crisp and refreshing, like Redstone's carbonated Black Raspberry Nectar or B. Nektar's Necromangocon, or thick and boozy, like Moonlight Meadery's Kurt’s Apple Pie. Mead is made with honey, but it's not necessarily sweet, and many first time mead-drinkers are surprised by how subtle its flavor is.

The specific mead dictates how it should be served. Carbonated or low-alcohol meads work best chilled, like beer, while heavier meads are better enjoyed at room temperature. Some of the sweetest meads double as winter-warmers; try heating your favorite mead to about 110 degrees and see how you like it.

Glassware is similarly a matter of personal taste: steins, pint glasses, goblets, or tankards are all valid mead drinking options. Though if you happen to have a hollowed-out bull horn lying around, you'd be remiss if you didn't fill it with mead. 

Mead's versatility also makes it a great cocktail mixer. Try a meadmosa (two parts mead, one part orange juice) at brunch, or mix equal parts mead, tequila, and lime juice to create a "meadarita." Combine a jigger of a dry mead, an ounce of gin, a half ounce of simple syrup, and the juice from half a lemon into a cocktail mixer, and strain into a glass to create a mead sour.

The combinations are endless; just experiment, and you're bound to find a mead worth drinking. After all, eight millennia of human boozing can't be wrong.