Retail

4,000 Years In, Bringing Innovation To Mead (Yes, Mead)

bottles for brewing

It is hard to call mead a trendy beverage — since it’s been around for at least 4,000 years, first showing up in ancient Egyptian texts described as the beverage of the gods. Still, it is younger than both beer and wine (which are 5,000 and 6,000 years old respectively) and never quite achieved the same cultural ubiquity of either. The honey-based fermented beverage (sometimes called “honey wine” though dedicated mead drinkers affirm that mead is a fundamentally different drink than wine) has been something of a niche or regional favorite for the last five or so centuries.  

But the 21st century has seen something of a mead renaissance. During the whole of the 20th century only 64 meaderies (breweries for mead) were open in the U.S. In the first 20 years of the 21st century, that figure has more than doubled to 118. How much more mead people are drinking is a bit harder to track — since the ATF does not distinguish between mead and wine — but according to Vicky Rowe, executive director of the American Mead Makers Association, Americans’ thirst for the product is clearly growing.

“We are kind of the red-headed stepchild of the alcohol world,” Rowe told INC, noting that despite its outside status, the sales of off-premise mead (mead that’s sold through retailers instead of a meadery) have shot up around 30 percent in the last five years.

Last year, the off-premise mead industry generated $9.3 million in sales, a 7.9 percent increase from the year prior. 

And rising to meet the nation’s rising need for mead are Jeff and Jen Herbert, who 10 years ago started on the path to being one of America’s premier mead makers — a journey that as of last year saw their business, Arizona-based Superstition Meadery, bring in $2.7 million in revenue. That, incidentally, is enough to make Superstition Meadery one of the top five mead businesses in the nation, an accomplishment rendered slightly remarkable by the fact that neither Jeff nor Jen Herbert were actually looking to get into the mead-making business when they made their first batch a decade ago. They were just looking to make a beverage for their “all homemade” Thanksgiving dinner of 2009.  

What they learned was that they liked making mead a lot, and started pursuing it has a hobby in their garage until about 2012, when family and friends suggested there might be a business in it. And so the Herberts became professional mead makers — and set about innovating a product with a 4,000-year history to introduce it to consumers. Because, as Jeff pointed out, consumers are drinking differently than they have in the past. Extrapolating from their own habits around consumption, the couple realized they wanted something new, and thought lots of other consumers likely did as well. What mead offers, he said, is an entirely new canvas to experiment with flavors and the entire drinking experience itself. 

“We were always the kind of folks that would rather drink an imported beer or microbrew instead of a Bud,” said Jeff. “I wanted to apply all these crazy ideas to home brewing.”

Crazy ideas that have translated into maple, blackberry, and peanut butter and jelly flavored meads flowing from Superstition Meadery.

More than that, Superstition Meadery has also sought to position its drink not so much as a daily use item so much as a special occasion one, a reality cemented by the fact that their product comes at a high price point. Superstition sells its meads priced from $15 to $48 per bottle depending on what specialized ingredients are included in the blend (saffron, for example, costs more than vanilla). That high price, incidentally, reflects the high cost of small-batch production and the fact that the firm’s main raw material is honey, which is abundant but not cheap even at wholesale prices.  

At that price point, Jeff noted, most customers aren’t drinking mead with dinner every night, but the holiday season is annually a very busy time as consumers stock up on gifts and specially-flavored meads for their own consumption during the season. The company expects to book about $3 million in revenue this year, about 25 percent of which will come from November and December sales.

And the Herberts are looking to expand, with plans to open a joint restaurant and meadery in downtown Phoenix sometime in 2020. Because, according to Jeff Herbert, the only thing standing between customers and a long, loving relationship with mead is the simple fact that most consumers have never heard of it or tried it before. And, after a few thousand years, he thinks now is the time to really start getting the word out. 

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