Thanks to a swarm of innovators, there’s a new buzz surrounding mead.
Story by Joshua M. Bernstein
Photos by Séan Alonzo Harris & Marvin Shaouni
Michael Fairbrother was never sweet on his career. As an engineer and later vice president and chief operating officer of software companies, the New Hampshire native’s day job was a drag. His heart lay in homebrewing, though he was hardly monogamous with barley. Since his introduction to cyser—a mead made with apple cider and honey—at a homebrew-club meeting in 1995, Fairbrother has been infatuated with making mead, one of mankind’s oldest alcoholic beverages. Mix honey with water, wait for its natural yeasts to convert sugars into alcohol and you have mead. Its discovery was likely serendipity. In the New Hampshirite’s hands, serendipity became honed artistry.
Over the subsequent decade, he began blending meads with blueberries, black currants and Vietnamese cinnamon, creating balanced, complex honey wines. Accolades stacked up and, in 2007, Fairbrother received the first of three straight New England Mead Maker of the Year titles. Could he make mead a career? In 2009, Fairbrother bumped into Surly Brewing founder Omar Ansari at a conference in Boston. Fairbrother mentioned that he wanted to open a meadery, likely part-time. “[Omar] said, ‘How can you do something you love part-time?’ ” Fairbrother recalls. “He changed my life with a single sentence.”
Shortly after, Fairbrother started production at Moonlight Meadery. On July 1, 2010, he released the sweet and beguiling Desire, made with blueberries, black cherries and black currants. “On July 8, I quit my job,” says Fairbrother, who has made Moonlight one of America’s fastest-growing (distribution in 23 states and counting) and eclectic meaderies. To date, Fairbrother has released nearly 70 different meads, from mango-infused Sumptuous to coffee-flavored Kamasumatra and Red Dress, which contains strawberries and rhubarb.
Mead is one of America’s most polarizing, and misunderstood, alcoholic beverages. Mention it to most people and they’ll recoil, recalling the cloying booze that, along with oversize turkey legs, is a Renaissance Faire staple. That’s a bit like judging American beer on a baseball-game macrobrew. Across America, meaderies are moving past that cliché, creating sublimely inventive meads that range from bone-dry to dessert-sweet, and spiced with just about any fruit, herb or vegetable pulled from the pantry.
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