Chat a moment with Scott and Ross Pirtle, owners of Pirtle Winery in Weston, and history quickly works its way into the conversation.
How the red brick building housing their tasting room, built in 1867, once was a church and then a brewery bottle works. How Missouri winemakers dominated the American market before Prohibition decimated their industry in the early 20th century. How the owners helped their dad, winery founder Elbert Pirtle, plant grape vines in the late 1970s, when interest rates were high and interest in Midwest wines low.
But all that pales in comparison with the history of one of Pirtle Winery’s most popular offerings: mead.
Mead, or what the Pirtle brothers often call honey wine, dates back to around 7000 B.C., according to the American Mead Makers Association, and flows freely through the songs, poetry and mythology of many an ancient culture.
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Modern thirst for mead is partly fueled by enthusiasm for craft brewing (although mead is fermented, not brewed) and local honey, says Pete Bakulic, president of the Mazer Cup International Mead Competition, one of the world’s biggest such events. Nothing has driven demand, though, quite like pop culture touch points such as “Game of Thrones,” the HBO series based on the novels of George R.R. Martin.
“The genre of fantasy writing has taken off, and it’s all about mead,” Bakulic says. “They’re all drinking a saucer of mead, a bowl of mead, a cup of mead.”
Certainly that’s the case in Westeros, the fictitious setting of Martin’s novels. There, mead is a staple of hospitality, according to the Inn at the Crossroads (innatthecrossroads.com), the official “Game of Thrones” food blog.
So many folks are sipping along that mead sales grew 84 percent from 2012 to 2014, according to an association survey, and 236 U.S. wineries now produce at least one mead. Entries at the Mazer competition (a mazer is a traditional mead drinking vessel) are also skyrocketing: This year’s event drew 800 meads from most U.S. states and Canadian provinces, as well as Poland, the Netherlands, England, Italy, Brazil, New Zealand, Costa Rica and other countries.
“Mead is seeing a long overdue and well-deserved resurgence,” Bakulic says.
Mead is at its most basic a fermented mixture of honey and water, and most are between 8 percent and 18 percent alcohol by volume. Mead can be still or fizzy; dry, sweet or somewhere in between; light or heavy; flavored with fruit, spices or other ingredients. In all, there are more than three dozen recognized styles on the association’s website.
Scott, the winery’s full-time winemaker, produces a traditional still style that has an earthy, silky sweetness, and a lightly sparkling mead, with blackberry and raspberry versions.
“We try to make meads that are very, very drinkable, very palatable,” says Ross, who splits his time between Weston and New York, where he works for a technology company that produces software for the railway industry.
Theirs is the realization of a dream that began decades ago with a cherry tree in the family’s Westwood backyard. Scott and Ross were charged with shooing birds away from the ripening cherries, and then picking them. One year, their dad decided to make wine from the boys’ hard-won harvest.
The elder Pirtle enjoyed it so much that he wound up buying land near Camden Point in Platte County and planting grape vines. He then came across the old church, which was slated for demolition, and purchased that, too. He and his sons set about renovating it, and Scott and Ross laugh as they remember tearing out the rotted floorboards in the basement so their dad, then a mathematics professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, could start making wine there.
Pirtle Winery began selling wine in 1978 and added mead a year later.
“We wanted something we could do to supplement the grapes and fruit year-round, and honey was the thing,” Scott says.
Back then they made mead in 5-gallon batches in the basement of the tasting room. Gradually, they worked up to making it by the 55-gallon barrel. The brothers bought the winery from their parents in 2005, as well as land across the street, where they added a matching, 6,000-square-foot winemaking facility.
There’s now ample room for Scott to make the Weston Bend Red, which won a Medal of American Merit at the 2014 Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition, and other wines. As for the mead, that’s now produced in a 1,000-gallon converted milk tank he calls “honey boy,” although he may soon be doubling the volume.
“When you look at that tank of mead now, you think wow, that’s a lot,” Scott says. “But it’s not enough. We need more.”
To make mead, Scott adds filtered water to orange blossom honey from California (he buys about 10 tons of honey a year) and then warms the mixture to ensure it’s well combined. It’s then cooled, a proprietary yeast is added, and it’s left to ferment for about a month. The mead is then racked, or siphoned into a stainless steel tank, and allowed to clarify.
Finally, it’s sterile-filtered, bottled and labeled. Much of it is sold from the tasting room, which draws customers from Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines and elsewhere in the region for tastings, “Corks and Canvas” painting classes and an annual picking party.
“Word of mouth is big,” Scott says. “We have lots of loyal customers who have been coming here for years.”
Wholesale sales to retailers in Missouri, Kansas and Colorado and events such as the Kansas City Renaissance Festival are growing. Throughout it all, Weston remains the perfect location for their business, the Pirtles say.
“People enjoy coming up here, and we’ve just added to that,” Ross says.
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance writer who lives on a farm on the outskirts of Kansas City. Reach her at email@example.com.
▪ Pirtle Winery, pirtlewinery.com
▪ American Mead Makers Association, meadmakers.org
▪ Mazer Cup International Mead Competition, mazercup.com
Mead-Glazed Ham With Pineapple
Mead’s honeyed sweetness makes it the perfect counterpoint to spicy foods like Thai curries and barbecue, says Pirtle Winery assistant winemaker Chaz Judy. He also likes cooking with mead, which lends itself as readily to savory mains as it does sweet desserts. Here are two of his favorite recipes.
Makes about 12 servings
1 (750-milliliter) bottle Pirtle Traditional Mead or Pirtle Blackberry Mead
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups water
1/2 cup pineapple, diced
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
7-pound ham (Judy prefers spiral-cut, but bone-in or boneless is fine)
Blend all ingredients except ham in a saucepan with a heavy bottom. Bring to a boil, stirring regularly, until volume is reduced by half. Remove from heat. Bake ham according to directions, basting with sauce at the halfway point. Baste again 10 minutes before the end of cooking time. Allow ham to cool 5 minutes before serving.
Per serving: 407 calories (52 percent from fat), 22 grams total fat (9 grams saturated), 124 milligrams cholesterol, 10 grams carbohydrates, 37 grams protein, 2,702 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Mead Poached Pears
Makes 6 servings
11/2 cups Pirtle Traditional Mead
1/2 cup cane sugar
1/2 cup water
2 whole cinnamon sticks
2 whole star anise
Zest of 1/4 to 1/2 of an orange, cut into strips
6 firm Bartlett or D’Anjou pears, peeled
4 ounces crème fraiche
4 ounces blue cheese
Combine mead, sugar, water, cinnamon sticks, star anise and orange zest in a large saucepan (it needs to be big enough to hold all six pears); place over medium heat and bring to a boil.
Stir mead mixture gently until the sugar has dissolved and the sauce begins to reduce, about 6 to 8 minutes. Reduce heat to low and gently add pears. Cover with a lid and simmer for 30 minutes, rotating pears every 10 minutes until they’ve softened.
Turn off heat, remove lid and allow to cool. Remove pears gently. Strain liquid into a bowl and set aside.
In a separate, chilled bowl, fold creme fraiche and blue cheese until mixed.
To serve, place a dollop of the cheese mixture in the center of each plate, place pear alongside and drizzle with reduced mead sauce.
Per serving: 279 calories (37 percent from fat), 12 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 31 milligrams cholesterol, 39 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 274 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.