Southern Makers

The ABCs of Mead | Listen

By: Emily Havener

Finding mead, the world’s oldest fermented beverage, on Florida’s Forgotten Coast

The Forgotten Coast is famous for seafood, oysters in particular. It’s home to award-winning barbecue—any visit to the area should include a stop at FatDaddy’s Smokehouse & Grill (formerly Brag’n’Bones) in Eastpoint, where the ribs are king. More than 90 percent of the businesses here are locally owned and operated: Half Shell Dockside serves not only local oysters, now sustainably farm raised and offering a delicious vegetal finish, but also the owner’s distillation, Weedline rum, lightly sweet and citrusy and perfect over ice. Plus there’s a gorgeous, untouched beach with public access on St. George’s Island. All of this would be more than enough reason to fly into Panama City airport and drive two hours and through a time zone along the Gulf Coast. But the main reason to go, I discovered on a recent trip, is mead.

tupelo honey jar to be turned into mead

Apalachicola Bee Company (ABC) is a honey and mead tasting bar on Avenue E in the heart of downtown, and if you walk in midafternoon on any given day, as I did, Stacie Tharpe or one of her “bee-tenders” will be behind the bar, serving up tastes of mead from around the world, along with her family apiary’s tupelo honey—which, she says, is native to the region.

“The tupelo tree grows in the vast majority of the Florida panhandle,” Tharpe says. “But the biggest spot’s going to be the Apalachicola River.” Her family’s apiary, Bee Wild Raw Honey out of Bristol, Florida, follows the painstaking process to clean beehive combs at just the right time of year so that only honey made from white tupelo gum tree blossoms is collected. They also infuse their honey with jalapeño and habanero peppers, which Tharpe says makes a wonderful marinade for meat, or even grilled vegetables like asparagus.

Tharpe was selling the honey out of the adjacent Dolce Vita boutique and educating customers as to the fact that tupelo honey is truly local. “It turned out our bestseller in the entire boutique that year was my family’s honey,” she says. As a result, with the partnership of boutique owner Kristin Willis, she decided to expand into the space next door to create a tasting room for honey and mead (which is made from fermented honey), that opened in February 2021.

“You don’t really hear about mead down South,” Tharpe says. “And the people who have heard about it, they’ve had a lot of bad experiences with it.” ABC set out to change that with education about the wide variety of meads available, showcasing a complexity and variety on par with wine. They partnered with B. Nektar Meadery out of Michigan to create their very first label, an orange blossom mead aged five years in gin barrels and coming in at a whopping 22.75% ABV.

Black Madonna mead

Mead can have quite a range of ABV, and the tasting Tharpe had set up for me started with the Black Madonna sour blackberry, 6% ABV, barely sweet, with a powerful nose and a pleasant vinegary finish reminiscent of kombucha. Then I moved on to a peach mead, much sweeter and more like my stereotype of mead—except as we Southerners know, peach sweet is never too sweet because it’s offset by just enough juicy acidity. Neither prepared me for Tharpe’s mead, which was more like liquor—the gin notes were unmistakable, but what surprised me was the similarity to bourbon as well, with a caramel finish. It was delicious.

Then, with a wicked gleam in her eye, Tharpe said to Rebecca Coxwell, her childhood friend and fellow bee-tender at ABC, “I’m gonna let her try the Viking Blod.” An import from Denmark made with a recipe from the 1700s, the Blod is brewed with cherries and might be the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted: rich, decadent, and sophisticated, reminiscent of an after-dinner cordial or port, but still entirely its own thing.

The Viking Blod is a traditional mead; more modern meads, called hydromels, are lower ABV, and many are infused with CO2 to make them bubbly. Among those, the iQhilika out of South Africa and the Caffè Ameadicano from Crafted Artisan Meadery in Ohio, are astonishing, utterly unique combinations reminiscent of sparkling wine and coffee.

“We have one of the largest varieties here in Florida, and that’s because we work with eight major meaderies across the country,” Tharpe says. All the bee-tenders on the ABC team try each mead that comes in and vote on whether or not to offer it in the store. “We try to have something that will touch on everyone’s palate,” Tharpe explains. “I had a gentleman who was in earlier, and he’s like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t like mead.’ Well, let me change your mind. And I did. I changed his mind.”

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