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Pairing Mead with Spicy Food

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Mead novices who walk into our meaderies with the belief that all meads are sweet, or that mead is just for Viking wanna-bees and for out-of-fashion fare from the Dark Ages, are about to get blown out of their socks. Mead is not yet appreciated as the food-friendly sophisticated beverage that it actually is; I've never seen a restaurant with a mead list and rarely have seen mead on the menu at all. At least for now, mead pairings happen at home. It is when your customers pair meads with spicy foods that they can really impress their friends, and shatter their preconceptions about mead. Sweet, semi-sweet, off-dry, fruity, and low-alcohol meads cut the heat in spicy foods for some really amazing pairings.

Photo courtesy of Kooklan Farms

Start simply with traditional (honey-only) meads, and then, as your confidence in pairings increases, you can broaden your spicy-food pairings to melomels as well. Turn up the heat as hot as you like in your food; as a general rule, the hotter the food, the sweeter and fruitier your mead pairing can be.
First, a few warnings, because there are a few combinations to avoid.

DON'Ts FOR PAIRING MEAD WITH SPICY FOOD

  • Spicy foods make meads with hops or tannins taste bitter.
  • Oaked meads tend to clash with hot, spicy foods (the exception is Bourbon-barrel-aged traditional meads paired with haute cuisine Southern BBQ anything; but it's the Bourbon, rather than the oak, that really makes these pairings resonate)
  • Very dry meads tend to accentuate the heat, usually in a bad way; while sweetness cools the burn, in a good way.
  • Spicy foods make high-alcohol meads taste hot
  • Very hot spices make the palate less sensitive to subtle flavors and aromas; when paired with hot foods, delicate meads seem pallid and uninteresting by comparison
  • Metheglins made with hot spices such as pepper and ginger generally complement spicy ethnic foods less well than you'd think. (But as with every rule, there are exceptions: ginger-beef stir-fry really amps up when you pair with a ginger mead. Or if you're having a dinner party themed around hot and spicy food, you can go over the top with meads flavored with chili peppers!)


DO's FOR PAIRING MEAD WITH SPICY FOOD

  • Meads with residual sugars cool the heat in spicy-hot food
  • Lush fruity meads, whether melomels or just traditional meads that register as having fruity aromas, balance the heat of spicy foods
  • Sparkling meads, whether session meads or methode champensoise, cleanse the palate of pepper oils, refreshing your mouth for the next fiery bite
  • Low-alcohol session meads balance the heat, are refreshing, and typically have a little residual sugar, all of which play well off spicy foods
  • Chilled meads pair better with scorching-hot foods than do room temperature meads.

So to restate, the list of characteristics to avoid when pairing mead with spicy food is actually quite short: hopped, oaked, spiced, very dry, or with very high alcohol levels. Note at this point that most beers are hopped, many wines are oaked (or red wines have high tannins, which meads rarely have at all), and many wines and ciders are puckery-dry; while meads rarely are. In other words, dinner beverage alternatives such as beer, wine, cider, and mixed drinks categorically pair less well with spicy food than mead. That's not to say, of course, that sublime pairings can't happen with beer or wine plus spicy food. Of course they can. The point is that you're much more likely to nail a spicy-food pairing the first time with a good mead.
Among the many hedonistic joys of the American melting pot is the astonishing range of cuisines available to the American table, especially in large cities. Today, with the internet as a resource for recipes and specialty ingredients, anyone has access to everything, no matter how remote or rural your hometown.
Urban takeout options for spicy foods are limitless; bring home the takeout food and bring out the mead for pairing, or bring a couple bottles of mead with you for a dinner out with friends: virtually all restaurants will open and serve your mead for you for a small "corkage fee," which is generally far less than the markup on a bottle of wine bought from the restaurant's wine list. A corkage fee around $10 to $15 per bottle is typical in big city restaurants; $5 to $10 in smaller towns and cities.
Bringing your mead with you is a great way to be a Mead Ambassador; you're letting both your dining companions and the restaurant staff know that you wish mead was on the wine list (or better yet: that there was a stand-alone mead list in addition to the usual wine list)!
For truly wonderful pairings with spicy ethnic food, let the additional ingredients in the mead come from the same cuisine as the food. For example, Mexican restaurants often offer a hot or iced herbal tea known as "Jamaica" or "hibisco" which is made from bright-red dried hibiscus flowers. Nectar Creek Meadery in Corvallis, Oregon, makes a lightly sweet seasonal session mead flavored with hibiscus: this scores four different flavor "hits" to make it pair wonderfully with Mexican food: ethnically-authentic ingredient of hibiscus, low alcohol, some residual sweetness, and carbonation.

