Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Moonlight Meadery: Michael, Metheglin, Melomel & More

"Mead is passion, it's about romance, it's about enjoyment, family and friends, and sharing."
--Michael Fairbrother

Back in January, I attended the Boston Wine Expo and found two local Meaderies showcasing a few of their products. You can read my Mead Wars post, gain a little understanding about mead, and learn about Moonlight Meadery and Maine Mead Works. The meads from Moonlight Meadery intrigued me, so I recently drove up to New Hampshire to tour their facility and taste more of their products. In addition, I was accompanied by my friend Jason, of Ancient Fire Wine Blog, who has home brewed some of his own meads.

Much mead merriment ensued...

Pictured above is Michael Fairbrother, the owner and meadmaker at Moonlight Meadery, and he led us on the tour and tasting. Michael was very personable, obviously passionate about mead, and very forthcoming about his mead making efforts. Michael began making mead in 1995, initially as a hobby at home, and his first mead was a cyser, an apple and honey mead. In 2006, he was the president of a computer software company and had thoughts about moonlighting as a commercial mead maker. That is also the origin of the name of the meadery, Moonlight. But he then attended a speech which changed his entire perspective and led to him becoming a full-time, commercial meadmaker.

"How can you do something you love only part time?" Those words resonated deep within Michael and he realized that he was the only obstacle preventing himself from living a good life. He wanted to follow his passion, to turn it into far more than a part-time endeavor. So, in May 2010, he converted a small space in his garage into commercial space so that he could begin his new career as a mead maker, launching his first commercial mead, Desire, in July 2010. It did not take long before he moved his equipment into a larger space, about 2000 square feet and soon after to an even larger spot, about 4000 square feet. We shall see how long before he requires even more space.

Michael expects to produce about 100,000 bottles of mead this year and this facility could make up to 200,000 bottles, so they do have some room for growth. Above, are four of their six 500 gallon fermentation tanks. At any one time, the facility is generally producing about 5000 gallons of mead. Their meads are available locally, but they were also the first New Hampshire winery to be distributed in California, and are currently in talks to obtain national distribution. What phenomenal growth from a business that started only two years ago.

Obviously, the most important ingredient in their mead is honey, which also happens to the their most expensive ingredient and which might even be the most expensive sugar product that exists. Though they do use some local honey, the sheer volume of their business necessitates that they source much from outside New England too. Last year, they used 43,000 pounds of honey, which is greater than the total output of honey from all of New Hampshire. Even if they wanted to use only local, it would be an impossibility for their needs. Plus, local honey can be very costly which is another important business concern.

They obtain much of their honey from a local broker, and it is all True Source certified honey, which means it is both ethically sourced and quite transparent. You can track the honey down to the specific beehive, and most of those are located in New York and Pennsylvania. That is all worthy of respect. Michael purchases raw honey and ferments it himself, adding about a gram of yeast per gallon of honey. They do differentiate some meads by the nature and source of the honey, a terroir-like concept of a single source or varietal honey.

As for their other mead ingredients, they source about 75% from New Hampshire or otherwise locally. For example, they use cider and blueberries from New Hampshire. There are obviously certain ingredients which are not available locally, such as vanilla and coffee, so they must be obtained elsewhere. Michael is very supportive of the local community, but also must be realistic for his business. And he doesn't try to hide anything about his sourcing. In addition, he is very careful about the sources of all of his ingredients.

The same yeast is used for all of their meads as it works well, can push the alcohol content to 18%, and they have won awards with meads using the yeast. They have experimented with a number of other yeasts but none of them accomplished exactly what they desired. They do run their meads through a plate filter, though they do not need to do so, and state that they do not detect any flavor change with the filtering.

Michael has over 54 mead recipes that have been approved by the federal government, though a few are still waiting for label approval. About 30 meads are currently available in the shop. It can be a challenge selecting new names for each recipe, and sometimes he must resort to some rather obscure terms. Each mead label bears a moon, a few with different colored moons. Michael has been experimenting a bit with the moons, trying to create a more romantic moon rather than a science project. He attributes much of his success to the "diversity of flavors" of his product line, having something that will appeal to almost any taste preference.

There are a few challenges facing Michael, some common to all small business owners, and others more common only with niche producers. For example, like many businesses, capital is a challenge, as it is needed for the growth of the meadery. As a niche producer, Michael must face the obstacle that many consumers still know little about mead, and they must be educated about it. It is not just an oddity you find at a Renaissance Fair, but it is an intriguing and versatile alcoholic beverage. In addition, it is very food friendly, something which restaurants also need to learn as many seem reluctant to carry their mead. It is a new category for many, which requires an open mind, a willingness to broaden one's palate. In this regard, it reminds me a bit of Sake.

Some of their most intriguing meads have been aged in used Samuel Adams Utopian beer barrels, which once were bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace Distillery. They obtained about 20 of these barrels and have been aging a few different meads, some as much as 3 years, noting that they lose plenty of angel's share, the amount lost due to evaporation. This does make these meads very unique.

