Come May, a new honey-based alcoholic brew is set to debut in the East Bay. Well, perhaps not so new, as the drink, mead that is, has been part of civilization for thousands of years. Some experts say it fell out of popularity as cultures became urbanized, and an influx of sugar sent honey production mostly underground. Others say it was, in fact, the growth of cultivated grapes and grains that led to mead’s decline.
But, whatever the reason it lost favor, longtime home brewer Dan Cook has his sights set on launching mead into the East Bay drinks market, and the opportunity appears ripe for the taking. Under the moniker of The Mead Kitchen, Cook is working with two local beekeepers to provide the base for his new line of brews, which are currently aging and fermenting at Urbano Cellars in West Berkeley.
Cook, aka the Mead Maker, describes his passion to sell mead commercially as, until not long ago, just one among many of his schemes that fell into the category of what his friends affectionately call “Dan’s harebrained ideas.”
“But when it got to the point where we’ve got 300 gallons of alcohol sitting in a winery, and we’re talking to the feds and ABC, and bars and restaurants, about doing it, it’s becoming more of a reality,” he said Friday. “There wasn’t an abrupt line from fantasy to reality. It was more of a gradual slope of things changing. You wake up and you’re running this mead business. I get to get up, and I go and make booze.”
Cook’s pending liquor license application with the state, to be a wholesaler, came online last week. Part of the requirements for his license involve posting a notice about the application at his home in North Berkeley.
“I’ve been talking to all my neighbors to make sure they know I’m not opening a bar in my house,” he said. “One guy who lives on the block was like, ‘Damn, I was hoping I could just walk two houses down and get a drink.’”
Cook has been making mead for personal consumption for 14 years. Prior to that, he’d started “cranking out a lot of home brew” at his home in Richmond, Va. He’d been focused on beer for six to eight months when a friend suggested he try making mead.
“I was like: ‘Mead? What the hell is mead?’ He says, ‘It’s just honey, man, but it’s really good,” recalled Cook. Curiosity piqued, Cook consulted his home brewing book where he found a mead recipe that featured orange and ginger. Some six months later, he remembers bottling his first batch. “I didn’t even know if it had worked. And I’m thinking: Mead. It’s gotta be honey. It’s gotta be sweet and thick, like grog or something like that. There’s a Chaucerian thing about it.”
But as he bottled the mead, he sampled it, as home brewers are, apparently, wont to do: “And I’m getting this awesome buzz and goin, ‘Man, this is awesome.’” Unlike what he was expecting, that first batch was more like a “crazy honey champagne,” or a dry, alcoholic ginger ale, with no residual sweetness, but notes of orange and ginger. “After that point, I’ve always had at least one batch fermenting in my house. And, now, there are about eight.”
Mead, for those not in-the-know, is, at its most basic, a mixture of fermented honey and water. Cook describes it as “the original alcoholic beverage.” Some say it’s been linked back to African bushmen 20,000-40,000 years ago, and that the oldest archeological evidence of it dates from 2000 B.C. Fruits, spices and hops can be added to adjust the flavor. Its alcohol content ranges from about 8% to 18%, according to wikipedia.
Cook said he’d been content to keep his mead in the “hobby” category until a friend who’s a professional brewer urged him to take the next step and get a commercial license. His friend noted that mead was becoming popular, and that Cook’s recipe stood out among other offerings.
“When somebody who does it (brews) professionally says, ‘This is really good, you should do something with it,’ that’s different from just making it yourself and thinking it’s good,” he said. “I thought about it, and that was the beginning of the slippery slope.”
Cook said he started talking to people in the beverage industry, as well as contacts at local bars and wineries, about what it would take to go commercial. Initially he and his business partner, Paul O’Leary, were looking into finding their own space to brew, but it was too expensive. They later connected with friends at Urbano Cellars, in West Berkeley, who offered to lease the duo space and equipment. And, hence, The Mead Kitchen was born.
That sort of cooperative spirit, said Cook, is typical of what he’s found in the East Bay craft alcohol scene. A number of smaller brewers rent space or equipment from larger operations. “Crush agreements,” allowing for custom crushes at local urban wineries, are not uncommon. Need to borrow a keg washer to clean your barrels? There’s likely someone willing to lend or rent one out. That approach to community, said Cook, gives people who are considering making the leap from home brewing into commercial endeavors somewhat of a safety net.
“Two years ago I didn’t know anything about the East Bay urban winery phenomenon,” he said. “And now I know a lot more about it and I realize that these people are really supportive of each other.”
Cook said, other than some people making Ethiopian honey wine in Oakland, there didn’t seem to be much local competition for mead. And every conversation offered encouragement. A bar manager at one popular spot said he was “dying” for a line on mead. Said Cook, “I would talk to some of these bartenders, and they’d say, ‘We’ll take kegs of it. We’ll sell the hell out of it. It fits right in with all this crazy Belgian stuff.’”
Cook got connected with two local honey businesses, Rokas and Kelli Armonas with the Bay Area Bee Company and Khaled Almaghafi of Bee Healthy Honey Shop, to supply his “honey pipeline.” The shop owners have hundreds of hives throughout the Bay Area, said Cook, including two that were installed in Cook’s own yard.
Cook plans to offer two varieties for sale at first, the orange-ginger brew and a hops-infused edition. (At home, in his “test kitchen” in the basement, he’s working on a number of other styles that aren’t available for purchase, but sound divine: blackberry, winter plums, dried cherries and even grape.)
With production underway at Urbano, and the licensing process moving along, Cook said he hopes to have his mead ready for sale in May, with a grand opening party coming later this year. The goal is to make 300-400 gallons, or 150 cases, of mead each month.
Initially the distribution focus will be on the East Bay to ensure smooth operations, but Cook said bar contacts in San Francisco have already expressed interest in selling his mead. He said he and business partner O’Leary have been taking a “low-cost commando” approach to try to launch the business “without going a half million dollars into debt and turning into freaks.” (Half a million, said Cook, is what it would have cost to open their own microbrewery.) And the early signs of possible success are evident.
“The more people we give it to, the more people are like, ‘Yeah, this is great!’” said Cook. “Our goal is to prove that there’s a market for it.”
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