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Mead in New Hampshire

Photo by Todd Bookman for NHPR

Starting a small business is always a challenge.  Starting a meadery? Yeah, that’s not easy either. Just ask Michael Fairbrother

“I talk to people about mead, and they go, ‘What kind of meat do you make?’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t make meat. I make mead.’ And they don’t understand what that is.”

In 2010, Fairbrother opened Moonlight Meaderyin Londonderry, NH.

He’s more than happy to explain that mead is a wine made from honey, not grapes. And like traditional wine, you can’t rush it.

“Oh that’s tart,” says Fairbrother, tasting a mead-in-progress.

“The honey is right there. Still a little sweet. Needs a little more time. My mouth is puckering up on me. But, wow, is that delicious.”

Fairbrother’s meads aren’t ‘sticky-sweet’. He experiments with different ingredients, like rhubarb and pepper, to create really complex flavors.

That creativity and a focus on quality at meaderies around America have led to something of a resurgence for the drink.

A decade ago, there were a few dozen commercial producers around the country. Today, it’s more like a few hundred.

“I think that mead has certainly broken out of the traditional limits people have put on it,” says Cary Greene, Chief Operating Officer for Wine America, an industry trade group.

“It was seen as kind of this thing you get a Renaissance Fairs. I don’t think people see it that way anymore.”

Oh yes, the Renaissance Fair. One thing still standing in mead’s way is its reputation as something you swill out of a gourd.

So at Moonlight Meadery, owners are marketing the product as an upscale alternative to wine. And Fairbrother noticed how women reacted to his product at tastings.

“The women were knocking over their boyfriends and husbands to get in front of me to try the mead,” says Fairbrother. “I knew that women were very keen to the flavors that we were making.”

Moonlight produces meads with cute names like Blissful, Smitten, and Indulge in an attempt to appeal to women. That marketing has paid off.

Moonlight is now being distributed nationally, and Fairbrother expects to do $1M in sales this year.

“If I look at the books last year and see how much we lost on paper versus where we are at, it is kind of terrifying,” says Fairbrother. “But what we are doing right now for sales per month is what we did for all of 2010.”

Business at all three New Hampshire meaderies is good right now. Sap House Meaderyin Ossippee is growing rapidly and winning medals for their high-end products, and Hermit Woodsin Sanborton completely sold out their stock last year.

But there’s one small problem yet to overcome, explains Fairbrother.

Currently, state law says that you can only make wine up to 15.5% alcohol. Many of the New Hampshire meads actually have a slightly higher kick; some reach 18%. That makes them technically illegal to produce.

But the NH Liquor Commissionagreed to grant temporary waivers to allow production to continue, and a bill that will raise the alcohol limit on wine to 24% is moving through the Statehouse with widespread support.

So, once that minor issue is cleared up, mead can continue its fight for shelf space at your local liquor store and grocery.

Cary Greene with Wine America says that mead’s growth can be linked to the craft beer movement and a growing consumer interest in supporting artisan products.

“Will mead ever become the dominant beverage? That is hard to say. Probably not in either one of our lifetimes.”

 But, Greene says, “For those who have enjoyed it and discovered it, they are enjoying and discovering a great product.”

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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