The Utopian mead (16.9% ABV) is very limited, very popular and sells for about $50 a bottle. Though I appreciate its complexity and depth of flavor, it reminds me too much of a beer and thus does not appeal to my personal preference. The Virtue (18% ABV) is a cyser, an apple mead, and usually ages in the barrel for six months though we had a sample at four months. It possessed an alluring apple aroma and had plenty of depth as well, though this time the beer taste was minimized, and it resembled more of a scotch. A nice choice.

The Temerity (15% ABV), which means "bold and audacious," is made with black currants and was produced to be a gateway for wine drinkers. It has prominent berry and black fruit flavors with a bit of tartness and no taste of beer. Very tasty and likely something that would appeal to many people. Michael loves black currants, using them in a number of meads, as he feels that it is a powerful fruit with a very distinctive flavor.

Above is the line-up in the tasting room, and I chose to taste some specific meads which most interested me. With all of their diversity, a person certainly should be able to find something that caters to their personal preferences. Sweet to dry, herbal to fruity, spicy to minty. Lots of options. I'll provide some insight into some of the meads I tasted.

The Mojo is made with mint and lime and is likely to remind you of a sweet mojito, with the lime being more prominent and the mint forming the underlying backbone. This is one of the sweetest meads they produce. The Red Dress contains red currants and is one of their best sellers. It has a pleasant berry taste with hints of spice, almost a cinnamon note. One of my favorites was the Flutter which is made with ginger. Though ginger can be an overpowering flavor, they were able to tame it in this semi-sweet mead, so that the ginger complemented the honey notes. This would be a nice accompaniment with some Asian cuisine.

The Paramour is loaded with fruit, a combination of blackberries, blueberries, currants, and black cherries, presenting a nice balance of sweetness and tartness. I might pair this up with roast lamb. The Smitten uses peaches, though the peach flavor is restrained, coming forth more on the finish. The Madagascar combines vanilla beans with honey and the result is a sweet taste that reminded me of the old Turkish taffy candy I used to eat as a child.

For a bit more savory and spicy, you could try the Scorn, which is made with red chili peppers. I did not find this too spicy though, more on the finish though it made for an interesting change of pace from the more fruity meads. The Fury was more my style, using three types of chili peppers and presenting more heat and spice, though not so much that it would burn your mouth. Though the heat does accumulate with the more you drink. These are certainly for the more adventurous drinker and I recommend them.

New meads are still being created, and Summer Love is due out sometime in 2013, a mead made with orange and vanilla. Though they do make meads with coffee, I was surprised that they have not made a mead yet using tea. I would think with the diversity of teas, and it affinity for honey, that they would make an excellent mead combination. It is good to know that all of the meads they sell have a shelf life, if unopened, of at least 15 years. After you open a mead, it will last for about two weeks.

You probably won't like all of their meads, but that will primarily be a matter of personal preferences. You might not like something too sweet, or a certain flavor may not appeal to you. But there should be meads which you will like, and that diversity is clearly a major strength of this meadery. In addition, mead is a versatile alcohol which further enhances its value even if you don't want to drink the mead on its own.

Mead can be used to make cocktails, and with the diversity of the flavor profiles of those meads, that means they can be used to create a multitude of different cocktails. All it takes is a little imagination, though it would be beneficial if the Moonlight Meadery website added a section that provided some mead cocktail suggestions. You can get some suggestions though if you visit the meadery. Besides cocktails, the meads can also be used in cooking, to make sauces, glazes and such for everything from fish to chicken, pork to beef. Again, it would be beneficial if the Moonlight website offered some suggestions, though you can also find recipes at the meadery.

You can even find jams and jellies from Laurel Hill that were made from mead.

Mead has a rich, vibrant and lengthy history and is making a comeback now in this age of artisan distillers, wine makers, and brewers. Mead is a beverage worthy of your attention, for drinking, for cocktails and for cooking. Moonlight Meadery is producing a wide range of compelling meads, and you should taste their meads, or even tour the meadery. It is a locally produced item, made by a very passionate person, and deserving of your support.

Engage in some Medudréam, an Old English term for "mead merriment."
(Thanks to Jason for telling me about that term)

"At last Gandalf pushed away his plate and jug – he had eaten two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and drunk at least a quart of mead – and he took out his pipe."
--The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

"He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting listening guests."
--J.I.M. Stewart, referring to J.R.R. Tolkien


Jason said...

I can't wait until they get distribution in Pennsylvania; there are pitifully few mead offerings here. And speaking of cocktails, I had a somewhat mediocre mead from Quebec last year that I opted to make kir with - worked well.

Wes þu hal!

Jason Phelps said...

Great coverage of a hometown favorite of mine!

The mention of Mojo got me thinking about the part of the story missing there, that it was made using a recipe of an amateur who won for it in the Valhalla Mead Competition.

While we are on the subject, when Summer Love does come out I hope to organize a tasting of it side by side with the my homemade version that inspired Summer Love's creation. I expect there be differences and which one will be better will not likely be an easy question to answer even after we taste. Part preference and part experience. Moonlight has a lot more of the latter thought, so I put a bet in for them!

Right off the highway in Londonderry, NH. Come check it out!