Before I visit Savannah Bee Co.'s new Mead Tasting Room, I've never seen, sniffed or tasted mead.
My entire knowledge of the beverage is based on a fleeting memory of reading "Beowulf" in high school, or at least the Cliff's Notes. I imagine a thick, frothy potation to be drunk from flagons or the hollowed-out horns of great beasts, raised in bawdy toasts among fur-clad Norsemen.
So when meadkeeper Ryan Nye lines up what looks like six wine bottles in front of me, I'm somewhat surprised. He's not surprised at my surprise, however.
"Lots of people expect something different when they come in," he said. "If all they know is the Renaissance Faire, they expect it to be heavy and overly sweet. But it doesn't have to be like that at all."
All the meads on Savannah Bee's menu come from St. Ambrose Cellars, a Michigan company specializing in artisanal wines, of both the grape and honey variety. The first two meads I taste, Star Thistle Mead and Tupelo Ambrosia, have a texture like wine and a subtle sweetness, the honey coming through as a highlight along with florals and citrus.
These traditional meads are made with only honey, water and yeast. They remind me of wine minus its more vinegary overtones.
In addition to these traditional meads, Savannah Bee Company also carries two pyments, in which grapes are added during fermentation, and two melomels, which use other fruits.
While the traditional meads tend to be dryer, the fruit sugar sweetens the palate considerably, making the melomels excellent choices for dessert wines. The Razzamatazz delivers an initial kick of tart raspberry, and the lush Cherry Amore begs to be paired with dark chocolate.
Not only does Ryan serve mead at the Tasting Bar, he also makes his own at home.
"In its natural state," he said, "honey has yeast in it. So all it takes is for some honey to get water in it, to get diluted, and it would ferment on its own."
To appease the more sophisticated palate of modern drinkers, the natural yeast is usually eliminated and replaced with a cultivated, high quality strain. This ensures a more consistent product and gives the mead-maker more control over the final taste.
The addition of fruit, herbs and spices opens up countless flavor possibilities, and makes mead one of the most versatile spirits around.
According to some sources, the origins of mead go back tens of thousands of years to Africa. From there, the fermenting process was carried all across Europe and Asia.
This even predates agriculture, which was a necessary development for the later creation of wine, beer and liquor.
"With mead," Ryan said, "there's no actual documentation about the year it was invented."
No matter where or when it was discovered, mead has found a happy home here in Savannah.
The Mead Tasting Room, a hexagonal bar done up in Savannah Bee's usual rustic/organic style, is located in the back of the Broughton Street store. Customers can slide up a stool for a tasting or pick up a bottle to go, - chilled for now or room temperature for later.
A tasting of six meads costs only $5, and Ryan is a warm and knowledgeable guide.
"It's been a great response so far," he said. "Most people who come in and do a tasting end up taking a bottle home with them."
That, at least, is no surprise. Mead offers a pleasant change of pace for wine drinkers and cocktailers alike.
And it turns out a Viking helmet isn't a required part of the dress code.
Zach Powers is a writer and novelist. When he's not busy imbibing, he helps run the literary arts nonprofit Seersucker Live. Get to know him at zachpowers.com.