Mead, the honey-based brew producing a real buzz

(CBS News)    Since the beginning of time, resourceful humans have been making beverages from beans and fruits and grains of every sort -- and something else as well.  John Blackstone has a taste of honey:

Let us drink a toast to the bees.  Before there were vineyards, there was honey.  Before there was wine, there was mead. At the Heidrun Meadery in northern California, Gordon Hull gathers honey to make a dry, sparkling mead that could be mistaken for champagne. "Since mead is wine made from honey instead of grapes, we're dependent upon the honey bee," said Hull.

"Without the bee, we're making grape wine or we're making cider or something else."

Near Santa Cruz, Calif., winemaker Michael Sones of the Bargetto Winery uses great vats of honey to produce mead alongside grape-based wines. "Mead is probably the oldest fermented beverage in the world," Sones said.  "It's all made from honey; there's no other ingredients."

A drink that reached the height of its popularity in the Middle Ages is clearly making a comeback.

"I'm very interested in history, so tasting mead is like tasting history," said Shane, a customer at a tasting room at the Rabbit's Foot Meadery in Sunnyvale, Calif., which has become a gathering place for mead aficionados.

Customer Don Drake described the drink's preferred characteristics:  "A crystal clear flavor, just a tiny hint of citrus. And then a toasted back note, and the honey makes it last a long time on your tongue."

Rabbit's Foot owners Mike and Maria Faul produce a startling array of alcoholic drinks that start with honey, such as the diabhal, a Belgian golden strong ale that's about 8.2 percent alcohol by volume.

"There's nothing else in there but Washington wildflower honey," said Mike Faul. "So very, very, very fragrant. It's like walking into a garden and smelling all the flowers.

"People are drinking it, people are liking it, and people are asking how they can get more.  And the next thing you know, I'm in my garage in Sunnyvale making 200 gallons a year and giving it all away."

In 2001 Faul quit his job in high tech, betting his future on a drink from the past. 

"Well, there's lots of stories about business starting in garages in Silicon Valley, but not making an alcoholic drink," said Blackstone.

"It took on a life of its own, really," said Faul.

For a place producing an ancient drink, Rabbit's Foot is in an unlikely location: an office park in California's Silicon Valley.

With daughter Shioban at the labeling machine, Rabbit's Foot has grown into one of the country's most successful mead producers, selling about 30,000 gallons a year, and growing.

Blackstone sampled another mead, which Faul said boasted "a lot of chocolatey qualities and you're gonna get a lot of raspberry quality as well."

"Smells like a brandy," said Blackstone.

"Exactly. And that's what it's intended to be drank like."

What drinkers knew centuries ago, we're now rediscovering: that honey can produce quite a buzz.


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