I couldn’t tell you when I had my very first taste of mead. But I can definitely tell you who gave me the first taste I enjoyed — that was Matt Falenski, owner of Laurel Highlands Meadery.
I attended the 2011 edition of Erie’s Beer on the Bay festival with Doug Derda, so I could give him a hand with his “Should I Drink That” podcast. My admittedly fuzzy recollection: we hadn’t even finished setting up when Mr. Falenski shows up at our table with cups of his bochet mead — made with roasted honey — and a mind-blowing chocolate mead. These were not the syrupy, sticky-sweet meads I had tasted previously; they were light, not overly sweet and all about flavor, rather than their substantial kick.
Since then, I’ve seen Laurel Highlands meads at Pipers Pub and other places, and enjoyed the growth of the style as Apis booms through its first few years in Carnegie. But until this week, I hadn’t visited the tasting room Mr. Falenski opened a year ago in downtown Irwin.
The warm, inviting space fits; it’s a comfortable place to sample a few tastes of the Laurel Highlands meads, everything from its traditional mead — the closest thing to what I thought mead was, which is to day it wasn’t really close at all — to varieties that are hopped or flavored with ginger, fruit or habanero peppers. If you’re a craft beer drinker, these won’t be unfamiliar to you, especially if you order a taste of Mr. Falenski’s saison mead; it’s made with French saison yeast and orange blossom honey — a sharper flavor than the Pennsylvania wildflower honey used in most of Laurel’s meads, he said — and it tastes remarkably like the farmhouse ales I love.
If you’re not yet familiar with mead, you have a great opportunity on Saturday. That’s when Mr. Falenski celebrates the one-year anniversary of the Laurel Highlands tasting room in Irwin, with live music and a couple long-awaited special releases. Among those: Laurel’s chocolate mead — not the one I tasted in Erie six years ago (the one Mr. Falenski now refers to as “a mess”), but his traditional mead aged with cocoa nibs. The result is not a chocolate drink as much as it is a light, smooth mead with a subtle chocolate flavor.
Like he did when we first met in Erie, Mr. Falenski is still confounding my expectations — for the better.
Post-Gazette coverage of Laurel Highlands Meadery: