Picture this…one day you’re sitting at home and you get a phone call from some friends. Two brothers who have been making mead for fun for a while. When you pick up the phone they present you with this…hey man, let’s open up a meadery! Um, what? But you know what – sometimes things like this fall in your lap for a reason. So, in 2006 Brothers Drake Meadery in Columbus, Ohio was born. Oron Benary was the man who got that call, and we should all be grateful. Why? Well, because he and his teams have become mead bad-asses since that time! And they’re one of the many craft meaderies bringing this ancient drink of the gods back to modern times.
The Start of It All
Brothers Drake Meadery in Columbus is a hip, happening local hang-out (yes! we’re still talking about a meadery!) with stellar mead made with local ingredients. While Oron was originally brought on in more of a business capacity, he is now their main mead maker, and the proof of the wisdom in that decision is in every sip. If that wasn’t enough, Oron then had the idea to move out to San Francisco and start up The Meadery San Francisco (formerly SF Mead Company). And that brings us to our focus today… if you think of mead as a sticky-sweet honey bomb then it’s time to think again (click on over here for our full mead 101). The Meadery San Francisco ferments their mead completely dry, which means you’re tasting the nuanced flavors of the honey, not the sugar.
This is one of the first things that makes The Meadery SF special, and we were lucky enough to spend an afternoon with John Leonard, part-owner, head mead maker, sales guy and general “john of all trades” at The Meadery SF, to learn all about it. He explained that while there’s certainly a time and place for sweet meads, they’ve been around for a while now and haven’t exactly won over US craft drinking enthusiasts. Just like any other craft alcohol, there needs to be a variety of styles for the many different palates of those of us who want to drink them! Luckily that time is here and The Meadery SF is one of the best examples for anyone looking for more dry styles of mead (although they do have a few fun ones with a bit more sweetness too!).
Keeping It Local
Something else that makes this meadery special is their focus on local ingredients. All of their honey and other ingredients are from California with much of it coming from Northern California. They specifically choose beekeepers to work with based on their approach to beekeeping and the location of their hives. The location is important to impart almost a terroir-type flavor to the mead. If the bees are only pollinating an organic orange orchard (making a single varietal honey) in Ojai, CA you’re going to get layers of complexity. Orange zest, slight bitterness from under the rind, a slight floral note in the wonderfully rich yet bright honey. By contrast if the bees are pollinating near Redwood forests up near Mendocino, CA there is a lot of interesting undergrowth and conifers. Not a lot of bright wildflowers, which leads to an almost savory undertone with a lot of character.
The apples for their Cyser? They come from the Gowan Orchard in Philo, CA. It’s the last heirloom orchard left out of 10 in all of Mendocino County. Founded in 1876 it’s a 5th generation family farm. This is what craft is all about… forming relationships, supporting other small businesses, and getting the best product out there even if it means you pay a little more. Because true craft is worth it… although luckily for us The Meadery SF has figured even this piece out meaning their meads are incredibly affordable compared to many others out there today!
Going Above and Beyond
Lastly, when it comes to their mead making process, The Meadery SF is about as pure craft as you can get. While legally only 51% of your fermentable sugars need to come from honey to make mead, they never use other sugar sources. They also only use denatured yeast and don’t pasteurize or add sufides or preservatives to any of their meads. And on the aging front, they either use new oak chips (like a tea bag) or used oak barrels depending on their aging goals for that particular mead.
The really fun thing about The Meadery SF though, is visiting. Why? Well because honestly it’s a complete contradiction! For a company so focused on the art and beauty of local they’re in a super funky industrial part of town that you may not want to linger in after dark. You know us, we’re honest at The Crafty Cask! But I do mean it when I say this is a hugely fun part of their story – because it makes you feel how dedicated they are to the things that matter… which are the things that make it into your mouth! I don’t want my craft producers spending boatloads of cash on a fancy location or tasting room and jacking up my prices…do you? It also makes it feel like a real, local SF small business, which I love.
So I strongly encourage you to head down on a Saturday if you’re in the area (the only day they’re open to the public) and if you’re lucky, book a tour with John to learn all about the mead making process. What should you expect when tasting their meads? Let’s talk about a few of them…
The Truth Is In The Taste…
Starting with the dry styles…
Blackberry – This my friends, is your classic melomel (need a refresher on what that is? Click here). The tannins in the blackberry are similar to grapes so this is almost like a rose. Strong honey nose, but nuanced honey flavor on the palette with a dry finish.
California Gold – this has a woody smokiness, almost like a whiskey. It’s aged with both American (aged bourbon barrels) and French oak (light toast). It’s dry but still expresses the nuance of the honey. Califorina Gold is one of John’s personal favorites and honestly one of mine too (definitely went home with a bottle!). You might say this is their flagship mead.
Orange Blossom – this is made from a varietal honey, which means the bees are only pollinating one type of flower. In this case, you guessed it, orange blossoms from that ranch we talked about in Ojai, CA! It has a floral nose, bright honey flavor and great woodiness from some aging. This is another hot seller for The Meadery SF and it’s easy to see why.
Gravenstein – this is one of The Meadery SF’s incredible cysers (click here for a refresher on what a cyser is). While many other meaderies use both water and apple juice to make cysers, The Meadery goes the extra mile using only completely fresh pressed apples (from their heirloom apple farm partner) to add to the honey. No water at all. For context, most of their meads are 66% water to 34% honey. This is 80% gravenstein apples to 20% honey. Of course, this is more costly but the flavor is leaps and bounds above any other cysers we’ve tried. That pure crisp apple taste with an undertone of honey. Incredible with some sweetness.
Moving into sweeter varieties…
Apple Pie – this is one of their sweetest, as a blend of multiple years of Gravenstein which is then spiced with baking spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and others you would expect in something named apple pie. It’s then aged in bourbon barrels. Super caramel-y with a nose that almost has a teriyaki, savory essence to it. Great after dinner sipping.
Cyser – funnily enough their namesake cyser is a blend of 75% apple pie and 25% gravenstein. I definitely walked home with a bottle of this…honestly mostly for cocktails. Chilled over ice or with a bit of bubbly or soda water, using it to replace sweet vermouth in manhattans or other cocktails…this is a super fun addition to your bar.
Time To Add Mead Into Your Rotation
Speaking of adding these to your bar, how long do they last once you open them? While most people drink meads like wine, with the sweeter ones sometimes you do want them to last a bit longer. Particularly if you’re using them for cocktails. Lucky for you honey is basically a miracle substance!
Honey is one of the few food items that doesn’t spoil. It also has such a low moisture content that it kills whatever lands on it since there’s less water in the honey than in the cells on the bacteria so it pulls the water out of any bacteria or foreign objects, essentially killing them. Bees also create natural antiseptics when pollinating that exist in the resulting honey as well. Miracle food indeed! So back to the question. For The Meadery SF products, at least, once you open a bottle it can last about 5 weeks in the refrigerator for the drier versions. The sweeter ones (apple pie, cyser, etc..) they honestly last close to 6 months in the fridge.
So are you ready to get on the mead train? The Meadery San Francisco actually has pretty good distribution in the Bay Area, but you can also order it online. Yay mead! And, of course make sure to check out your local meaderies as well to start to learn about this often overlooked beverage. There are over 500 meaderies in the US now so odds of there being one near you are getting better and better. Whether you’re drinking The Meadery SF, Brothers Drake in Columbus or other local craft meads near you, let us know what you’re finding and thinking. Mead is an ancient drink making a comeback and we’re excited to dive in with all of you!