What if the next must-try local drink isn't a hazy India pale ale, a patiently barrel-aged gin or a crisp hard cider using local apples. What if it's a session mead made with wildflower honey, blackberry and Szechuan peppercorn?
That sweet-with-a-bite mead – dubbed the Peacemaker – was the favorite of Queen City Meadery's 14 mead options and already has been distributed to local businesses such as Hatchets & Hops and Crabapples.
While the Peacemaker drew rave reviews, the Buffalo area's willingness to embrace mead – an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting a mixture of honey, water and yeast, then adding anything from fruits and spices to grains and hops – has seen the West Seneca business become the third of its kind to open in the last five years.
"We decided to make mead because beer became too filling and overdone," said Ken Voelker, a partner who handles marketing, sales and behind-the-bar education. "We wanted a new experience."
Nestled on the east side of the Wimbledon Plaza, less than a minute from the 400 Expressway, Queen City Meadery opened quietly last December, refined the production process through winter and spring, then finally held a grand-opening party on Aug. 3, National Mead Day.
When first-time mead samplers enter the taproom, they'll hear a short spiel about mead's history (it dates back to 9000 B.C., when hunters and gatherers received a surprised buzz, making it the world's oldest alcoholic drink) and a general rundown of the options at Queen City.
The ownership group of Voelker, Brian Bookmiller and Rob Schweizer takes turns behind the bar, often soothing fears and gently correcting preconceived notions about mead. No, it's not the same consistency as honey, and no, it's not – in most cases – bracingly sweet. The honey taste is subtle, at times more noticeable than others, depending on the strength of the accompanying flavors. And yes, mead is gluten-free, which makes it a strong alternative to beer.
Customers will learn to differentiate between sessions and stills, which split the 14 taps down the middle. Sessions are lightly carbonated with a lower alcohol content (just over 7%) and usually more subtle in flavor, while stills are potent in alcohol content – roughly 13% – and flavor.
"It's sensory in the same way as wine," Voelker said, offering advice to smell and savor the blend of flavors. It's not a drink you chug.
The Peacemaker, back in stock in late September, was an easy-to-drink session, fruit forward with a hint of peppery spice at the end. Other sessions will please fans of cranberry – the Screaming Wench – and mules (the cocktail, not the sturdy beast of burden) – My Lil Mule.
Of the stills, the Three Ring Circus (wildflower honey, strawberry, raspberry and blueberry) was the most drinkable, but wine fans would be drawn toward the Admiral – akin to a semi-dry wine – or Simplicity, which mimics Riesling in its sweetness.
The best bet, both in value and experience, is to try a flight of any four ($10); customers can pick two stills and two sessions, or all stills and no sessions. In the flights, the stills are served in 1.5-ounce portions, while sessions are 3 ounces.
Otherwise, all glasses of mead cost $6 (8 ounces for sessions, 4 ounces for stills) and 500-milliliter bottles of sessions cost $10 and 750-milliliter bottles of stills run for $22. They may be purchased at the store to take home.
290 Center Road, West Seneca (320-0354)
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, 3 to 9 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday through Wednesday.
Scene: In the corner of a quiet strip plaza in West Seneca, close to Wimbledon Lanes and the Rusty Buffalo.
Drafts: Seven for sessions, with seven more stills available. Varieties rotate by season and batch. Call the meadery in advance to check on a specific mead's availability.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Interesting fact: Queen City sources its honey from Dutch Gold, a Pennsylvania collective that creates environments where bees may forage in blossoms such as orange, mesquite, clover and even alfalfa.