We were very fortunate to sit down with Oron Benary, owner and head mead-maker at Brothers Drake Meadery in Columbus, Ohio, to talk about sustainability, caffeine-withdrawal, and the lost history of humanity’s oldest manufactured tipple. In addition to being incredibly passionate about his work—and the impact that work has on his community—Oron was fantastically, refreshingly* humble, never missing an opportunity to remind us (and a later tour group) that he is “not that good.” He’s being modest (his stuff is fantastic), but I get it. Let me explain:
Mead-making, despite its long history (evidence of manufacture dates to around 7000 BC) and rich pedigree is decidedly a lost art—meaning that the most recent batch of renegade mead-makers, of which Oron is a part, are largely grasping in the dark. To consider anyone, especially oneself, a master mead-maker at this stage in the game (the mead renaissance?) is to undermine and underestimate both the product and the craft. The terrain, while certainly not new, is now dark and overgrown and no one thought to leave much of a map.
Of course, mead does share similarities of production with other fermented beverages—most notably wine and beer. In fact, modern mead is generally divided into two classes: beer-style (fizzy and often hopped) and wine-style (not those things). All of the mead being produced at Brothers Drake belongs in the latter category. It is inoculated with Champagne yeast to initiate fermentation, it is aged for at least one year—often in oak, or with the addition of oak to the aging vessel,—and then it is bottled in tall slender wine bottles (think Riesling/everything from Alsace). Oron is comfortable with this comparison but one gets the impression that what he is really seeking is a style of mead that is all its own rather than just an adjunct for one of its fermented kin. This is evidenced by his refusal to call the process anything other than “mead-making” and his insistence on intentionally ignoring some of the gospels of wine (the mead at Brothers Drake is both sterile filtered and made without the use of sulfites—two things that, respectively, are quite rare and extremely common in the world of wine-making).
A (Short) Glossary of Mead Styles
Metheglin: Spiced mead; additions include but are not limited to: cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, clove, nutmeg, and ginger
Melomel: Mead made with fruit
Cyser: Mead made with apples or apple juice
Pyment: Mead made with grapes or grape juice
Rhodemel: Mead made with rose petals
Morat: Mead made with mulberries
Bochet: Mead made with caramelized honey
Tej: Ethiopian mead
We left Brothers Drake with a bottle of spiced cyser (remember what that is?) as a gift—one that had spent time aging in OYO Bourbon barrels from Middle West Spirits just next door (local, right?). It had been bottled that morning and wasn’t yet for sale. In fact, it didn’t even have a label (which provided a perfect canvas for us to get a good-bye note and a signature). Oron had told me previously that mead ages exceptionally well in bottle—better even than in barrel—five, ten, maybe twenty years. We’ll do our best.
Aged or not, sipping a proper mead (i.e., something other than what is sold at the Renaissance Faire under the name “mead”) is to taste something nearly as old as humanity itself. Mead happens naturally, and for the early humans who were fortunate enough to stumble upon it in the wild it must have truly seemed a divine beverage—as opulent and floral as honey but with an inexplicable kick that made the whole world glow for awhile. Okay, probably that first mead, lapped through an old honeycomb or from the floor of a tree, was pretty gross but it still made you want to dance. And maybe this is why we settled down into communities, erected societies, became “human” in the first place: No one likes to drink alone. It’s not so ridiculous to think so.**
*In the ego-driven worlds of wine and bartending one is often (not invariably, but often) confronted with the inverse relationship between arrogance and skill.
**It may be just as likely that our ancestors evolved from hunting and gathering to agriculture, not first for the production of bread—as is generally assumed—but for that of beer (our taste for alcohol, and our first experiments with its production, having been initiated by mead). This is a matter of minor debate amongst historians, the subject generally being classified under “who cares, we know it was grain.”
Our Brothers Drake video tour can be found here.