From Beehive to Bottle
Mead, a fermented drink made from honey, is making a comeback in Maine.
By Kira Goldenberg
Carly Cope is petite and soft-spoken but definitive in her words and movements as she labels the bottles of mead in front of her. “I put on the three-part label following the center seam of the bottle so that it lines up properly,” says Carly, 32. She grabs a couple of finished bottles by their necks and transfers them into packing boxes. “And then a little bee [sticker] goes on halfway up the bottle, or three quarters of the way up,” Carly continues, as she packs the boxes. She discovers an overlooked seal, the last of 433 bottles that took her about five hours to sticker and foil, so she restarts the hand-held heat sealer, which looks and sounds like a heavy hairdryer. She says, over the buzz of machinery, “It’s the most labor-intensive way to package. But it’s worth it.”
A family affair, Maine Mead Works produces locally sourced mead, an ancient fermented beverage made from honey, handmade by Carly and her husband, company co-founder Ben Alexander. They and their four employees produce the mead by the individual bottle in a large, eight thousand-square-foot section of a warehouse on Portland’s Washington Avenue.
Ben, 36, is the resident businessman. He settles into the wicker chair in one corner of the meadery’s tasting room, with Wing, the couple’s fluffy Australian shepherd, at his side. Ben’s father hovers nearby, tinkering with light fixtures. Like the labels, most everything — including the lights — in this four-year old company is done by hand on a small scale by family and the small staff. It works, Ben says. For now.
Ben and Carly have an ambitious plan to increase sales. The company sold about eight hundred cases of the beverage last year by turning Aroostook County honey and Portland tap water into a crisp, alcoholic drink that smells sweet but tastes like a smooth white wine. The sales target for 2011 is five thousand cases, or up to sixty thousand bottles. Their quest is a familiar one in Maine, where one out of seven adults owns a business. According to John Entwistle, director of the University of Southern Maine’s Small Business Development Centers, “that’s the highest rate that you’ll find” except in Vermont.
Increasingly, small local food companies like Maine Mead Works are finding room in and beyond the Maine market. Already more than 250 stores and bars throughout the state stock the mead, and many others are receptive to adding it to their offerings. Since January alone, when the company was retained by National Distributors for southern and central Maine, some fifty new accounts have been added in the greater Portland area. Maine distributors also signed up to distribute the mead in the northern part of the state. And this surge is despite the fact that the product is relatively expensive: The mead retails for about fourteen dollars to twenty-one dollars a bottle and sells for about six dollars a glass.
This success follows the company’s move last fall into a section of the old J.J. Nissen bakery building, replacing the original Anderson Street production room a tenth of the size. “We definitely want to use the space that we have,” Ben says. “I think we’ve got enough equipment in here right now to get us through this year with our production and sales goals, but we certainly recognize that we’re going to need to [reevaluate] again next year. At a certain point, it’s not going to be sustainable to produce everything by hand.”
But it is precisely that careful handcrafting — and unique brewing methods — that has helped this new company burgeon onto the Maine food scene. Maine Mead’s continuous fermentation system brews new mead nonstop, pumped through a mad-scientist array of tubes and barrels. (Most wines are made with batch brewing practices, where fermenting occurs in individual containers.) Brewers Nick Higgins (Ben’s cousin) and Andrew Peters daily replenish must, the honey and water mixture slated for fermentation, in a fifty-gallon barrel. From there, it’s pumped through pipes sitting in a pasteurizing hot water bath, up custom-designed yeast-filled fermenting tubes, and down into massive holding containers. The pumps that drive the must into the tubes run twenty-four hours a day. Once newly fermented mead fills a container, Nick and Andrew haul it through double doors to the back warehouse. After aging there for two to six weeks, the brewers work together to hand bottle mead while bickering over music choices and sharing sampling glasses. Using two small nozzles and the corking machine, they create a rhythmic little assembly line. They then set the mead-filled bottles into rows for Carly to label. When the pneumatic gadget switches off, the three of them can hear that day’s music compromise — on this day it’s reggaeton — blaring from Nick’s laptop.
