Wander into the world of mead brewing and you’ll quickly find yourself immersed in a fascinating journey that spans centuries and continents. As the craft beer movement has taken root in Japan, artisanal beverages have also begun sprouting up in popularity and mead is making a comeback.
The origins of mead are shrouded in the mists of time. Mead, often referred to as “honey wine,” is one of the oldest fermented beverages. An ancient Indian text, known as the “Rigveda,” mentions it as early as 1,700 B.C. It is believed that civilizations across the globe stumbled upon this magical transformation of honey into a heavenly drink around this time. From the Vikings to the ancient Greeks and Celts, mead was cherished as a beverage of celebration, romance and ritual. In Japan, mead is said to have been introduced from China during the Yayoi Period around 300 B.C. The Chinese had a long history of mead production, and it is likely that the brewing techniques were brought over to Japan along with other cultural exchanges.
The brewing process is relatively simple, yet offers an infinite canvas for creativity. It begins with the careful selection of high-quality honey, the key ingredient that provides the distinct sweetness and flavor profile of the final product. The honey is mixed with water and sometimes infused with fruits, spices or herbs. Yeast is then introduced to kickstart fermentation. Honey is long lasting so mead can be produced year round. Mead can range from dry to lusciously sweet, from floral and fruity to bold and spicy.
The decline of mead’s popularity occurred gradually over several centuries, diminishing from mainstream consumption by the 16th and 17th centuries. Mead began to lose favor in many regions of Europe during the late Middle Ages and early modern period due to increased availability and affordability of other beverages—like wine and beer—and the cost and resources required for mead production and the industrialization of brewing. However, while mead declined in popularity, it still maintained regional and cultural significance in some areas and never completely disappeared from the brewing landscape.
Its current revival can be traced back to recent decades thanks to the growth of microbreweries (craft beer) and artisanal drinks. People are drawn to its historical roots and the opportunity to explore ancient brewing traditions. The focus on local sourcing and sustainability has also played a role, with consumers appreciating the use of locally produced honey.
Mead brewing in Japan did not take hold until the early 2000s when a small group of enthusiasts began experimenting with mead production using local ingredients. They are the pioneers of Japanese mead production as there were no Japanese texts they could follow, so they had to look overseas and incorporate local ingredients and traditional brewing techniques.
One of the challenges they face is the availability of honey. It is also prized in Japan and to convert it into wine may be seen as a waste. However, with the growing interest in mead, local beekeepers have started to produce honey on a larger scale, ensuring a steady supply.
In recent years, the Japanese mead industry has gained international recognition, with some Japanese meads winning awards at international competitions.
Nestled in the Chichibu mountains in Saitama Prefecture is Deerlet Field Brewery, which operates from the first floor of an abandoned school. It’s founded by Elena Kudo, a Ukrainian-Russian raised in Aizu Wakamatsu, Fukushima. In her early 20s, she met a mead brewer in her hometown making a small production of Aizu mead and was intrigued by his rose nectar mead.
“I got into brewing because I like alcohol: sake, wine and beer,” Kudo laughs, half joking. Together with this brewer and her husband, Kudo launched Deerlet two years ago. “It’s great to be part of starting something new in Japan as mead is just re-entering the scene.”
At Deerlet, they follow similar brewing methods to sake, including using sake yeast that can only be found in Japan. The boiler is heated entirely by locally sourced firewood. After fermenting the mead for a month bringing it up to an alcohol content of 10%, they heat the mead to kill the yeast, stop the fermentation then bottle the liquor. This results in non-carbonated mead similar to light-bodied, sweet white wine.
“In Poland and parts of Europe, mead is very sweet, herbal and almost viscous,” Kudo explains. “But here, there’s a ‘craft boom’ to make mead more like wine.”
While they do not infuse their mead, they source honey from four locations. Their local wildflower nectar honey mead has muscat grape flavors and pairs well with cheese. The Aomori apple goes well with oysters and scallops. The tropical Vietnam lychee is recommended with steak, lamb and Gibier meat and the citrusy Mexican orange with nuts, prosciutto and carpaccio.
