By Dan Linehan
Special to Delaware Business Times
Mead is thousands of years old, but virtually unknown to most of the public.
The startups that brew this honey-based alcoholic beverage have small budgets for marketing, so they have to fine-tune their product and hope their customers spread the message. And, in a highly regulated industry, they can neither ship within Delaware nor sell directly to retailers here.
Despite these challenges, two meaderies in Delaware have used different approaches to capitalize on their strengths.
Liquid Alchemy Beverages was opened in Wilmington in September 2016 by a couple who had experimented with home brewing for years. Brimming Horn Meadery was opened last year near Lewes by a veteran Dogfish Head brewer and his business partner.
In both cases, the meadery was something of an after-hours side project that devoured nights and weekends. Only now, as the businesses grow, are their owners going full time or planning for it.
They’re facing challenges, including finding distribution networks and ramping up production to satisfy them. Both businesses say their tasting rooms are sustaining their businesses. That’s not to say they’re content to stay there; they think mead has plenty of room to grow.
“Mead and cider are where craft beer was 25 years ago,” said Jeff Cheskin, a full-time chiropractor who co-owns Liquid Alchemy with his fiancee, Terri Sorantino. “They were competing with the big boys, and the big boys were like ‘Who cares about home brewers?’”
These two meaderies aren’t competing against the big names — there’s no Budweiser of mead — but against a lack of public awareness and regulations hobbling upstart alcoholic-beverage companies.
Though the drink is older than English, the word “mead” itself often yields confused stares. No, not “meat,” proprietors will say. Sometimes, they get around the confusion by calling mead by its other name, honey wine.
“I say it’s a fermented beverage made from honey, like a wine made from honey,” said Jon Talkington, a co-owner of Brimming Horn.
Both meaderies recommend a traditional, no-frills variety for newbies; at Brimming Horn it’s called “Freya’s Kiss” and at Liquid Alchemy it’s “Sweet Nothing.”
As Cheskin puts it, “that gives everyone a baseline.”
Even when they’ve never tried it, customers nonetheless bring their own idea of mead to the tasting room. These preconceptions differ wildly.
“A lot of people think mead is some medieval dark beer,” Talkington said. Others see it as a thick, sweet drink.
Mead is generally sweeter than wine, but there are “drier” meads, meaning they have a lower sugar content. There are also lower-alcohol “session” meads with a taste closer to beer.
Scandinavians and scientists
Both meaderies depend almost entirely on their tasting rooms to drive business, and have created an aesthetic to match their brand.
Though Brimming Horn is located in a nondescript building on U.S. 9 near Lewes, the interior is replete with Norse imagery, such as a chandelier wrought with antlers and a mounted shield. Its owners say the setting, a model of a Viking mead hall, is about more than a “theme.”
“It made the business who we are,” Talkington said. He and his business partner, Robert Walker Jr., met over their shared interest in Norse culture, and in June they hosted an event with the Society of RIGR, a group of Viking craftsmen and performers.
“One of our sayings is it’s an old tradition with new ideas,” Talkington said. It’s more sanitary than it used to be, for one. Mead used to be made in open-air cauldrons, fermented by free-floating yeasts and whatever
else was floating by.
Housed in a former roofing business in an industrial area in southwest Wilmington off Maryland Avenue, Liquid Alchemy is likewise easy to miss from the outside.
Inside, there’s something of an eclectic laboratory theme, including antique scientific instruments and test tube-shaped sampling glasses. But the decor is really a motley mix of Star Wars, science and stray set pieces, such as a mounted boar’s head wearing an American flag necktie and being ridden by Gumby.
Money and distribution
Honey isn’t cheap.
The hassle and expense of securing honey in bulk — it can take hundreds of pounds to make a single batch — is the main reason mead largely fell out of favor in recent centuries, Cheskin said.
“If you had mead, you had it because you had a small batch,” he said. “You had to rely on bees and get stung a whole bunch of times.”
Walker, Talkington’s partner at Brimming Horn, said the expense of mead’s main ingredient makes it about 300 percent more costly to produce than wine or beer.
Two thousand years ago, mead was the drink of the gods. Today, it’s the drink of those who are willing to
pay a bit more.
Traditional mead is $12.50 for a 13-ounce bottle at Liquid Alchemy and $17.50 for the same size at Brimming Horn.
“I’ll never compete with Bud or [cider maker] Angry Orchard, but that’s what [craft brewers] Dogfish Head and Avery say, too,” Cheskin said.
Due to Delaware law, expansion to liquor stores and restaurants will generally require a distributor, which means much tighter profit margins. Distributors will buy at a cut of around 35 percent, which a retailer may add back in at the point of sale.
Meaderies have found ways around this system.
Brimming Horn sells to a single restaurant: Cantina Ultima in Milton. They paired up after the restaurant’s owners visited Brimming Horn and saw they had a lot in common as local-focused small business owners.
“We’re a very small restaurant, so people who come in and eat ask us where we like to spend our time,” co-owner Mercedes Legget said. “We’re there way more than we should be,” she said of Brimming Horn.
Thanks to Delaware’s distribution laws, Brimming Horn would need a distributor, which it doesn’t have, to deliver directly to the restaurant. Cantina Ultima drives to them, and can even then only pick up small quantities.
Likewise, Liquid Alchemy cannot deliver its products to restaurants and liquor stores, so with the help of a distributor it has expanded into about 20 restaurants and off-sale locations. They also sell cider, which makes up about half of their output.
Like other manufacturers, Liquid Alchemy can sell direct to liquor stores in Maryland and other states, which can paradoxically lead to better deals farther from home. For example, Liquid Alchemy sells direct to State Line Liquors in Elkton, which sells at only $1.50 a bottle more than Liquid Alchemy charges in their tasting room.
Owners of both meaderies are frustrated with regulations that allow them to ship to 41 states but not to a Delaware customer. A bill in the Legislature to allow direct shipping to Delaware customers was defeated 21-19 in the state House on June 30.
In the meantime, neither business is in a particular rush to expand. Even with limited distribution, their demand outstrips supply, and their attitude is marathon over sprint.
“We don’t need to be millionaires,” Walker, the Brimming Horn co-owner, said. “We’re doing this for love of craft. It’s not a cash grab, it’s a long haul type of thing.”