In the 10,000-year history of lower-alcohol beverages, beer and wine have long surpassed all other brews. After all, when's the last time you were able to order pulque, the sour fermented sap of a Mesoamerican tree, from the drink menu?
But a few old fermented stalwarts maintain a loyal, if small, fan base. Bill Larkin, owner of Arsenal Cider House, wants you to familiarize yourself with them, so he's throwing the First Annual Pittsburgh Cider and Mead Festival on April 27 at the site of the former Iron City Brewery in Lawrenceville. The event will feature samples from an international collection of at least 16 cider houses and meaderies, including regional producers Arsenal, Laurel Highlands Meadery, Rebellion Ciderworks and Jack's.
Cider and mead "don't get the recognition that beer or wine do ... especially mead," Larkin says.
Mead, a fermented mixture of honey and water, is one of humanity's oldest libations; archeological evidence indicates that the beverage was independently created in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres. But as ancient as it is, mead has largely been relegated to a sticky swill consumed as a novelty at Renaissance fairs. High-quality mead is challenging to find and relatively unknown to Pennsylvania drinkers.
The festival is "really exciting, especially for people in Pennsylvania who don't have much access to mead at the state stores. This will give us a chance to highlight it," says Matt Falenski of Laurel Highlands Meadery.
Hard cider may be more familiar to drinkers, but Larkin says the market for his product is also underdeveloped, partially because of the perception that hard cider is a less refined beverage than beer or wine. Larkin disagrees with that perception, noting that his crisp, balanced Picket Bone Dry "proved that cider doesn't have to be super-sweet."
For those skeptical about the quality of mead and cider, Falenski has some simple advice: "We always suggest people who tried it once in college come and try it again."