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Myth busting is a daily challenge at Florida meadery

November 17, 2018
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In this Sept. 28, 2018 photo, Anne-Marie Willaker poses next to a tap at Abbey Bar in DeLand, Fla. Mead, a fermented drink that goes back centuries, is hard to find outside medieval festivals. (Lola Gomez/The Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP)

DELAND, Fla. (AP) — Debunking myths is mead maker Ann-Marie Willaker’s toughest challenge.

New customers perusing the menu at Abbey Bar on North Woodland Boulevard, which serves as the taproom for Willaker’s Odd Elixir MeadWorks, often have never heard of mead. Others think they know all about it but are way off the mark.

“They had that one mead in Ireland that was too sweet, or their sister’s cousin made it in the garage and it tasted like rocket fuel,” said Willaker, who also is Abbey Bar’s general manager.

The confusion is understandable. Mead isn’t a supermarket staple or happy hour draft pick. It’s hard to find outside of medieval festivals.

Odd Elixir is the first and only meadery in Volusia County. The next nearest is in Interlachen, more than 70 miles away. Beyond that, a handful of others are sprinkled around Florida’s fringes in Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville and Pensacola.

Rocket fuel, for the record, is not an ingredient in Willaker’s mead. And contrary to a viral Bud Light commercial that casts a mead-loving man as a persnickety craft beverage connoisseur, neither is malt.

Malt actually is the one ingredient U.S.-made commercial mead can’t contain. Malt is reserved for beer, and mead, for all technical and legal purposes, is wine.

However inaccurate, But Light’s marketing has given meaderies a “huge boost,” said Vicky Rowe, executive director at American Mead Makers Association, a nonprofit industry advocate.

“They put mead in the public eye in the way nobody else has been able to do,” Rowe said. “We’re all very happy about it.”

Just 30 meaderies operated in the U.S. 15 years ago. Now, there are more than 500, with new meaderies opening every two or three days, said Rowe. “It’s going crazy, and there’s no sign of slowing down.”

Still, misconceptions abound.

At Abbey Bar, Willaker employs a don’t-knock-it-until-you-try-it technique when engaging with inquiring customers. She even has a ready-made flier explaining in simple terms what mead is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t.

No, it’s not always sickeningly sweet. Nor is it honey beer or some other hip new beverage to hit the market. In fact, it’s quite old. Yes, Scandinavian seafarers did enjoy mead, but they weren’t the only ones.

Cable series such as History Channel’s “Vikings” have boosted that last supposition — not that Willaker is complaining.

“I definitely can say that some of the TV references certainly help pique people’s curiosity,” she said. Willaker can work with that. It allows her an opportunity to broaden their beverage horizons.

Take the “Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy novels on which HBO’s smash hit “Game of Thrones” is based. The books evoke images of bearskin-cloaked warrior types thumping their chests and raising rudimentary mead-filled mugs to celebrate victories big and small.

But the heavy, high-octane mead Nordic warriors or fictional characters at icy outposts on the edge of the world enjoyed is a far cry from the meads Willaker makes in a closet-sized space hidden in Abbey Bar’s back hallway.

That wintry mead is more akin to Danish-made Viking Blod, a sweet, hearty 19-percenter that “makes you forget you’re freezing your butt off. The thing is, we have very few Nordic winters here in Florida,” said Willaker, 44. “We’ve got beach days.”

Most Odd Elixir meads are climate-appropriate — an antidote to the sticky summer sun. They have the “lighter, sharp crispness of a cider or a fruity cocktail,” she said.

In its most basic form, mead is the fermented product of honey, water and yeast. Willaker uses Florida honey, such as wildflower, orange blossom and black mangrove.

The addition of fruit and spices can produce an endless range of flavors. That’s where her artistic sensibilities have room to run wild.

Willaker’s an expert experimenter, and her passion for craft beverages is painted on her arms. Tattoos of barley, hops and honeycomb illustrate her journey — first making wine, then mead and beer.

It all began with a “crazy whim” after she was gifted some homemade fruit wine. It was terrible. “I bet I can do better,” she recalls thinking after tasting it.

She bought a kit and started making her own awful-tasting wine using fresh-picked oranges and store-bought frozen fruit. Eventually, Willaker said, “I figured out how not to screw it up.”

The mead-making happened by chance, too. She took her two boys, now 17 and 19, to an educational Renaissance festival. The mead booth there was barren.

“People were kind of making jokes like, ‘Why is the mead always gone?’ I was just really curious why everyone was so enamored with this thing I’d never heard of, or only (read about) in literature,” Willaker said.

She searched for it in stores with no luck. The solution was clear — she would have to make her own.

“The first mead I tried is one I made myself,” she said.

In January 2008, with her first batch of mead fermenting, she was invited to a craft beer home brewers’ gathering. She went, and soon was making beer, too.

She met her husband, Blair Willaker, through the brewers’ group, and the techniques she learned there influence the mead she makes today.

Ann-Marie Willaker took her mead to home brew meetings, sold it at beer festivals and built up a following. In 2014, she got her winery license, sublet a small space at Abbey Bar and went to work.

Odd Elixir meads are inspired by events and ideas with personal meaning. On average they are 6 to 7 percent alcohol content and take 14 to 21 days to make. Ingredients are mixed in a fermenting tank, and then the yeasts go to work.

She has four core and two rotating taps at Abbey Bar that range in price from $6.50 to $9 a glass.

Peaches the Friendly Ghost, named for a presence that haunts Abbey Bar, is fruity, refreshing, smooth and always available. In October, Willaker tapped I Guava Dream, a guava- and lime-infused semisweet mead for LGBT history month, a subject nearer to Ann-Marie Willaker’s heart since her oldest son came out as gay.

The upcoming Madame Curie, made with blackened honey, is named for the Willakers’ late French bulldog, Marie Curie. They’re considering aging it in a Copper Bottom Craft Distillery rum barrel with ancho chile and vanilla to give it a spicy tingle.

Getting the recipe just right isn’t easy, and the boring business of licensing fees and tax filing is an added stressor.

“But then you make a product and people love it, and they come back for it and they gush over it,” said Willaker. “It’s nice to make something that makes people happy.”

Odd Elixir MeadWorks is located inside Abbey Bar at 117 N. Woodland Blvd., DeLand. Call 386-734-4545 or go to oddelixir.com.

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Information from: Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal, http://www.news-journalonline.com

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