SUNNYVALE, CA — As a re-enactor, Mike Faul was interested in what people drank during the Renaissance period.
“I came across mead, and the different versions of mead,” said Faul. “My wife Maria got some mead at an airport, brought it home and we liked it, but we couldn’t find any more. I did some research, then tried making some.”
Faul says that after making about 50 five-gallon batches, his homemade mead was improving. His friends were more than happy to sample it, but he soon reached the legal limit of what he could produce at home.
“I figured if there was enough demand for people drinking it for free, there might be a demand for people to start paying for it,” said Faul. “In 1994, we investigated what the legal requirements would be for starting up, and by mid 1995, we were licensed in the city of Sunnyvale.”
Before long, they outgrew their first facility, and in 2000, they took Rabbit’s Foot Meadery to a new level with a move to a building that could house commercial scale production equipment. After a few more moves, they now own a 10,000 square foot building.
Faul explains that mead is wine that is made from honey, and depending on the amount of honey that’s mixed with water, it’s diluted to a certain sugar content. “The yeast ferments the sugar just like in any other fruit wine,” he said. “It creates almost equal parts alcohol and carbon dioxide. If we want to make mead that’s in the 12 to 14 percent alcohol range, we start with about three to four pounds of honey per gallon of water added. We end up with something similar to grape juice as far as sugar content. Then we ferment that until it’s either very dry, with no sugar left, or we can leave it with some residual sweetness, then barrel age it and bottle it later.”
With the increase in production, Rabbit’s Foot Meadery is now using 1,200 pound totes instead of the five-gallon buckets, and are making 60 to 70,000 gallons of several different mead styles every year.
Faul says that consistency is important in some of their meads, but for others he prefers variability in honey sources. Honey is sourced from beekeepers who are keeping bees primarily for honey production. He explains that honey that comes from a beekeeper who has bees in a particular place will be fairly consistent from year to year, with only slight differences; much like different vintage grapes. “A beekeeper might have hives in the Sierra foothills and there will be slight variability in that honey due to weather and floral sources,” said Faul. “Or we might have honeys that are specific to a certain flower, like orange blossom.” Faul says one beekeeper with which he has a long-term relationship has hives in a large southern California orange grove. “There’s nothing the bees can harvest other than nectar from the orange blossoms,” he said. “That makes a very distinctive honey.”
Honey arrives in Sunnydale throughout the year, and since honey never spoils, Faul doesn’t have to worry about storage. “The only thing that might happen is that it crystalizes, then we warm it up to get it to liquid,” he said. “We use about 30 to 40 tons of honey each year, depending on the volume of product and the style of mead.”
Faul says that people are still not widely familiar with mead and related beverages. “We were looking at what people were drinking the most of, and what was easiest to sell,” he said. “One product, an apple cyser, is a blend of apple juice and honey: 50 percent of the fermentable sugar comes from honey, and the other 50 percent comes from apples. We were making it at the lower limits of what still qualified as wine, with seven percent alcohol.”
Rabbit’s Foot Meadery started serving and promoting the cyser chilled and carbonated on tap, but it didn’t go over well until they called it apple honey cider. “Call it something that people already understand rather than trying to reeducate everyone,” said Faul. “But people still wouldn’t put it on tap – the name was too long – so we spun off a different name and put it on tap under the name Red Branch Cider.”
People loved the beverage immediately, and now it is often the introductory drink in the tasting room. After introducing it as an apple honey cider, tasting room personnel explain that it’s a style of mead that’s more accurately called cyser. “That was about the time we moved into our current building,” said Faul. “I had always thought about making other styles of mead. There’s one style of mead that’s called a braggot, which is beer with honey in it. We started another brand called the Red Branch Brewing Company, which makes five different braggots.”
Faul didn’t want to have a labor-intensive operation, so he invested in the best equipment possible. “Every year we upgrade the equipment,” he said. “We just recently created a system that allows us to automate our tanks. I can look at a touchscreen control panel, click on a tank and it tells me what’s in it, what the pressure is, the volume and temperature. It turns the valves on and off automatically. That allows us to manage and monitor everything without being here.”
With the time saved through automation, he can concentrate on marketing. Rabbit’s Foot Meadery has just eight employees, with Faul’s wife Maria managing the business and daughter Siobhan in charge of the tasting room.
Faul looks back at the progression of his business and recalls that starting around 2000, there was a boom in the craft beverage world. The number of meaderies rose, but then dropped with the housing crash. “The vast majority of those were trying to follow a similar model to what we were doing,” he said. “They were making lighter alcohol content styles of mead that were familiar to what people were already drinking. We remained one of the only meaderies in the country that was doing beer. Many craft breweries have an apple braggot of some type.”
Today, there are several hundred meaderies throughout the country. “Everyone sees it as the next thing in the craft beverage world,” said Faul.
Faul says that the nice thing about making mead is that he isn’t tied to the seasons. “In the grape wine world, you’re doing everything at one certain time of the year,” he said. “If you want to grow your business, you have to buy or grow more grapes or buy more tanks for juice. I can make mead year-round, non-stop. I don’t have to worry about harvest. I can buy 20 tons of honey and there’s no difference in it between the day I got it and the day I use it. My tanks are always full – they’re never idle.”
For more information visit Rabbit’s Foot Meadery online at www.rabbitsfootmeadery.com .