Charm City Meadworks is making an ancient brew modern
By Lisa Lance
Feb 02, 2016 | 12:19 PM
A small Toyota pickup truck sits outside a warehouse on 8th Avenue, at the south end of the 895 Harbor Tunnel. It's purplish-black, with orange flames painted on the front, and the dashboard is covered in white faux fur. It's not something you see every day—a little different, definitely bold, but fitting to the Baltimore scene—much like the company it represents. The sides boast the stylized-bee logo of Charm City Meadworks, and the truck bed often hauls kegs of mead to venues such as Bo Brooks and Rocket to Venus.
Mead, which is made of honey and water fermented with yeast, is perhaps the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world. Often associated with the Viking Age, enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and mentioned in Chaucer's 14th-century Canterbury Tales, mead is having a resurgence thanks to the craft brewing trend. But far from the sticky-sweet beverage sold at Renaissance festivals, modern mead is lighter in taste and can be consumed like a glass of wine or beer.
Before Charm City Meadworks' co-owners James Boicourt and Andrew Geffken started making mead together, they were both interested in homebrewing beer. Boicourt started making mead as a hobby more than a decade ago, and eventually he got Geffken into it too. "The nice thing about mead is it's fermentation, so there's no brewing," said Geffken. "We just mix things." This made it a particularly attractive hobby when he was living in an English basement apartment, because it required less space than brewing beer.
Boicourt became interested in mead making when he took a class on beekeeping as a student at North Carolina State University (he graduated in 2006). "You take a class and have no idea what it's going to lead to," he said. "Now, look where it's put me."
Boicourt and Geffken started Charm City Meadworks as a back-burner project while they considered other business ideas, and in late 2013, Boicourt said they thought, "now is the time." Both were working full-time jobs while putting in extra hours building out their fermenting facility and mustering up a following for their product. Last year, Boicourt and Geffken decided to take the plunge, quitting their day jobs to focus on the company full time. In 2015, Charm City Meadworks produced nearly 13,000 gallons of mead. Last September, the company also launched draft mead packaged in cans, which Geffken said doubled their volume overnight. "Cans move like beer," he said. "They have a lower ABV, so you can drink more of it." The new packaging is also an indication of the company's forward-thinking philosophy: "Cans are a modern package, so it helps us bring mead into the 21st century," he said.
Charm City Meadworks produces two styles of mead—a still, wine-like version with 12 percent ABV and a carbonated, draft version with 6.9 percent ABV. They usually have two to three core flavors and a seasonal variety available within each style. Examples of the draft style varieties include wildflower, elderberry, and basil lemongrass. The wine style varieties include original dry, rosemary, and cinnamon. "We do all of our flavoring by infusion," Geffken explained.
Jed Jenny, beer manager at The Wine Source, said his store was one of the first to offer Charm City Meadworks products. "We first learned about Charm City Meadworks when they approached us with a new interpretation of the style," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised by the lighter taste. It's very drinkable."
Unlike the sweeter meads that people might drink as a dessert wine, Jenny said Charm City Meadworks approaches mead as an everyday drink, similar to beer or cider. "It gives you the potential for more regular consumption, with increased volume and repeat customers," he said.
Liam Flynn, owner of Liam Flynn's Ale House, said he also started carrying the product about a year ago. He didn't expect it to take off because people haven't had much exposure to mead. "But once we got it on draft, people took notice of it and tried it more," he said. He compared it to the growth in popularity of cider, which he attributed to cider's increased availability after Miller took over the Crispin brand, as well as people with celiac issues searching for a gluten-free product.
Jenny said The Wine Source is also seeing an increase in demand from customers looking for a gluten-free alternative to beer. "Cider can be a bit one-dimensional, and what these guys are doing with mead is interesting," he said, noting that the herbal-based meads, such as the basil lemongrass flavor, have characteristics of both cider and beer. He compared the experience to the way malt and hops combine.
Flynn used to carry a brand of mead from Ireland that was of fine quality, but had a thick viscosity, too thick for a draft. "I started working with James from Charm City Meadworks and he recognized the only way to get product moving was to make it more available and put it on draft," he said. Boicourt developed both—one style on draft for convenience and one style in bottles for variety. Liam Flynn's now carries one Charm City mead on draft and four in bottles.
The Wine Source has seen success so far with the product, with consistent growth in both the bottled and canned meads. "We've always been fortunate that our customers are very supportive of local businesses," said Jenny. He added that the still, wine-like meads were popular as gifts this holiday season.
Mead has been a traditional gift at other times of the year, as well. Flynn pointed out the word honeymoon comes from the tradition of couples drinking mead on their wedding night, as it supposedly helps with fertility. "I always suggest to people it makes a great wedding gift," he said.
Looking ahead, Boicourt and Geffken are thinking of moving into a larger space, but for now they're busy developing new products for the spring season. The Meadworks opens its facilities on 8th Avenue to the public on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, and tasting room visitors can sample current products and give feedback on the "Project X" flavors—those that are still in development and not available at retail locations or bars. "When it comes to alcohol, people will tell you exactly what they think," said Geffken. "For good or for bad," added Boicourt.