Getting Buzzed: What's the Latest Trend in Urban Beekeeping? A 9,000-Year-Old Tradition
Berger, Shoshana, Sunset
I'M about TO have my first sip of mead, quaff of choice for the medieval set. No, I'm not hanging out with harlequin-clad revelers. This batch of homebrewed honey hooch comes courtesy of Chantal Foster, an Albuquerque-based Web architect and bee aficionado.
Chantal and her friend Elliot Konetzni, whom she knows from a happy hour she organizes for "Web geeks," made their first batch of wine in June 2010 from Chantal's spring harvest of urban honey. A self-taught basement brewer, Elliot offered up his supplies, and the pair made two cases of mead using the harvest from one of Chantal's three backyard hives--15 pounds of honey. By Thanksgiving, they were popping the cork on their first bottle.
Chantal and Elliot are not alone in their venture. In the past decade, the number of meaderies in the United States has tripled, to around 150, according to Vicky Rowe, owner of gotmead.com, an online hub for honey-wine makers and consumers. Just as the artisanal-food movement has saved old-time foods like blood sausage and heritage beans from the brink of extinction, it may give medieval wine a renaissance of its own. One varietal made by Silicon Valley--based Rabbit's Foot Meadery (rabbitsfootmeadery.com) even made an appearance on the menu at Thomas Keller's famed French Laundry.
The earliest evidence of honey wine has been found in 9,000-year-old pottery, but it's thought to be older than that. One conjectured place of origin is the African continent, where, during droughts, bees would swarm in tree hollows. When rain returned, the hollows would fill with water. While collecting honey from the trees, tribespeople would come upon pools of sweet liquid. Water, honey, and wild yeast had combined to produce a happy accident: mead.
From then on, the drink had a storied history. It was celebrated in ancient Hindu hymns written as early as 4,000 years ago, mentioned by Aristotle in his Meteorologica, and imbibed by the tankard in Beowulf.
Chantal and her husband, Alex Sielicki, with whom she runs a Web consultancy, moved to high-desert Albuquerque eight years ago from Chicago. "We felt like we'd stumbled on this crazy desert paradise," Chantal says. A few years after settling in, she joined the city's vibrant beekeeping community, and quickly became its chief apiary advocate. Chantal publishes a lively blog documenting her activities (mistress beek.com), oversees a website for Albuquerque's bee geeks (abqbeeks.ning.com) that so far boasts 181 active members, and manages two city council-approved hives sitting on a tract of protected urban wilderness that, in typical frontier fashion, the city simply calls "open space." Mead making is just a small part of her great beekeeping adventure, but like everything she does, it has become an obsession.
So, how does the mead taste? …