Long Islanders seeking to quench their thirst have things pretty easy these days. From Manhattan to Montauk, the area is riddled with craft breweries as the East End continues to produce high quality wine.
Why not try mead?
A recipe attributed to the ancient Egyptians, mead is a brew made by fermenting honey rather than grains (which make beer) or grapes (which make wine). It is the stuff of Arthurian legends and Viking fables and can be brewed at varying strengths and flavored with herbs, spices and fruit creating a dizzying versatility.
In its simplest form, mead is nothing more than honey mixed with water. Yeast is then introduced and the concoction ferments. But, like beer-brewing, wine-making and cooking a great dish, attention to details and imagination is needed to birth a quality product.
A five-gallon jug of generic honey and tap water might make something that is technically mead but selecting the best ingredients with an eye (or tastebuds) focused on creativity and harmony is critical. Perhaps black currant concentrate from an upstate farm and special honey from Pennsylvania would be better? Degassing the batch so it doesn’t blow and adding nutrients to keep the yeast happy and productive are steps often taken in the creation of this elixir. If it seems like too much trouble, fear not!
Enter the mead-makers.
This summer Roger Wanner and Joe Abruzzo Jr. open W A Meadwerks, the region’s only meadery and the first of its kind since Long Island Meadery shuttered its doors in 2011.
Located in downtown Lindenhurst, Meadwerks is comprised of two spaces totalling a comfortable 1,200 square feet. A walkthrough connects the production side to the tasting room which will have windows in the walls to allow a view of the tanks and fermenters. It also has a small, separate room for private gatherings. Plans include installing accordion-style doors that open to the sidewalk where tipplers can sip al fresco when the weather is simply too nice to be inside.
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Slates and Plates, known for their Island-wide cheese-pairing events, will provide pre-made snacks. Having food on hand allows guests the option to consume bottles or cans on the premises (a feature unavailable to craft breweries). Of course, the goodies can be brought home. Meadwerks offers 500mL bottles of their “wine strength” meads (12% ABV and higher) as well as 12 oz and 16 oz canned options of the draft, or session, meads (usually 7% ABV or less).
A collection of 500L tanks allow Wanner and Abruzzo to produce roughly 360 gallons a month. (That’s a lot of mead!) Several smaller tanks (about 20-25 gal) will be reserved for Meadwerks Members-only batches, experimental recipes and stuff made with ingredients from local, East End producers.
In a region bursting with craft breweries, Wanner and Abruzzo hope to settle into an untapped niche and bring mead to Long Island’s thirsty hordes. Before their opening, folks curious about mead must venture into Brooklyn or New Jersey for a taste, often paying exorbitant fees for a bottle.
Says Wanner, “[It’s] not that we want to be a “blue collar mead” but we want to be at the income level where you can come in and get an $18 bottle [making it more accessible to everyone.] It’s the fastest growing beverage… It’s growing faster than craft beer did in 2010.”
A challenge when introducing mead is to conquer a common misconception: it’s sweet simply because it’s made with honey. Though sweet meads certainly exist, careful manipulation of ingredients can produce a wide range.
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“The strawberry [mead] is the driest thing we’ve made,” says Wanner.
“You can add any fruit you want,” Abruzzo elaborates, “any spices you want, you can make it dry, semi-sweet, you can make it dessert -style.”
Mead’s versatility allows for a myriad of food pairings. “Ginger mead would go really good with Thai, Indian food or a good curry; whether it’s Irish curry or Indian curry,” Wanner suggests. “The black currant we did is more like a dessert mead. [Have] that with a nice piece of dark chocolate cake.”
Mead also has the potential to be used in a variety of cocktails. (A mimosa made with a sparkling, dry mead might be an interesting twist for brunch!) Meadwerks plans to create a Manhattan-inspired sipper by aging a sweet cherry mead in a rye whiskey barrel loaded with orange zest. An experimental thirst-quenching cucumber and lime mead should be on draft as well.
The duo also plan on playing around with different styles producing a porter-like drink created with cold-pressed coffee and buckwheat honey as well a mead using blueberry blossom honey and hops that should taste a lot like an IPA.
Why make mead taste like beer?
“We want to make it attractive to the craft beer community. Those are my friends and the people who have supported us,” says Abruzzo.
Amazingly, the pair only seriously got into making mead a little over a year ago when Abruzzo first floated the idea at Wanner’s son’s wedding. The epitome of dogged self-reliance, they dove into it with nothing more than honey and a How-To book.
Wanner’s experience in the trades and manufacturing allowed them to grow on a shoestring budget. He made a D.I.Y. chiller (essential for controlling fermentation temperatures and often costing thousands) out of a spare air-conditioning unit, a pond pump, a thirty-quart cooler and some piping. Destined for the dumpster, cast off fixtures and equipment from his construction company were repurposed and given new life at Meadwerks.
This innovative attitude is also manifested in their logo: the nordic inguz, known to symbolize new life or new beginnings. Wanner and Abruzzo feel that it also represents their own mantra: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” They claim this will be the only nod to Northman culture and eschew the kitschy Viking themes adopted by many meaderies nationwide. (But that doesn’t mean you can’t wear your viking hat!)
Wanner and Abruzzo anticipate opening in late June to early July. Meadwerks is a short walk from the Lindy LIRR stop and is surrounded by other drinking spots and places for a tasty bite potentially making the area a new Drinking Destination for craft beverage enthusiasts.
“We may not be the best, but we’ve learned a lot and we’re getting better,” say Abruzzo, obviously humble.
So rinse out your drinking horns and sound your barbaric Yawp! Head to Lindenhurst and try mead—the ancient ale that’s new again!