Beer Town: Monks Mead a modern take on an ancient beverage

Essentially fermented honey, mead may be the oldest form of alcohol known to man. For devotees, it evokes images of Vikings and medieval knights, and it is thought to be the inspiration for the word honeymoon.

Though it’s appreciated in brewing circles, and deemed worthy of a separate category in the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines, mead remains a mysterious beverage -- rarely available in bars and package stores, and barely a blip on the radar of U.S. alcohol consumption.

Martin Key and Justin Schoendorf are well aware of that. But for more than a decade, the Atlanta homebrew partners have been perfecting their take on the ancient elixir, while doggedly pursuing their dream of producing a commercial version. Now the product of all that time and effort, Monks Mead, finally can be found on draft at several pubs around town.

Recently, I sat down with Key and Schoendorf at the Porter Beer Bar in Little Five Points, where we sipped slender glasses of Monks Mead, as they told me about how they came to found a meadery.

“In the back of every homebrewing book, there’s that chapter on mead,” Key said, laughing. “We’d made almost every style of beer, and one day we just decided to try to make a mead. Of course, we’d never had a mead before, so we didn’t even know what it was supposed to taste like.”

“Our first efforts were questionable,” Schoendorf said. “But we tweaked the recipe, and finally we came up with something that is similar to what we have now. Our friends really liked it, and people started asking us for it.”

Monks Mead is a blond, effervescent drink that conjures something of the essence of both beer and champagne. At 12.9 percent alcohol, it’s dangerously easy to imbibe, with a fruity honey aroma and a surprisingly dry palate.

Currently, Key and Schoendorf are making Monks Mead at Terrapin Beer Co. in Athens, with a recipe that calls for water, wildflower honey, champagne yeast and yeast nutrient.

Though many artisan meads are sweet and flavored with fruit or spices, Monks Mead was designed to be more straightforward.

“We like a dry, crisp, carbonated style of mead,” Key said. “We wanted to make something that would get people into trying it and not be overly complex.”

Because their mead is classified as a sparkling wine but requires brewing equipment to produce, Key and Schoendorf had to get over multiple legal hurdles before they could attempt the first test batch at Terrapin.

“We needed a brewery, but we needed a wine license, so we were in this weird zone,” Key said. “On the days we make our mead, Terrapin actually legally becomes a winery.”

“It’s the only place in the country like that, as far as we know,” Schoendorf said. “It took years to work out the legal issues.”

Key and Schoendorf have purchased a bottling line that will be installed at Terrapin soon, allowing them to package Monks Mead in 750 ml bottles, which will retail for around $9.99.

In addition to the Porter, look for Monks Mead on draft at Midway Pub in East Atlanta, the Nook near Piedmont Park, and the Bookhouse Pub in Poncey-Highland. Whole Foods in Poncey-Highland is selling Monks Mead in growlers. And Key and Schoendorf will be offering samples at the Atlanta Winter Beerfest on Jan. 28 at Masquerade Music Park in Atlanta.

“A lot of people have never heard of mead,” Schoendorf said. “Other people have heard of it, but have no clue what it tastes like. The smallest segment is people who know what mead is and have tried it and like it. We’re hoping to get more people into that segment.”