Does wine by any other name still taste as sweet as mead? The answer is… it depends on the way it’s produced. Fun fact: there are several flavor profiles of mead -- some are dry as a bone. The same holds true for hard cider – and in most cases, the drier the cider the higher the alcohol content, while fruit wines are on the sweet side.
Wines are but one category of fermentation, with the best-known wines of the world made from noble grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. All of these grapes typically produce dry wines, with the exception of Riesling, which can produce dry, semi-sweet, and sweet versions. Hybrid grapes are typically dry, but let’s begin this post with hard cider.
The complexities behind cider
Cider is a beverage made from apples, and who wouldn’t want as much of these New Hampshire beauties in every version possible? Sheila Fabrizio’s parents started a North Haverhill orchard in 1967 as a wholesale business catering to grocery stores, and in the fall as a pick-your-own retail experience. The business shifted when imported apples were sourced as the main apples sold at grocery stores; regional apples became popular as the quintessential fall experience. In 2004, Sheila took over the reins of Windy Ridge Orchard, and she shares why New Hampshire apples are so popular.
Picking apples, she says, “sells more apples than anything else” and attributes to the feel of fall in New England. So why are New Hampshire apples primed as perfect for picking – and for use to make cider? According to Sheila, it’s about the rocky soil makeup of the land. Due to the short growing season, she says the apples that have grown the best over time include the ones New Englanders love: Cortland, with its semi-sweet, juicy flesh; McIntosh, for its soft flesh and particular ease in making cider; and the sweet flavor of a Honeycrisp, known for its clean and clear crunch. None of these apples are part of the history of making cider, though, but you can use most any apple to make it, including crabapples. McIntosh and especially Honeycrisp are popular for the high sugar content that converts to alcohol much quicker than other apples.
Bob Manley of Hermit Woods Winery & Deli is one of the few who produce a classic European dry cider. He sources six heirloom varieties of apples from Apple Hill Farm in Concord to create varying and complex flavor profiles. These aren’t apples made for picking and eating as a dietary staple.
“There’s a clear distinction between cider apples and table apples,” he says. “Cider apples are often thicker-skinned, bitter, and less likely to be eaten as an apple.”
The most interesting flavor addition to create cider is the Dolgo crabapple, an acidic, sweet-tart flavor reminiscent of a cranberry rolled in sugar. It’s commonly used to make specialty jams, jellies, and ciders.
Not all ciders are alike, however, and if you prefer sweet ciders, you’ll want to taste the sweet cider blends with high fructose corn syrup blended with at least 30% apple (regulations in order to be called a cider).
“Some of our recipes have some sweet cider blend,” says Bob. “In some cases, we use 100% apples and in some we use a mix of sweet cider blends and apples.
Bob prefers the classic, dry, European style ciders that offer a more complex profile. One example of this style is also one of his most popular ciders: the Hermit Hard Cranberry Apple Cider crafted from French and English heirloom apples, whole, fresh cranberries, quince, and crabapples.
Cider is a popular gluten-free alternative for beer, and much like mead, is a category unto itself as a style of beverage.
Facts about Mead
When honey is mixed with water and then fermented, the final product is bottled and sold as mead. Producing mead is a trickier process than making grape wines or cider, but it can be done – and done well. In New Hampshire, mead leads the charge and hails to its native pollinators and domestic honeybees. These regional bees are known to be responsible for one in three bites of food we eat, according to an op-ed Diana Carpinone and Fawn Gaudet published in the Concord Monitor. Their opinion on the use of pesticides was meant to encourage more organic farming.
Fortunately, organic farming is preferred by many wineries in New Hampshire, and for Michael Fairbrother, organic is the only way to go.
“Each beehive must be surrounded by a 10-mile radius of completely natural land, ensuring the bees can only pollinate in that natural area and not wander into areas contaminated by humans,” he says.
It’s worth noting that one bee makes less than a tablespoon of honey. According to Michael, 60 pounds of honey produces 20 gallons of mead, which is enough supply for one weekend.
“It’s not possible to use our own honey [in New Hampshire],” he says.
Much of his orange blossom and wildflower honey hails from regions along the Amazon in Brazil, and a small amount of organic honey is sourced from the forests of Zambia.
The buzz about Michael is heard throughout the world as he presents talks on mead. He’s even taught a class on mead at the infamous University of California, Davis, better known as UC Davis, where many of the best winemakers got their start. Michael journeyed outside the box of grape wines as a visionary who created the first UC Davis class on mead.
This self-proclaimed artist of fermentation produces 70-plus meads, all varying in finish and pricing. Traditionally, mead is honey and water made dry or sweet. Michael takes an innovative approach to producing mead with more dynamic ability.
“Honey works better as it works with spices, chocolate, fruits,” he says. “Like a palette in painting, I see my ability in flavor developments. Some of my meads are as bone dry as a Cabernet Sauvignon.”
The variation in meads run the gamut from carbonated to barrel aged, and the newest offering of slushies! The level of alcohol differs for each version produced, and the variety is available in rotation at Moonlight Meadery in Londonderry, where he runs a retail store and tasting room, and at Over the Moon Farmstead in Pittsfield, where live music and expanse of farmland provides the perfect setting for sipping. Michael’s favorite product at Moonlight Meadery is the label, My Desire. “It’s semi-sweet with a good tannin structure and presents like a big Cabernet,” he said. But the most popular version sold is Kirk’s Apple Pie.
The best way to discover what meads and ciders you prefer is to embark on a palatable journey to a few of these New Hampshire wineries and taste your way to a decision! Download or pick up the NHWA winery passport, available at each participating winery. If you’re driven to win, bring your passport to each member winery in New Hampshire to collect a special prize for visiting them all.