Have you tried the new brew on the block? Here in the Bay Area, we love our craft beers and hard ciders, and can't get enough of home-fermented kefirs, kombuchas, and natural sodas. Now, with the backyard beekeeping on the rise, it's time to add mead to the mix.
Mead is a beverage with a long, long history, beloved by ancient Vikings, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George R.R. Martin alike. It predates the establishment of agriculture: before people were growing grain or cultivating fruit, they were robbing bees of their wild honey, and fermenting it by means of natural wild yeasts. In chilly climates like Scandinavia and northern Europe where grapes couldn’t grow, honey mixed with water produced the sugars necessary for fermentation. The Vikings toasted with it; so did the Druids. From the Rig-Veda to Beowulf, it was the festive, ceremonial beverage of choice. Medieval and Renaissance texts listed dozens of variations, including hydromel, cyser, metheglyn, melomel, and more. Some were spiced, some sweetened, some mixed with fruit juice, wines, or vinegars in place of water. It was a low-tech product, since the simplest batch of mead required only honey, water, and time, with natural wild yeasts providing the impetus for fermentation.
Beer and wine have long taken over as our fermented drinks of choice, however, and mead, if it’s remembered at all, is the Ren-Fest punchline, served tongue-in-cheek by a bosomy wench and quaffed from a drinking horn, if at all. At a cider and mead tasting organized this past summer at the Jug Shop in San Francisco, the ciders ran a gamut of tastes nearly as elegant and far-reaching as wine; the meads, by contrast, were often ungainly, unbalanced, and often overly sweet.
Except for one, bottled like wine in a clear 750-milliter bottle, its amber label printed in plain type, with none of the swirly, Jethro-Tull-album-cover look of other brands. This was the dry, complex California Gold made by husband and wife team Oron Benary and Sarah Jones of the San Francisco Mead Company. Bay Area Bites caught up with Oron and Sarah at their new meadery in Bayview-Hunters Point to find out what makes their mead special.
Oron, who grew up in Austria and Israel, and Sarah, a two-time Olympic rower, know their meads. With homebrewing friends in Ohio, Oron founded (and remains a part owner of) the popular Brothers Drake meadery and bar in Columbus, which makes over a dozen different styles and flavors of mead. After meeting in San Francisco, the couple moved back to Ohio three years ago to work on the mead business, then came back to the city in 2012 to start mead-making here. But they remain fiercely dedicated to supporting local commerce and economies, and to keeping their meads close to home. Brothers Drake sells the 5,000 cases it produces only in the Columbus area; their San Francisco mead (currently less than 1000 cases) is available only in the Bay Area.
So, what does it take to make good mead? Good honey, good practices (including careful sanitation), and most importantly, time. Since the bulk of their mead is made of nothing more than raw honey and water, with commercial wine yeasts to control fermentation, they source their honey from a beekeeper who raises queen bees at the edge of the Mendocino National Forest, where there’s little development and not much commercial agriculture. Bees being foragers, there’s no way to restrict their nectar diet to strictly organic plants, but Oren sees these bees as living as natural a life as possible. The day after our interview, Oron and Sarah were planning to drive up to Mendocino in a rental truck, returning with hundreds of gallons of honey for making cyser, for which they'll dilute the honey with freshly soured apple-cider vinegar from Sonoma instead of water. At about 14% alcohol, about the same as your typical Napa cabernet, "It's like getting punched in the face with pies!" laughed Sarah, making it especially good as an autumn cocktail base with whiskey or bourbon.
"We also add spice--cinnamon, nutmeg, clove--so it's like liquid, drunk apple pie. It's amazing! We're so excited about doing it here." The honey base makes a difference, too. "With the Ohio honey we get a really light, almost clear [mead], with kind of a spicy, grassy flavor. But here we get citrus and pine and wood, very earthy. Two different honeys, two different places, totally different mead." Although there are many possibilities, from sweet to dry, still to sparkling, they're dedicated to making a dry product, with almost all the residual sugars fermented out, as a way to "reveal more of the nuanced flavors of the honey," according to Sarah.
The next most crucial part, after sourcing good honey, is the aging process, which Oron says changes the flavor dramatically. "Honey is an incredible, complex, beautiful food...We have an orange blossom mead right now in the tanks--we made it this January." They were skeptical at a first tasting, earlier this summer. But then, Oren noted, "We tasted it a few days ago, and it was like, there it is! It's starting to really develop." Much like wine, all of their meads age in tanks at least a year before being bottled and sold--which means, alas, the cyser they're making now won't be available for drinking until next Halloween.
They started their San Francisco mead making in the Dogpatch, sharing space with Sutton Cellars, near where Magnolia Brewery has their new facilities. But increasing rents and a desire to expand capacity pushed them to find their own 2500-square-foot space in Bayview-Hunters Point, a few blocks east of the Muni T-line on Third Street, this summer. Their landlord, it turned out, was a beekeeper himself, who raises bees and teaches beekeeping classes next door, and helped them build out the garage-like space into a working production facility. Lined with glass carboys (for experiments) and imposingly large plastic tanks, the no-frills space is arranged for maximum efficiency and cleanliness.
Their Ohio space has evolved to include a full cocktail bar and lounge with nightly live music, where 200 people might congregate on a weekend evening. Here, in a neighborhood where small-scale industry butts up against rows of single-family houses, they're planning for a much mellower vibe--just a small tasting area up front, open on weekend afternoons for curious customers, while they focus on production and distribution to local stores, bars, and restaurants. They're happy to back in San Francisco, where the drinking (and eating) culture is always on the lookout for the next new thing. They've got plans for a hyper-local Hunters Point mead made with honey from their landlord's bees, as well as meads infused with sage, hops, and other aromatic plants. There's even plans for another meadery, this one down in Los Angeles. But for the moment, their focus is in San Francisco, capturing in a bottle the tastes and terroir of coastal Northern California.
San Francisco Mead Company
1180 Shafter Ave
San Francisco, CA 94124
Phone: (415) 819-4947
Hours: Sat-Sun noon-6pm, or by appointment
Facebook: The San Francisco Mead Company