Modern Mead with 810 Meadworks
Mead – the “nectar of the gods” enjoyed in ancient Greece and in the Middle Ages before being ousted by beer and wine as the people’s preferred beverages – is the latest buzz in the craft brewing world, thanks to mead makers who are bringing the world’s oldest fermented beverage into the modern age. We talked to Bryan DeGraw, owner of 810 Meadworks in Medina, New York, about mead’s revival, the brewing process, and how state laws can make it difficult for mead to succeed.
What is Mead?
Mead is an alcoholic beverage made with fermented honey, water, yeast, and additional ingredients like fruits, spices, and sometimes even hops.
“We mix up the honey and water and, [in] any of our meads that have fruits, the fruits tend to be mixed in there at the beginning,” DeGraw says. “We add yeast, just like you would if you were making wine or beer, [and] let that ferment out. Then we’ll finish it off, whether that means balancing the acids, backsweetening it, or adding more fruit [or spices].”
Also like beer and wine, mead can be made in a wide variety of styles and flavors – and not all of them are sweet.
“People hear honey and they assume that, just because it’s made from honey, it has to be sweet,” DeGraw says. “In reality, we’re using the sugars in honey to make alcohol, just like beer is using barley to make alcohol and wine is using grapes. We start with honey, and we can adjust that sweetness just by using less or more honey, just as a brewer would with their beer. If we want it to be sweet, we just add more honey, or if we want it to be less sweet, we just don’t use as much honey on the front-end. You can end up with a very nice, dry mead that has very little residual sugar that people who don’t want something sweet can enjoy.”
Mead’s variety and adaptability has contributed to its popularity among beer and wine drinkers, especially when groups of people with different preferences are searching for a beverage that can bridge the gap.
“Mead can take on some of the flavors of beer, it can take on some of the flavors of wine; you make it with apples and it becomes like a cider,” DeGraw says. “There’s a lot of familiarity that can be found within mead and I find a lot of times, beer drinkers and wine drinkers that happen to be couples find a common thing that they can both enjoy. That, I think, is one of the cool things that sets it apart from wine or beer as a beverage.”
The Mead Marketplace
If meaderies are considered niche operations today, they were practically unheard of when the DeGraws opened 810 Meadworks in 2014. Medina has fewer than 6,000 residents, but DeGraw says its downtown area is no stranger to unique businesses.
“With [mead] being so different, we wanted to be in a downtown; we felt like that would give us some foot traffic,” DeGraw says. “We looked at [Medina] and thought it was a good place because there are a lot of unique businesses here. There are numerous businesses in town that draw from Buffalo and Rochester on a regular basis, and being able to draw from both of those cities and be part of the Niagara Wine Trail just made a lot of sense for us. While Medina is small, it has the most unbelievable business district of any small town I’ve ever been in.”
The Niagara Wine Trail that runs through a stretch of Western New York and Medina includes more than 20 other businesses, including a neighboring winery.
“We felt that was a good way to spend a minimal amount of money and get a good return on advertising,” DeGraw says. “The membership dues are minimal compared to the exposure we get to tourists. People come from all over the world [to visit Niagara Falls], so they often look for other things to do, and the Niagara Wine Trail tends to be one of those things. It’s nice to be a part of that organization.”
Despite sometimes being called honey wine, mead isn’t really wine, but it doesn’t quite qualify as beer. This can make succeeding in the craft beverage industry more challenging for meaderies that must abide by outdated laws that don’t reflect mead’s growing popularity. New York – which has a flourishing honey industry – is considering making changes to its licensing laws for meaderies, since a mead-specific license does not currently exist.
“We operate under a commercial winery license, and most of the meaderies in New York state operate under a commercial winery license,” DeGraw says. “[It] restricts us from selling any of those products without additional licensing, which means more dollars of license fees, when we’re already, with the commercial wine license, paying far more than most of the businesses like us in the state.”
New York’s current laws also make it difficult to sell bottled mead in certain retail spaces, though the same restrictions don’t necessarily apply to out-of-state mead products.
“The way the laws are right now, we’re really pigeonholed into wine stores and liquor stores in New York, and beer stores [and grocery stores that can sell beer] are kept separate,” DeGraw says. “We have meaderies that are producing mead in New York State that cannot sell their mead into a beer marketplace, [but] we have meaderies from outside of New York State selling their product in the beer marketplace in New York. [The new law] is going to change things for us. I don’t want to see those [out-of-state] meads go away, but I would like to be able to stick my product on the shelf next to them.”
If New York and other states continue to update existing laws to accommodate the growing number of meaderies in the United States, the mead industry could enjoy a growth and popularity similar to that of the craft beer industry.
“The [craft beer] market is oversaturated or has reached its saturation point, probably, whereas the mead market is still very wide open,” DeGraw says. “I think over the next 5 to 10 years, it should continue to see good growth and become much more of a mainstream beverage that is more widely available instead of it just being available in the focal point of where it exists.”