Todd Rock says that someone’s first experience with mead will determine whether or not they’ll give it a second try. And if a curious person wants to know more about the beverage, he’ll offer a sample rather than a history lesson and a recipe.
“I start off with a sample and explain that it’s honey, yeast and water,” said Rock, head mead maker at Leaky Roof Meadery in Buffalo, MO. “If you try to give someone a long explanation about mead before they’re interested, they’ll walk away.”
Rock and his partners Jhett Collins and Andrew Steiger are determined to make a mark with mead, but they realize mead isn’t the most approachable beverage.
“People have a preconceived notion of what mead may or may not be, so they think they won’t like it or perhaps be intimidated by it,” said Rock. “We create meads that are very different from that expectation. When people try it, they’re very impressed that it’s lighter and more refreshing.”
Rock says traditional meads are usually wine-strength, served still and can be presented anywhere from dry to sweet. “The more classic versions are usually sweeter,” he said, “but they’ve been aged in a barrel so they have quite a bit of tannin to add structure to them. Those beverages can be high gravity — sweet — and it takes more of an appreciative palate to enjoy them. But that isn’t the only way mead can be presented.”
While Leaky Roof makes traditional meads, their focus is on a line of session meads.
“We have a line of canned, 6.5 percent, carbonated meads that run the gamut from dry to sweet,” said Rock. “We usually emphasize a fresher, more straightforward flavor. What we have in the cans is a bit brighter and it’s more refreshing and approachable than traditional mead styles.”
Because Leaky Roof focuses on session meads, the fermentation process is similar to the winery process. “We’re just dissolving honey in warm water,” said Rock. “In beer production, the biggest problem is converting starch to sugar and getting it off the grain. It’s an involved process. When you make honey must, it isn’t involved. A beer must, if you’ve done it right, is completely nutrient sufficient for a healthy fermentation. Honey musts are entirely insufficient for anything the yeasts need in order to have healthy fermentation. The biggest thing you run into is having to take care of the fermentation in such a way that it produces that healthy fermentation, so there’s a great deal of monitoring pH, trying to hit the sweet spot on nutrient addition, and pH buffering and temperature control in order to maintain a healthy rate of fermentation.”
Rock uses as much locally sourced honey as he can get for his traditional meads. Organic wildflower honey from Pennsylvania is used for distributed products. Although it’s hard to estimate exactly how much honey is in a can or bottle of mead, Rock estimates that a five-gallon batch of session mead (which yields 40 cans) would take about eight pounds of honey. Higher alcohol levels require more honey.
The secondary fermentation, or conditioning period, is what counts when it comes to honing in on flavor. “A lot of our session meads are 6.5 percent,” said Rock. “I’m looking for a brighter, fresher character, so I don’t like to let them sit around too long. The traditional meads, or barrel-aged projects, sit in the barrels for six months to several years. We do a variety of carbonated bombers in bourbon barrels, and also do more traditional wine-style, high gravity still meads in wine bottles that are about 12 to 14 percent.”
Mead fermentations typically take a long time to age because the fermentations aren’t always healthy and produce off-flavors that require time to age out. “Higher alcohols break down over time,” said Rock. “If you can control and treat fermentation properly, you can produce a fresh, enjoyable product in a relatively short period of time.”
Terminology may trip up those who are new to mead and Rock and his crew are working to overcome that. Metheglin indicates a spiced mead, melomel is a fruit mead and cyser is a mead blended with apple cider. However, since the TTB doesn’t recognize those terms, they can’t be used on the labels. Rock says he and his team work hard to come up with good names and descriptions for their creations to explain to customers what’s what. For example, Rock describes the Leaky Roof’s High Dry and Dusty as a ginger metheglin. “That one is served dry and it has sort of a brewed character,” he said. “It’s made with honey, fresh ginger, water and yeast.”
Rock says that one problem with marketing mead is it doesn’t have mindshare in the market. “We’re a winery, a local craft product, but often when it comes to events where our product would fit in, we are overlooked,” he said. “It isn’t personal; it’s because people don’t think to look for us. And once they find us, they aren’t really sure what we are.”
Despite the challenge of selling a relatively unknown product, Leaky Roof has taken advantage of several outlets to acquaint potential customers with the beverage. Since Missouri has a good reputation for its wine, Leaky Roof introduces products at wine festivals. State laws allow sampling in grocery stores, so Leaky Roof has used that option as well. “Just going into the store, setting up a booth and bringing out samples is an opportunity,” said Rock. “I can go into a grocery store and move two or three cases just standing there letting people try it who would have completely overlooked it on the shelf had we not been there. It’s one of the most effective ways to market the product. It gives us the opportunity to educate the retailers and demonstrate the product.”
Rock says people are often somewhat surprised to see mead available in cans, but in a recreational area, it’s important to offer a beverage in non-breakable, recyclable packaging that’s easy to transport.
Another lucrative market and one that has proven to be a good educational venue is the Farmers Market of the Ozarks in Springfield, MO. Rock and his crew use what they’ve learned at beer fests — that it isn’t worth spending too much time talking about mead before someone tries a few sips. “You run the risk of boring the audience,” said Rock. “I offer Gandy Dancer, which is honey-forward, lightly carbonated, or petillant, but not cloying on the palate. They buy it on the spot. We have a local product and that’s what they’re there to support.”
Rock and the rest of the crew continue to develop their craft and introduce mead to more customers, and they’re excited about creating a beverage that’s complex yet versatile. “I would argue that it’s one of the single most useful beverages out there,” said Rock. “It can range from a very high end, complex wine to a light and refreshing beverage that you can enjoy after a long day’s work.”
As for the future of mead and spreading the word about its unique qualities and versatility, Rock says, “All of us feel very strongly about the potential of the product. We’re out selling it every day and see the positive reaction people have toward the product, so we’re continually trying to bridge that gap between peoples’ knowledge of mead and getting it into their hands.”