Thank the Bees: NJ Mead

Granted New Jersey’s first license to make mead (honey wine), Sergio Moutela modernizes what might be the world’s oldest fermented beverage.

Time for a Change: "Wine doesn't taste like grape juice, and mead doesn't taste like honey," says Sergio Moutela. "Fermentation transforms them. And when you get different honeys, you get different meads."
Photo by Ted Axelrod

“People think honey comes from that bear-shaped squeeze bottle you get at the grocery store,” says Sergio Moutela, shaking his head disapprovingly. “That is so processed—it may even be cut with corn syrup.”

Moutela talks about honey the way winemakers talk about grapes. “Orange-blossom honey,” he says, “doesn’t taste like oranges, but it has nice, citrusy notes. Clover honey is a little more floral, probably what most people think honey should taste like. Wildflower honey is made from whatever is in season and in reach of the bees. It can taste different from season to season and year to year. Buckwheat honey is dark, almost black. It has a very distinct, earthy quality, like the aroma if you walk into a stable or barnyard.”

Moutela, in fact, is a winemaker. He just happens to make his wine from honey rather than grapes. Honey wine, called mead, is one of the world’s oldest fermented beverages—maybe the oldest. It dates back thousands of years, archeological findings suggest. The Middle Ages were prime time for mead. In the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, the fearsome giant, Grendel, attacks the Danish king where he’s vulnerable, in his mead hall. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the miller tells his lusty tale drunk on mead.

Modern times have not exactly been boom times for mead. But that is changing. In the last three years, the number of meaderies in the United States grew from 60 to almost 200, according to Chris Webber, president of the American Mead Makers Association. “We’re having a hard time keeping up with demand,” he says.

In March, New Jersey granted Moutela, 32, the state’s first-ever license to make mead commercially. In July, he expects to open the Melovino Meadery behind the Millburn Village Mall in the Vauxhall section of Union. The name joins the Latin roots for honey (mel) and wine (vino). He says he will offer six flavors of mead to start, 12 by September and 15 by the end of the year.

Though honey is 84 to 86 percent sugar by volume (compared to 14 to 18 percent for grapes), not all mead is dessert wine. Depending on how much water is mixed with the honey before yeast is added, triggering fermentation, mead can be sweet, semi-sweet or dry. (The more water, the drier the mead.) It can vary in color from pale gold to dark ruby, in alcohol from 8 to 18 percent by volume, and in flavor from delicate to robust. It can be aged in the bottle indefinitely, but unlike grape wine is ready to drink after three to four months in the fermentation tank.

“The drier meads have the same calorie count as dry white wines,” Moutela says, “while the sweeter meads have about as many calories as port wines.”

Two years ago, Moutela, like most Americans, knew nothing about mead. The first member of his Portuguese family born in the United States, he grew up in Elizabeth and worked at a firm that helps importers clear customs and secure FDA approvals for their edible products. He made grape wine and brewed beer at home. An avid follower of online brewing forums, he noticed in early 2012 that “a favorite topic was mead. I thought, What the hell is mead?

He made a beeline for the reference books. After nine months of trial and error at home, he felt secure as a mazer—the preferred term for a mead maker. And he loved the creativity. “Mead is more like a craft beer than a grape wine,” he says, “because you can add whatever ingredients you want—fruits, herbs, spices. There are fewer expectations for what it should taste like.”

Early last year, Moutela created a mead he called Dolce Chipotle, a sweet wine with a spicy chipotle finish. He entered it in last year’s Mazer Cup, held in Colorado every March. It won its category, spiced meads. One of the judges asked him for the recipe, but instead of handing it over, Moutela thought, I should open a meadery. By the time he secured his mead license this March, he had bagged a total of 18 awards for six different meads, including a second win for Dolce Chipotle at the 2014 Mazer Cup.

“It’s a roller coaster for your senses,” he says of Dolce Chipotle. “The bite from the peppers disappears fast because the honey is so sweet.” Most of his meads sell for $14 to $18 for a 500 ml bottle.

Moutela gets about 75 percent of his honey from Stiles Apiaries in Fords. A mead he calls Sinfonia harmonizes three honeys (orange blossom, buckwheat and mesquite blossom, which is floral) with cubes of oak that go in the tank, where “the tannins in the oak cut the sweetness a little.” Bourbon Berry Chic is a mead made with berries and aged in bourbon barrels. Sweet Affair, which comes in his and hers versions, is made with cabernet or sauvignon blanc grape juice instead of water. “I have,” he says, “a long list of recipe ideas.”

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