From prehistorical China to ancient Greece, from the cradle of civilization to the barbarian hordes of the north, fermented honey is thought to be the first of all fermented beverages that, millennia later, we still enjoy. Of those, it’s maybe mead we’re most familiar with and of those it’s mead we maybe have the most narrow notions of. Like cider or port, mead does not have to be simple and overwhelmingly sweet, but due to lack of quality products in our local market, that’s the idea that’s taken hold. A few months ago, however, our local market was enriched with the arrival of Dansk Mjød, traditional mead from Denmark. The Viking Blod has made its rounds and we’ve seen the Klapøjster as well, but it’s G.I Dansk Mjød (Old Danish Mead) that stands out to me as one of the most interesting, complex things I’ve had the pleasure to experience.
This is a spiced mead or a metheglin with ginger and hops. This is not the sugar bomb you might remember from the Rennaissance Faire. This is born of a centuries-old recipe that accomplishes an exquisite balance acquired through time across history. Initially, honey-sweetness will hit you on the nose along with premonitory alcoholic heat, but display a modicum of patience and you will find floral honeysuckle, herbal aloe vera alongside golden apple and unmistakably honey-drenched pears. Let this warm just a bit and find a grassy, breezy scent that strikes up crisp images of lush green forests and rich soil. I can almost see the last snows giving way to spring and the impossible jade of freshly emancipated pasture.
On the palate rests a deep, luscious sweetness with peach, more pear, and spicy ginger that sinks languidly to candy as bitter florals linger on the finish like a marauding army that has found its purchase. Try this over ice with fruit, at room temperature as you would Portwine, or hot. Seriously, try this hot. Wait until it’s twenty-eight degrees outside then warm – do not boil – five or ten ounces in a pot on the stove. Mulled mead in the depths of winter is an underappreciated wonder.
Now, perhaps it’s my own penchant for the sword and sorcery or the slightly anachronistic quality of honey wine, but I’ve not tasted anything quite so vividly evocative. Here history and fantasy blur in intricate balance. So free your imagination, have a horn of nectar and waft an ancient and sweet spring wind that once soared over deep fields of Scandinavian grass, or that still blows today, in the North of our hearts.
I remember the first time I had Turkish coffee, I remember the first time I had kimchi, I remember the first time I had a Belgian sour, and I will remember the first time I had Prairie Artisan Ales Wine Barrel Noir. The world is full of things we know well, but unless you’re Anthony Bourdain or just filthy stinking rich the world is more full of things that are strange, unfamiliar, and oddly tantalizing. Wine Barrel Noir is strange, unfamiliar, and odd, but in a way that raises the hair on the back of your neck. This is a beer that takes you across a spectrum of recognizable flavors, but in an entirely unpredictable fashion.
It’s an aromatic beer, hugely so. Roast and oak make their presence known immediately in a blend of coffee grounds, black pepper, bitter baker’s chocolate. Then you’ll find the wine – the previous tenant of Noir’s most recent residence – with booze, sweet grapes, macerated red fruit, and hints of well-worn leather.
There really isn’t anything I can say to prepare anyone for the actual flavor of this beer. While the nose retains a quiet complexity, to taste this beer is to challenge what we think our preferences in beer are.
Bitter dark chocolate meets you immediately, but slowly mellows to a sticky milk chocolate. That fresh ground coffee follows, but dissipates, or surrenders, to what is plainly wine. A tartness overwhelms the roast and cocoa and blooms from sharp clarity into jammy sweetness, juxtaposed in a fantastically intriguing manner to an unexpected hop bitterness. With memories of tartness, the fruity sweetness and resiny bitterness stretch out and relax on your palate as if it were on a picnic instead, and you’re left – or, at least, I was – wondering what just happened. None of these things were odd to me, but the order that they were arranged in transformed them into something wholly new and staggeringly exciting.
In short, this isn’t like most wine barrel-aged beers I’ve come across or even wine-blended beers, where all characteristics serve to compliment one another. Instead, both qualities seem to retain their individuality and, rather than integrate, coexist in a bizarre, yet fascinating waltz. This is not a novice beer. Nor is it a beer for the advanced drinker. Simply, this is a beer for adventurers, for those who revel in exploration and foreign delights. This is a beer for those who refuse to be coddled by familiar comforts, because as much as prairie flatland may seem to fan out before you endlessly, beyond the illusion of the horizon lay mountains and the sea and entire other worlds and the true infinity of all we have yet to discover.