Aside from selling online, Deerlet’s mead can be found at Shinanoya liquor stores in Shinjuku, Toyosu and Roppongi in Tokyo, and souvenir shops at Chichibu, Saitama.
Hachimitsu Koubou sits in the heart of the Chiba peninsula in Kimitsu City. On a weekend afternoon, it is buzzing with families and couples sampling honey and mead. Launched in summer 2021, this meadery is a tourist attraction as it has a gift shop, ice cream stand and a free meadery and beehive tour.
They source their own honey here, as owner Yukihiro Ijima’s grandfather was a beekeeper. The hives are transported to different parts of Japan, for example Aomori Prefecture for tochi honey or south for the herbal shina honey. After a month, they’re brought back and the brewing process begins using only honey, water and yeast. The mead is fermented for two weeks.
“We use a blend of wine yeast, Japanese sake yeast and sometimes champagne yeast,” says brewer Atsumi Yaginuma, who comes from a winemaking background. “The result is a sweet white wine with a refreshing finish.”
Their most popular product is their plain mead. Other flavors include apple, orange, “craft” (a carbonated mead with 5% alcohol content), lychee, and, depending on the season, sakura (cherry blossoms). It pairs well with cheese and nuts.
“We’ve also gotten feedback from customers that our mead goes well with yudoufu (hot tofu),” adds Yaginuma.
He hopes to expand their brewing processes, like using two-step fermentation for sparkling mead, fermenting longer for dry mead, creating mead more similar to beer, and adding spices and fruit juice.
Find their Pure Mead line online or at their store. Their free 30-minute tour can be booked online or on weekends directly at the store.
Up in mountainous Nagano, Canadian-American Eric Bossick brews award-winning Wicked Way Mead. His mead has been on the market since 2018 and, in 2021, his dessert mead was the first mead from Japan to win gold in the 2021 Mazer Cup, said to be the largest mead competition in the world.
Bossick was originally working as an actor and photographer in Japan for nearly 20 years. He was drawn to mead while traveling in the Czech Republic in 2009, as it’s a hub for filming in Europe and he hoped to audition for a few roles.
“It’s a mysterious country full of stories and legends, and you can still visit many alchemy labs and old castles,” remembers Bossick. He tried mead at a cafe while sightseeing and was hooked. When he returned to Japan, he couldn’t find it anywhere and wanting to satisfy the nostalgia of his travels, he started making his own mead. He then went on to study honey fermentation at the University of California Davis, then returned again to start Wicked Way Mead.
While he brews in Nagano, Bossick operates a small bee farm near his house in Tsurukawa, just on the outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo.
“This is more for my own research,” admits Bossick as he inspects the hives. It’s a full-on job as he listens to make sure the bees are buzzing healthily, watches for any population changes or irregular patterns, and most importantly, checks for pests.
“In Japan, the bees are targeted by suzumebachi, giant hornets, who eat the honeybees. Sometimes moths lay their eggs in the hives. There might also be dani (mites). Up near the mountains, you get bears and wild boars trying to get the honey,” Bossick says as he spots a hornet and kills it. In a few days he’ll be building a barrier that would block the hornets.
He brews five types of mead, his most popular being The Pathfinder, which won the 2020 Mazer Cup Bronze medal. The Pathfinder has a distinctly Japanese flavor as it uses sake yeast and nanohana, acacia, lotus and horse chestnut nectar honey. In contrast, the dry Shimmering Sun uses Portuguese wine yeast and honey from Ehime in the south.
Bossick ferments blueberry juice with honey for his Midnight mead and sells it unfiltered, which tastes similar to red wine due to tannins from the berries. The Golden Treasure is recommended for people who enjoy whiskey and rum, as it is aged in a Jamaican rum barrel. Finally, the Ring of Fire uses caramelized apple honey and Madagascar vanilla beans which transform it into a rich dessert mead. Bossick plans to brew herbal infusions in the future. His mead is available at liquor stores in Tokyo, Nagano, Shizuoka and online.
Mead brewing in Japan continues to evolve, with new flavors and techniques being explored. The combination of ancient brewing traditions, local ingredients and modern innovations has resulted in a diverse mead culture in Japan, offering a delightful and distinct drinking experience for enthusiasts as well as those taking their first sip.