Making mead. Photo courtesy: Forebears Meadery
Forebears Meadery is currently producing small experimental batches of its signature mead in Alameda. Photo: Casey Wight
Forebears Meadery is currently producing small experimental batches of its signature mead in Alameda. Photo: Casey Wight

It’s not every day that an upstart company enters its first experimental brew on a whim to an international competition and takes home first place. But that’s just what Forebears Meadery did.

The four man team of John Wirkner, Dave Myers, Michael Halby and Chris Langer entered a curious mead — made primarily with caramelized honey and cooked with hops — into last March’s Mazer Cup International Mead Competition primarily to get feedback said Wirkner. “We didn’t even go,” added Myers. “We just sent it in.”

This mead, which they’re temporarily calling “Paleoale” since it contains no grains or simple sugars, was the result of a few years of tinkering in home kitchens. It looks and tastes nothing like a typical mead. The brew is a deep ruddy brown with a creamy head reminiscent of Guinness. At first, it tastes bittersweet — the caramelized honey flavor is strong. But as you continue to drink, its malty notes come through, and the mead finishes with a definitive piney hop note. If blindfolded, this reporter would guess the “Paleoale” was actually a beer. In fact, its alcohol content, around 8-9%, is similar to a craft beer and much lower than typical meads.

TKTK making mead. Photo courtesy: Forebears Meadery
Michael Halby making mead. Photo: John Wirkner
Michael Halby making mead. Photo: John Wirkner

The members of the Forebears team, who all met as kids in the city of Grass Valley, started making mead simply because they weren’t able to find much mead that they actually liked to drink. “Too many meads are too high in alcohol or very sweet,” said Myers. “We’re beer and whiskey drinkers, and we wondered why there wasn’t a mead made for people like us.”

The win was the final push they needed to get serious about making their mead-making official. The Forebears team is currently working its way through the various legal paperwork needed to sell its product and is looking for a local winery in which to produce commercial mead.

When it launches, Forebears will join a growing cohort of Bay Area meaderies: The Mead Kitchen (Berkeley), ENAT Winery (Oakland), San Francisco Mead Company (Bayview), Rabbit’s Foot Meadery (Sunnyvale) and Chaucer’s (Soquel) are all currently producing the honey-based alcohol.

The trend isn’t limited to the Bay. According to the American Mead Makers Association (AMMA), the number of commercial meaderies in the U.S. has grown from about 30 in 2003 to close to 300 in 2016. (Around 50 wineries and breweries also have mead in their lineups.)

But none of the local meaderies are making mead that’s quite as, well, weird as Forebears. (“Weird,” by the way, is Wirkner’s description for Forebear’s flagship brew.) The Mead Kitchen and San Francisco Mead Company both make dry meads, but they’re on the more traditional side. Rabbit’s Foot and Chaucer’s generally stick to sweet, dessert meads. ENAT makes traditional Ethiopian honey wine, a category all its own.

Myers said that they’ve been focusing on creating meads with little residual sweetness but lots of flavor. “It’s tricky to make mead have flavor without upping the sugar and alcohol,” he said.

Currently, Forebears has tinkered with infusions like teas, coffee, flowers and sarsaparilla. “Sarsaparilla — that one was so, so good,” said Myers. Such meads are known as “metheglins,” or any mead made with herbs or spices. Other common additions are ginger, orange peel, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla. The “Paleoale,” on the other hand, is a “bochet,” which indicates that the mead was made from caramelized honey.

Dave Myers. Photo courtesy: Forebears Meadery
Dave Myers with the Forebears logo, which was designed by Silas McComb. Photo: John Wirkner
Dave Myers with the Forebears logo, which was designed by Silas McComb. Photo: John Wirkner

At its heart, all mead is made from honey, water and yeast. According to the AMMA, mead is “known to be the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man predating both beer and traditional grape wine by thousands of years. In Asia, pottery vessels containing chemical signatures of a mixture of honey, rice and other fruits along with organic compounds of fermentation dating from 6500-7000 BC were found in Northern China. In Europe, it is first attested in residual samples found in ceramics from 2800-1800 BC.”

Because mead starts from so few ingredients, quality is paramount. Complex raw honeys make for more complex mead. “You have to keep an eye on the honey that you’re sourcing,” said Wirkner. “If all you’re getting is ‘sous vide honey’ [i.e. pre-cooked], all you end up with is sugar.”

Currently, Forebears is sourcing raw buckwheat, orange blossom and carrot blossom honey from the North Bay and from Oregon, but the hope, Myers said, is to eventually be completely local. “It’s a little harder than with other ingredients because we’re so small,” he said. “We can’t afford to pay the small local apiaries at volume.”

Hopefully that will change as the company grows.

Once Forebears has its paperwork finalized and has found a brewing location, it will only be a matter of time before it starts distributing kegs of its meads to local bars. Wirkner said that they would like to be on tap at spots “with an eclectic selection, like Beer Revolution.” He thinks they’ll be selling mead by June at the earliest, and late summer at the latest.

Myers added that the team has been working to build relationships across the East Bay brewing community. “They’ve all been amazingly welcoming,” he said. “They love talking about mead.”

Ultimately, Forebears will be looking to open its own brewery and taproom somewhere in the East Bay. “The dream,” said Myers, “is to do this full time and not have a real job.”

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Kate Williams

Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...