Michigan is widely recognized as a leader in the booming national craft beer movement. Less recognized, however, is the growth of Michigan's mead industry and the quiet emergence of metro Detroit as the nation's premier region for high quality mead production.
For the uninitiated, mead is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and flavored with various fruits, spices, and other ingredients. The drink has a documented historical tradition dating back to roughly 7000 B.C. Meads are generally classified into two types: still meads, which are not carbonated and usually stronger, and draft meads, which are carbonated and generally more easy drinking.
Michigan is the second only to California in terms of the variety of crops it produces and is home to a large beekeeping community, making it an ideal location for mead makers, who enjoy easy access to a vast variety of fruits, honey, and other mead ingredients available from local sources. Several metro Detroit meaderies have taken full advantage of the state's unique situation to create and grow a close-knit mead community of mead makers and enthusiasts.
According to Ratebeer.com, generally regarded by enthusiasts and mead makers as the most mead-centric of craft beverage reviewing websites, local producers B Nektar, Kuhnhenn Brewing, and Schramm's Mead alone accounted for 27 of the Top 50 Meads in the world and seven of the Top 10 in 2014.
If you have a question about mead, ask Ken Schramm. He literally wrote the book on mead. His "The Compleat Meadmaker" is an essential volume that mead makers around the country cite as inspiration.
Schramm and his family opened Schramm's Mead in 2013. The combined production area/tasting room on West Nine Mile Road in downtown Ferndale produces an array of what many mead connoisseurs consider to be the highest quality and purest still mead in the world.
Schramm does not mince words when summing up the current regional climate for mead makers.
"It is the golden age of Mead right now," he declares. "It's better than it's ever been. We can get honey from tremendous sources. The transportation systems and ingredients that we've got right now and the honey that's available are better than they've ever been. "
Demand for Schramm's meads has grown rapidly alongside demand for craft beer, which has helped introduce more consumers to a new world of craft beverages. Schramm's has struggled to keep up with the high local demand for its mead.
"Every tank we make, we sell out," says assistant meadmaker James Naeger. "It's a good problem to have, but it's still a problem."
As a result, last month Schramm's leased a building on Livernois in Ferndale that it will convert into a dedicated production facility. A former gym, the 5,000-square-foot building will help Schramm's expand production by at least sevenfold. They also plan to add more production and bottling staff to help meet demand and are searching for a distributor to help get their products out to more Michigan consumers.
With an eye on expansion and future growth, Schramm stresses that he will refuse to do anything that will compromise his primary goal of providing the highest quality mead possible.
"The real goal is to maintain the quality of the product we make and to grow organically. We don't want to take on a partner that will ask us to use cheaper honey or cheaper ingredients," he says.
Ten miles to the northeast in Warren, Kuhnhenn Brewing's mead maker Frank Retell is also having trouble keeping up with the high demand for his mead.
Retell has medaled many times in the Mazer Cup, a yearly international competition that ranks meads in many subcategories. He began working with Kuhnhenn Brewing shortly after it opened in 1998 and began making mead about eight years ago.
Best known among mead enthusiasts for creating a wide array of yearly favorites along with new experiments, Retell estimates that he produces somewhere between 70 to 80 different varieties of mead each year. He is continually pushing boundaries and experimenting with new ingredients and flavors, a pursuit he will be able to further develop with the opening of Kuhnhenn's new production facility near Metro Parkway and Groesbeck roads in nearby Clinton Township. The expansion will create more space for mead fermenters at Kuhnhenn's Warren location, allowing Retell to increase production while experimenting with new flavors and styles.
"Things will change in the future when production grows, but right now I'm having trouble keeping bottles available," says Retell of his current demand.
He speaks of the strong sense of community among local mead producers, citing it as one of the reasons for the region's rise to a powerhouse in the mead world.
"It's really nice being here because there is strong competition, but we're all friendly," he says. "I always feel free to talk with other mead makers. There's not a lot of us in the community, but mead is blowing up."
Retell's meads will be highlighted during Kuhnhenn's March Meadness, a yearly event where a large variety of meads are released over the course of the month of March. This year there will be a bottle release each Saturday, and a total of 20 different varieties of mead will be available over the four total release days.
B Nektar Meadery
Back in Ferndale, Brad Dahlhofer's B Nektar Meadery is experiencing the same increased demand as his counterparts at Schramm's and Kuhnhenn.
B Nektar was the first brewing company in metro Detroit to open a facility that was primarily dedicated to the production of mead. Its products are also the most widely distributed, available in 21 states and Washington D.C., as well as in Europe through Drikkeriget, a Denmark-based importer.
Like Retell and Schramm, Dahlhofer credits the tight sense of community among local mead makers as the main reason for the region's great success in mead making. Dahlhofer previously collaborated with Schramm to release the first two batches of Schramm’s signature Heart of Darkness mead under the B Nektar label and used to buy his brewing supplies from Kuhnhenn's home brewing store.
"I really think [the sense of community] is the main reason this small area has done so well," he says. "Everyone is friendly, but there is competition. Everyone is trying to make the best product. It's good for us, the product, and the consumer."
Along with traditional meads, B Nektar is also known for its hard ciders, and their profile rose quickly thanks to its flagship product, Zombie Killer, a carbonated apple cider with honey and cherry juice. The accessibility of the relatively cheap and easy drinking Zombie Killer has been key for bringing in new consumers curious about meads and ciders. Demand for its flagship beverage is so great, Dahlhofer says, that even if B Nektar converted its entire current production capacity to making it, it still would not be able to meet demand.
B Nektar, too, is expanding to a new facility at 1511 Jarvis, which will add 16,000 total square feet of production space — more than double its current size. B Nektar has also ordered new equipment that will double the production capacity of its current location on Wordsworth.
Their expansion will also allow them to focus more on experimentation, something for which they are already well known. In fact, B Nektar's current production space will be partly dedicated to producing new small batch experiments that Dahlhofer calls the "Gotcha Bro" series. B Nektar also recently started making beer in small batches and is looking into distilling, but their primary focus will remain mead and cider.
Not a bubble
While these three metro Detroit mead producers are all focused on expansion and increasing production capacity, the continued gain in popularity of craft beverages leaves plenty of room for competition, and more Michigan mead makers are quickly stepping in to meet demand. Warren's Dragonmead Brewery earned 5 Mazer Cup medals last year, and Harrison Township’s Superior Lakes recently began some in-state distribution. Across Michigan, other meaderies like St. Ambrose, Bee Well, and Arktos have opened over the last few years, beginning to mirror the craft beer boom that prompted so many new breweries to open all over the state.
The frantic pace of growth in craft beer in Michigan has lead to discussion of a "bubble," where there will simply be too many breweries and not enough consumers. When asked if he believes in the idea of a craft beer bubble and if he could see a similar discussion in the mead world, Ken Schramm is blunt. "No. Ask the Germans or ask the Belgians where the bubble on good beer is. As long as people like putting good things in their mouths, there will be no bubble."
Scott Halliday is a freelance writer residing in Detroit’s Historic Woodbridge District.
All photos by David Lewinski Photography.