The Need for Mead

Growing craft beverage industry gets another Ferndale outpost
Photographs by Cybelle Codish

With the opening of Schramm’s Meadery in downtown Ferndale scheduled for this fall, the city might well be the epicenter of a growing craft beverage industry that’s gaining a lot of “buzz.”

Schramm’s joins B. Nektar Meadery — the “beer geek’s” mead that uses cult movie imagery on its labels (think Star Wars and Evil Dead) and now exports to a dozen states.

While mead is gaining new fans, it’s certainly no upstart. Some consider it the ancestor of all fermented drinks. Mead, an alcoholic beverage made from honey, is often referred to as “honey wine.” Much like beer or wine, mead has dozens of styles and can be flavored in countless ways. Popular styles include cysers, made with apple juice; melomels, made with fruits; and pyments, made with wine grapes.

Mead started out much like craft brewing — in the basements of home brewers — before going mainstream. The home brewer and home meadmaker were often one and the same.

That’s how Ken Schramm got started in 1987. Schramm’s brother bought him a home-brewing kit for Christmas, and it came with a copy of Charlie Pappazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. In the back was an appendix on mead.

“[Pappazian] spoke in superlatives, [like] there’s really nothing better [than mead] in the whole wide world,” Schramm says. “So I decided to give it a shot.”

At the time, craft brewing was barely a zygote. Mead had even less prominence. Schramm started making meads and contacted fellow Michiganian Bill Pfeiffer, one of the first five beer judges in the country who was also “meadmaker of the year.” Pfeiffer referred Schramm to the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild, where he met Dr. Dan McConnell, a Ph.D., in microbiology research from the University of Michigan.

“We both had the mead bug at the time,” Schramm says, “and I suggested we start a mead-only competition. Then people would send us their meads from all over, and we could learn which ones were best and how they made them.” Soon after, with the help of their friend Mike O’Brien, the Mazer Cup was born, America’s first and largest mead-only competition. The event is now held annually in March in Boulder, Colorado.

Schramm and his buddies continued to build their reputations with experimental meads, and were sought out as guest speakers at the American Homebrewers Association national conference in 1994.

“At that point our reputations were sealed,” Schramm says. “People knew we were serious. We were asked to write articles. Eventually I got asked to write a book.” McConnell was busy with a research grant from Harvard, so Schramm took the lead.

That’s right: Schramm literally wrote the book on mead. The Compleat Meadmaker was released in 2003 and is still considered the reference book for meadmaking. He plans a second edition soon.

Now Schramm is opening his own meadery in Ferndale. “I really wanted to open the meadery when mead was starting to gain currency and wasn’t so obscure, when it was beginning to be part of the craft alcohol movement in the United States. I had to do something to support that first.”

Schramm and Brad Dahlhofer, co-owner of B. Nektar Meadery with his wife, Kerri, and partner Paul Zimmerman, have forged a mutually beneficial relationship. Dahlhofer has expressed tremendous respect for Schramm, and even allowed him to make his signature Heart of Darkness mead using B. Nektar’s commercial equipment for (very) limited commercial availability.

Likewise, Schramm gives Dahlhofer proper due for bringing mead some national attention.

B. Nektar opened in 2008 after both Brad and Kerri lost their jobs. In five short years, it has gained popularity, appealing not just to the basement-dwelling Dungeons & Dragons clientele that many people still wrongly associate with mead, but to many others who love local artisan beverages.

B. Nektar has expanded into a second production space, also in Ferndale, and recently added another 4,000 gallons of capacity.

While B. Nektar started out making traditional still meads in flavors like Vanilla Cinnamon and Wildberry Pyment, flavors became more experimental and styles more hybrid: Cherry Chipotle — a bourbon barrel-aged mead; plus collaborative meads made with Ferndale’s Chazzano Coffee Roasters and Florida’s Cigar City Brewery. But when they started making lightly carbonated meads with lower alcohol content (more akin to craft beer), things really started happening.

“That’s been our claim to fame,” Dahlhofer says. “That’s what has really taken off.”

Zombie Killer, a cherry cyser, was an instant hit. It was followed by Evil Genius, a lightly carbonated mead that, to the best of their knowledge, was the first IPA-style mead in the country. (Evil Genius is currently out of production because of an availability issue with an ingredient.) Recently added to their lineup: Necromangocon, gold medal “Best in Show” winner at the 2013 Michigan Mead Cup (a new international competition); Kill All the Golfers, an Arnold Palmer–style mead; and Black Fang, flavored with blackberry, clove, and orange zest.

The larger facility is strictly for carbonated meads. Dahlhofer estimates that they’ll produce about 25,000 cases of carbonated meads alone this year. The company now employs 13 people full-time.

B. Nektar is currently awaiting final approval on a brewery license so they can make more beer-mead hybrids, like a Berliner Weisse–style mead on draft. “We’re still doing crazy stuff,” Dahlhofer says. “We’re kind of creating new categories; things that didn’t exist before.”

While B. Nektar’s branding and imagery has a dis-tinct appeal among the craft beer crowd, Schramm’s is aiming at traditional wine drinkers — a bit more elegant and refined. Both rave about how easy the city of Ferndale was to work with, and they see each other not as competition, but as evidence of a growing market share.

Other local meadmakers have won acclaim — including Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. and Dragonmead. It seems that metro Detroit is on the forefront of the American craft mead movement.

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