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Jacques Kelly: An old city building houses production of an ancient beverage

Like the beverage produced there, the new East Baltimore home of Charm City Meadworks has some history behind it.

Mead, a honey-fermented alcoholic beverage, goes back thousands of years. Meadworks’ new facility in the Johnston Square neighborhood isn’t quite as old, but it owes its curious shape to a set of circumstances that played out more than a century ago.

Before the construction of the Fallsway more than a century ago, the then-open Jones Falls made a lazy loop at Preston and Barclay streets.

“It was like an oxbow turn,” said James Boicourt, a co-owner of Meadworks.

About 1914, civil engineers modified the stream’s path, diverting it to a masonry culvert so large you could drive an automobile through it. The engineers straightened the stream’s southward flow — toward the harbor — at a point near Guilford and Mount Royal avenues.

The waterway’s old path became surplus land. Once this deep streambed was covered over with fill, the federal government built a 30,000-square-foot brick and concrete garage for postal trucks. The building follows the stream’s former route and has multiple addresses on both Preston and Biddle streets. The resulting structure curves like a meandering brook.

Charm City Meadworks, also founded by Andrew Geffken, renovated a section of this industrial-grade garage last year — long after the Post Office left the spot. In the intervening years, that part of the building had housed a Misty Harbor women’s raincoat warehouse and, most recently, a private hot-rod club.

“We feel lucky to be here now,” said Geffken as he stood this week alongside a 3,200-pound shipment of Dutch Gold Honey from Lancaster, Pa.

Boicourt and Gefken began making mead about four years ago and initially sold it at farmers markets. Modern Baltimoreans developed a taste for the ancient beverage, and soon the partners were selling their products to local liquor stores and restaurants. They initially worked from a Fairfield warehouse before moving this year to Johnston Square.

“I’ve been a master beekeeper for a long time. I had a hive on my roof on Williams Street in Federal Hill,” said Boicourt, who learned about beekeeping at North Carolina State University, where he also studied engineering and political science. “We produce nine varieties of mead each season of the year.”

While selling mead at Baltimore’s farmers markets, Boicourt learned about this vast East Preston Street garage that was so large it also accommodated artists and other work spaces.

“When we came, it had holes in the floor from settlement issues, it had holes in the walls and it had holes in the roof. The electricity was bare wires and you could get a shock when you walked past,” Boicourt said.

He employs local labor and also works through the Turnaround Tuesday program to find people to assist in making and canning the mead.

“Job creation is a big deal in this neighborhood,” he said.

The partners also bought seven lots alongside the structure to accommodate a new Biddle Street entrance, where visitors will be able to stop in at a taproom scheduled to open later this year. Its bar, now under construction, is made of loblolly pine from Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“Johnston Square is a progressive neighborhood,” Boicourt said. “It’s a place where the change is positive. It’s a neighborhood that has gone through a period of transition, but now its vacant houses are being much reduced through more rehabilitation.”

Much of the mead produced in Johnston Square makes its way back up the Jones Falls — to Hampden. The largest retailer of the beverage is the Wine Source on Elm Avenue.

Charm City Meadworks, 407 E. Preston St., will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 28 for tours as part of Doors Open Baltimore. Admission is free. Many other historic city sites will be open.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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