The staff values the collaborative camaraderie startup culture of the company. “I really enjoy doing it by hand,” Ben says. “And as long as I can keep it that way, I’d like to.” But, he admits, that this mentality means the company is still “bootstrapping” where machinery troubleshooting is concerned. The new mead cooling system was built by hammering pipes onto the outside of a steel container and then clamping it with planks Andrew sawed in the warehouse. Two recent fermenting equipment leaks sent Nick into impromptu weekend whirlwinds of mopping, sterilizing, and brainstorming how to create more secure connections between pipes and parts.
A few days after the second leak, Nick analyzes the system, which sits opposite a cluster of his test flavor batches — miniature experiments with ingredients such as ice tea, ginger, thyme, and chili peppers “Slowly but surely, we’re making the system more rugged, more automated, less labor intensive,” Nick says.
The system is unique, only used here and at one facility in South Africa overseen by its developer, researcher Garth Cambray. Ben dreams of ushering in the system’s wider application.
Before starting Maine Mead Works in early 2007, Ben co-founded a tech startup that developed a text message payment platform. The rise of smart phones killed the endeavor, but the job left Ben with a taste for commercializing new technologies. Now, Cambray’s continuous fermentation system’s patent is pending in the United States, the application was co-written by Cambray and Ben. (Cambray visited back in 2007 to help Maine Mead Works build a system here.)
Though being made with new methods, mead is thought to be the world’s oldest fermented beverage. Still, many customers have never heard of the drink. “One woman couldn’t get her head around why we called it mead or whether we invented this,” Nick says. “ ‘Why do you call it mead?’ She asked. Well, because it is mead!” He patiently explains this fact with jargon-free patience to all the meadery visitors requesting tours each week.
Nick’s explanations are one piece of a company-wide effort to educate its potential customer base. For starters, mead is technically considered a wine under federal regulations, because it’s fermented. And sales manager Maurizio Iuretig constantly counters the perception that mead is always syrupy sweet while emphasizing the notion of mead as a local, foodie product. “Ours is crafted more as a wine,” he tells liquor store and bar managers as he pours tastes of several of the company’s different varieties: dry, cranberry, blueberry, hopped, semi-sweet, and lavender. “It’s simple, delicate, 12.5 percent alcohol.”
The mead comes in a total of ten varietals, or flavors (the other four are elderberry, strawberry, apple cyser, and the reserve, which is aged in old bourbon barrels). They are available not only in Maine but also at eight locations in Burlington, Vermont. Before hooking up with local distributors, the staff drove throughout the state delivering the mead in an eyesore Ford Transit plastered with HoneyMaker — the mead’s brand name — decals. Maurizio calls it the “meadmobile.” It can haul thirty cases of mead when its back seats are removed. Maurizio still spends long days on the road, but now the meadmobile stays in a commuter lot off the highway as he travels with sales representatives, teaching them how to sell the drink. He touts the mead as a gluten-free, locally sourced beverage whose different flavors pair with different cuisines and have potential for use in cooking and cocktails.
Many local bars and restaurants now stock Maine Mead Works’ HoneyMaker. The Portland bar Novare Res was one of the first in the city to serve the drinks; bar manager Shahin Khojastehzad and Nick have been friends since middle school, and Shahin helped them tweak and experiment in the meadery’s early days. “We did the lavender mead. The only mistake was I got French lavender, which is used for potpourris and perfumes. And when we made it, it tasted like licking your grandmother’s neck,” Shahin recalls. “Nick started researching lavender and found that there were all these varieties of lavender, and that French is not supposed to be consumed.” The mead, including the lavender’s current, much better tasting incarnation, now has a fan base at Novare Res, ranging from hipster art students, who consider the ancient drink the next new thing, to folks with assorted palates who find its taste somewhere between wine and beer. Shahin recommends it as a local alternative to Riesling drinkers or to customers seeking something fruity.
For Maine Mead Works, the future remains bright despite the acrimonious parting of Eli Cayer (who is now operating Portland’s Urban Farm Fermentory) last year. With production poised to increase as local awareness and demand for the product grow, Carly and Ben will have their hands full and will have to learn how to negotiate handmade products rooted in the local community with running a profitable business. Case in point: One afternoon the phone rings, and it’s a local business wanting to carry the mead. Nick informs the caller that they no longer do direct distribution and to get in touch with a distributor. It is a call they frequently get these days. Even Silly’s, the restaurant directly across the street from the meadery, where Ben and Carly regularly buy lunch, recently inquired about reordering mead. Things are changing too quickly for everyone to keep track — but the change is very good.