Benton Harbor’s Black Dragon Meadery revives ancient recipes
Meadmaster Paul Peterson had entered the Renaissance era when he attended the Mid-Michigan RenFest and was hurling even further into the past by heading to the Rosenvolk German Medieval Festival when I caught up to him at his Black Dragon Meadery in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
Peterson, who served in the Special Forces in Germany and took up beer- and winemaking because he wanted brews like those he drank overseas, isn’t much of a modern guy. Sure, he responds to e-mails almost immediately, but his meadery’s website shows him dressed as a knight, and his spelling is more Middle English than modern—think “drynking” and “faire.” The medieval business model is what he’s all about.
“I don’t read about how to make mead from American mead makers,” says Peterson, who grew up in Michigan’s Manistee County.
Before I can ask why, he tells me. It’s all about hewing to history.
“European-born meads and mead culture didn’t make it to the New World,” he says. “After Napoleon’s scientists discovered how to synthesize, or distill, sugar from beets, crystallized sugar became cheaper to make than harvesting honey, so honey fell out of favor as the household sweetener. Since people brewed with what they had in the house, and as cheaply as they could, mead also fell out of favor.”
So what’s a dedicated ancient art mead maker to do?
For Peterson, the go-to sources are such old-world tomes as Peter Duncan and Bryan Acton’s A Complete Guide to the Making of Sweet & Dry Mead, Melomel, Metheglin, Hippocras, Pyment & Cyser—and no, those aren’t typos.
“Ancient methods to me are using the low-tech and natural ingredients the ancients would have used, with only a couple of modifications,” he says. “Raw honey and real fruit or whole fruit, without any artificial flavors, makes for a base start.”
Consistency would have been an issue to old-tyme (oh dear, I’m starting to do it, too) meads. Peterson uses distillates of natural substances to ensure that each batch is the same. And he avoids off flavors and bacteria by eschewing the ancient way of fermenting in skins made of sheep and goat stomachs. Obviously, some things from the past can be jettisoned.
But Peterson is all in for local—using Michigan products such as black cherries, red-cherry concentrate, local cider from Coloma, blueberries from Sawyer and honey from a nearby beekeeper. Out of season, he sources from Coloma Frozen Foods.
Peterson named his first crafted beer Black Dragon Ale, started winning awards (18 and counting) and called his fair business Black Dragon.
Now, he’s taken the next step and is bringing his meads—and root beer—to Indiana and Michigan markets.
“Since bees have been making honey the same since the dawn of time, we end up with a connection to our ancient forebears, drynking the very meads they drank,” he says with a courtly flourish, before adding, “though arguably with a little better quality control and understanding of bacterial growth and yeast management.”
For where to find Black Dragon meads, visit BlackDragonMeadery.com.