LIANE HANSEN, host:
Here's a word you may know: Mead. That honey wine swilled in the works of Beowulf and Chaucer and hasn't been popular since, well, Beowulf and Chaucer.
But as Tim Fitzsimons discovered, mead is making a comeback, slipping out from under the tents of renaissance fairs and jumping onto the wine shelf.
TIM FITZSIMONS: If you want to buy mead, there's pretty much only one place you could be sure to find it.
Unidentified Man: God Save the Queen.
CROWD: God Save the Queen.
FITZSIMONS: At a renaissance fair in Knightdale, North Carolina, mead enthusiasts are everywhere. Next to the jousting arena, and across the way from Queen Elizabeth's tent, a blacksmith calling himself Sir Geoffrey takes a swig from something curious. Is that a...
Sir GEOFFREY (Blacksmith): It's a bull horn.
FITZSIMONS: That's right, a bull horn. And it's a full of mead.
Sir GEOFFREY: I actually have a larger one at home that will hold an entire bottle of mead. This is just my traveling size.
FITZSIMONS: Sir Geoffrey is not alone in his love for the honey wine, which is believed to be the oldest alcoholic beverage. Mead is making a comeback, and not just among the renaissance fair crowd.
(Soundbite of a crowd)
FITZSIMONS: On the other side of the hay-strewn grounds, Ben and Becky Starr are introducing different types of mead to a small crowd.
Mr. BEN STARR (Owner, Starrlight Mead): So this one is lightly sweetened with...
FITZSIMONS: As Ben gives the tasters a crash course his wife, Becky, doles several varieties into the waiting cups. One is slightly carbonated; one, juniper-berry flavored; and there's even a mead made from orange-blossom honey.
The crowd likes it, but that doesn't surprise the Starrs, who opened their Pittsboro, North Carolina, meadery just seven months ago.
Mr. STARR: We're still selling about twice as much as we expected to do our first year. We've run out, twice, of almost every flavor.
FITZSIMONS: Turns out, mead is a better business than most would think.
Mr. CARY GREENE (CEO, WineAmerica): I mean, it's astonishing - the level of growth that we've seen.
FITZSIMONS: That's Cary Greene, the chief operating officer for WineAmerica, a trade association. Because the honey in mead is an agricultural product, it falls under the same umbrella definition as other alcoholic beverages, such as wine and cider. But that's precisely why it is so hard to track exactly how much the beverage is catching on. Though there are plenty of other indicators, many familiar with the business say that the number of places that brew mead has exploded over the past decade.
Mr. GREENE: And is growing all over the country - I mean, you've got meaderies, now, in more than 20 states.
FITZSIMONS: Why the growth? Greene says part of the reason may be the go-local craze spreading across the country.
Mr. GREENE: And to consumers, I think they more or less see this is as a local, authentic experience. They think of this as their neighbors producing something that's a fine product, and they get excited about that.
FITZSIMONS: That love of all things local is what brings customers to Brother's Drake, a meadery in Columbus, Ohio. With a hip location next to the Ohio State University, art on the walls, and wine glasses instead of bull horns, Brothers Drake is about as far from a renaissance fair as you can get. And it draws a different crowd - a college crowd.
Mr. OREN BENARY (General Manager, Brothers Drake): Most people don't know what mead is.
FITZSIMONS: Oren Benary is the general manager of Brothers Drake.
Mr. BENARY: So we tell them it's alcoholic, and they start to like it instantaneously.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BENARY: And somebody came in the other day and then they said, wow, this place is hip.
FITZSIMONS: And hip means business, like it's 1380 all over again. Just ask Woody Drake, the Brothers' mead master.
Mr. WOODY DRAKE (Owner, Brothers Drake): When I first conceived of the idea of having a business, there were about 30 meaderies nationwide. And now, there are pushing 200. And it's only been like, six years.
FITZSIMONS: And besides, he says, if business ever slows down, they can always sell it at the renaissance fair.
Unidentified Men: (Singing) Well, it's all for the grog, me jolly, jolly grog...
For NPR News, I'm Tim Fitzsimons.
Unidentified Men: (Singing) ...it's all for me beer and tobacco. I spent all me tin on a lassie drinking gin, far across the western ocean I must wander.