For another example, Indian restaurants almost always offer a "mango lassi" on the menu: this is a non-alcoholic drink made with mango juice and yogurt. Innumerable meaderies make mango meads (and peach, and apricot meads perform "close enough"). Because a mango-flavored drink is already a standard part of the cuisine, you can be sure that a mango melomel will be a terrific pairing with Indian food every time.
Plum wine is a standard in Chinese, Japanese, and Thai restaurants; again, a plum melomel will pair well with spicy Asian food almost every time. Redstone Meadery makes a plum puree mead which is widely distributed.
Most Middle Eastern cuisines offer traditions of teas or soft drinks perfumed with rose water, jasmine water, orange flower water, or mint. Meads with these flavors always pair well with Middle Eastern food. Apricot melomels can be wonderful with some Middle Eastern foods, especially Turkish, but may not work for everything. Try them out with various dishes to see what works for you. Earthy red pyment are also lovely with Middle Eastern foods, especially if you're lucky enough to find one made with Shiraz/Syrah grapes. (But remember: don't be disappointed if the label doesn't specify what kind of grapes were used in a pyment; in the U.S. our Tax and Trade Bureau actually forbids mead labels to list the type of grapes used and the source on the label, in the interest of not misleading the consumer. Apparently the TTB thinks there's some risk that you may not know that a mead or a pyment contains not only that grape wine but also a substantial starting dose of honey.)
Tej, or Ethiopian traditional mead, is always good with all Ethiopian foods, and with most African, Carribean, and Cajun foods as well. In fact, Tej is a good go-to choice for pairing with virtually any scorching-hot cuisine including Szechuan Chinese. (In the unlikely event that you have trouble locating Tej, a semi-sweet traditional mead and a good Tej are interchangeable in almost all applications.).
Brad Dahlhofer, owner of B. Nektar Meadery in Michigan, says, "I really like a traditional buckwheat-honey mead with barbequed meat. A tupelo-honey mead goes real well with Indian or Thai food." Try B. Nektar's Wildberry Pyment with curried anything!
Michael Fairbrother, owner of of Moonlight Meadery in Londonderry, New Hampshire, offers this observation: "Pairing beverages with food is almost like a sport in modern American cuisine, but in my opinion it's better approached more as an adventure and less as a sport. Sport has a discernible win for one team and a loss for another. Food pairings are subjective, and almost always work differently for any two people at my table. It's really more about the journey than the endpoint; finding ways to present multiple tastes and textures so that there is a win over the whole meal for everyone, something that will go a long way at your next special meal." Moonlight Meadery's Blossom is a fruity white wine alternative that works well with spicy food, including Latin, Indian and Asian dishes. Moonlight's Flutter and Madagascar meads are slightly sweet and perfumed, also pairing well with Indian dishes and foods that might have their own nose of spices from saffron or curry.
Ash Fischbein of Sap House Meadery in Center Ossipee, New Hampshire, reports, "Draft Magazine did an article on "Game Day" pairings last year around the Super Bowl; surprisingly they paired our Hopped Blueberry Mead with Buffalo Wings and Swedish Meatballs. Sounded strange so we tried it - it was awesome!".
Here are some hot and spicy dishes to consider as pairings for meads.
Food Suggested Pairings
Spicy European pork roast sparkling juniper berry mead from Redstone Meadery (Boulder, Colorado)
Spicy Chinese pork plum melomel or a semi-sweet traditional mead
Spicy Southern or Caribbean pork Tupelo honey mead or a peach melomel
Spicy Hawaaian or tropical pork guava or mango melomels, or traditional meads made from Polynesian honeys such as Lehua Blossom or macadamia nut blossom honeys.
Cajun fried oysters sparkling or blueberry meads
Barbeque anything lush, fruity meads such as peach or blackberry. Choose a melomel that plays on ingredients in the sauce!
Ethiopian food authentic Tej, or with any semi-sweet traditional mead, or with melomels such as blackberry, peach, or cherry
Sushi with wasabi sparkling, plum, pear, or subtle cherry mead
Hot wings fruity melomel to play on ingredients in the sauce
Spicy Szechuan stir-fries plum, mango, or cherry melomels; or with traditional meads, especially low-alcohol ale-style meads such as Golden Coast Meads from San Diego.
Super-Spicy Mongolian Beef melomels taking their cue from other ingredients in the recipe
Latin Food (a favorite cookbook is Dave DeWitt, Melissa Stock, and Mary Jane Wilan's Hot & Spicy Latin Dishes: The Best Fiery Food from Las Americas) hibiscus blossom meads, or meads made from avocado blossom honey, or lower-alcohol session meads such as Rogue Ales, Nectar Creek, or Redstone
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NOTE: This article is a condensed excerpt of a chapter from Mead and Food Pairings, a forthcoming book by Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor, owner of Kookoolan World Meadery in Yamhill, Oregon. You can preview chapters of her book by finding her name at www.academia.org (as of June 2014, 15 chapters down and six to go!). Also subscribe to her mead and food pairing blog at kookoolanblog.com.
 
Do it, Madd!
I just broke the rule. I had peppery sausage with Meridian Frontier hopped mead. It was awesome! The mead did take off some heat between sips, and the hops gave it a peppery sharpness, without making it hotter, at the end. It was an interesting pairing.
 
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