Mead is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in existence, but that doesn't mean it's tired. Though it was enjoyed by everyone from Aristotle to the Vikings, in the hands of today's new crop of mead distillers — including Charm City Meadworks owners James Boicourt and Andrew Geffken — it feels fresh and modern.
Boicourt and Geffken operate Charm City Meadworks out of an industrial warehouse space in Curtis Bay. They began selling mead at farmers' markets and to local liquor stores and restaurants during the summer of 2014; this spring, they're also opening their doors to the general public, hosting tours and tastings on Fridays and Saturdays.
The company joins the ranks of other Maryland meadmakers, such as Orchid Cellar Winery in Middletown and Millstone Cellars in Monkton.
Charm City Meadworks' space isn't large, but there's a lot to look at, including yeast experimentations — a row of liquid-filled water cooler bottles perched on a high shelf — and whiteboards labeled with product names and descriptions.
In the center of the room, 10 barrels sit, waiting to be tapped and their contents tasted. The barrels, which originally stored bourbon at a Fredericksburg distillery, are moved to the wall when the facility is open to guests, and cloth-covered tables set up for tastings take their place.
On a rainy Tuesday morning, the Charm City Meadworks team has a job to do. They're tasting the contents of each barrel, evaluating the liquids for slight nuances in flavor. One batch has apple undertones; another is slightly oaky.
The mead in these barrels will be mixed and matched, eventually becoming either Charm City's "original dry" mead or the infused rosemary flavor. Those varieties, along with several others, like elderberry and cinnamon, make their way into shops, farmers' markets and restaurants throughout the region.
According to the American Mead Makers Association, mead is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. alcoholic beverage industry; overall sales jumped 130 percent between 2012 and 2013.
Charm City Meadworks is riding that wave. Since it started bottling mead about a year ago, it has seen a steady uptick in business.
"Bottling happens about every two months, but each time it happens, it gets bigger," says Boicourt, explaining that quantities have increased from about 50 cases in the first run to 350 cases this past January. They currently sell to about 75 places in and around Baltimore, Washington and the Eastern Shore.
The overall production process takes several months. The core ingredients — honey, yeast and water — ferment in conical tanks for about two weeks. "It's not like brewing, or distilling, where you have a heat process," says Boicourt. "We just mix things up and it'll ferment."
Once fermented, the mead is moved to the barrels, where it ages for three or four months. Post-barrel, it is transferred to a big plastic containers, called "totes," where it's infused with flavors that include fruit, rosemary and other spices for another two weeks.
If the process sounds both technical and somewhat imprecise, that's because it is. The centuries-old creation of mead is a tricky combination of science and art, which makes it a good fit for Boicourt and Geffken. The Charm City Meadworks owners are a laid-back pair who met while working at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels and bonded over a shared love of log canoe sailing and an interest in trying new things.
"We'd been scheming about businesses to invest in," recalls Boicourt, who had rented the Curtis Bay space before Charm City Meadworks was even fully conceived. In December 2013, they committed to the idea; by March, they completed the permit process and in July, they sold their first batch.
Mead-making was a natural opportunity for the pair, especially for Boicourt, who had been home brewing for years and who also kept bees on the roof of his Federal Hill home. "James was beekeeping and home brewing for 10 years, so mead was a sort of inevitable side effect," says Geffken with a laugh.
Boicourt recently moved his hives to the Eastern Shore ("I got tired of climbing out my bathroom windows to the roof," he says.). His hives generate some of the honey they use, though most of their main ingredient comes from Pennsylvania.
For other ingredients, like rosemary, they look to local companies, friends and family. "We're trying, when we can, to source things ourselves and grow things ourselves," says Geffken.
At the other end of the production chain, restaurateurs are excited about what Charm City Meadworks products add to their bar menus.
"It's a great, local product," says Justin Dvorkin, co-owner of The Ale House in Columbia. Dvorkin notes that mead is an artisanal product that is not yet "oversaturated" in the Baltimore area, so it feels new and exciting.
On May 21, Charm City Meadworks will host a "tap takeover" event at The Ale House. Also in May, the restaurant will introduce a spring cocktail menu including some drinks incorporating Charm City's mead. "It's a cool and useful ingredient for our cocktail program," says Dvorkin.
At The Brewer's Art, the rosemary mead has been well received by customers, says manager and bartender Tamara Nieves.
"We have a staple on the menu — the rosemary fries — so we thought it would be a good fit," she says. "It's doing really well."
Nieves discovered Charm City Meadworks at the Fells Point Farmers' Market.
"I was just going through the market and there was a group gathering," she says. "I saw they had their mead on tap. I knew mead was made from honey, but this was a little different from others. More wine-like."
At the market, Nieves met Geffken, who was delivering a mead lesson along with the samples he offered and bottles he sold. "Most people's experience with mead is at a renaissance festival, which is very different," he says. "And a lot of traditional meads have been a little sweeter with higher ABV [alcohol by volume]. People are starting to learn a little bit."
He attributes some of that learning to people's increased experience with hard cider, which is also available in both sweet and dry varieties.
"It's still a pretty big education process, but people are far more aware than they have been in the past," says Boicourt.
Things to know about mead
Mead has both a fascinating history and current relevance. Here's what you should know before you crack open a bottle of the honey beverage.
• It's ancient "Being a beekeeper and a maker of mead, it's hard to avoid learning a lot about the history," says James Boicourt. "It's something that was around before written history." Evidence of mead-like beverages have been found among the pottery of numerous civilizations, throughout the world and as far back as 7000 BC.
• Mead spawned the honeymoon "The original honeymoon was a 'mead moon'," says Boicourt. During medieval times, newly married couples were given enough mead to last through one cycle of the moon to "guarantee all sorts of love and fertility in the early part of the marriage."
• For optimal drinking For maximum enjoyment, mead should be slightly chilled. "They are really good lightly chilled, like white wine," says Boicourt. "But don't over-chill." Mead that's too cold will lose some of the nuances of its flavor.
• Pair it Just like wine, the right mead pairing can elevate a meal. For Easter, Boicourt's family ate chicken tikka masala paired with Charm City's cinnamon-infused "Retire by the Fire" flavor. "It was awesome," he says.
• It's gluten-free Honey is gluten-free, making mead an attractive alternative to gluten-free beers or wines. At The Ale House in Columbia, co-owner Justin Dvorkin thinks of Charm City Meadworks' products as premium options that "offer people the same experience as our craft beer crowd" — minus the gluten.