Ten years ago, husband and wife Jeff and Jen Herbert were planning a Thanksgiving dinner and wanted everything be homemade. Jeff decided to concoct a beverage that paid homage to Jen's family's roots in Vermont, and used an at-home brewing kit she gifted him to make a maple-flavored mead--an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey with water and other flavors. 

By 2012, the couple, encouraged by friends, turned what had started as a hobby in their garage into Superstition Meadery, a Prescott, Arizona-based mead-making company that generated $2.7 million in revenue last year. The business sells its creations in 375-, 500-, and 750-milliliter bottles directly to meadery visitors and alcohol retailers around the country. This past May, the Herberts were together named the Small Business Administration's small business person of the year.

Mead is hardly the staple that wine is, but it is gaining ground--particularly as U.S. consumers have become increasingly experimental in their alcohol-consumption tastes. "We were always the kind of folks that would rather drink an imported beer or microbrew instead of a Bud," says Jeff, whose mead comes in flavors like maple, blackberry, and peanut butter and jelly. "I wanted to apply all these crazy ideas to home brewing."

Superstition is now among the five largest mead producers in the country, according to Vicky Rowe, the executive director of the American Mead Makers Association. But it's not the only company finding success at the bottom of a honey jar. 

What's old is new

Mead, which dates back to ancient times, has seen a rebirth in recent years. During the 20th century, about 64 meaderies opened in the U.S., but that number jumped to 118 between 2015 and 2017, Rowe says. She adds that about 90 have opened or are set to open between 2018 and 2020, bringing the total number of meaderies in the country to more than 600.

Tracking the consumption of mead is difficult because the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the government agency that regulates alcohol, doesn't distinguish mead from wine. "We are kind of the red-headed stepchild of the alcohol world," Rowe says. However, sales of off-premise mead--that is, mead that's sold through retailers instead of a meadery-have increased by about 30 percent in the last five years, according to research firm Nielsen. Last year, the off-premise mead industry generated $9.3 million in sales, a 7.9 percent increase from the year prior. 

Part of the appeal of the mead business is that honey--for all of the challenges confronting the nation's bee populations--is in high supply in certain pockets of the U.S. such as Michigan, Washington, and California. Many mead producers are headquartered in those states, which also have longstanding agricultural industries and less stringent regulations on alcohol production, Rowe says.

The mead trend is also a result of changing tastes. Like the Herberts, plenty of consumers are keen to try something new--even if it is 4,000 years old. "Millennials and Gen X-ers, who are really big on trying new things, really kicked it off," Rowe says. "It's definitely helped the mead industry, and we are seeing those same age groups open meaderies themselves."

A holiday tradition

Thanksgiving is always a special time at Superstition, Jeff Herbert says. Not only is it the anniversary of that fateful holiday dinner party that kicked everything off, but it's also the company's biggest sales season. The Herberts typically release special flavors in early November so customers can stock up for the holiday. This year they experimented with three barrel-aged pyments, or meads made with added grapes or grape juices. 

Superstition generates a lot of its holiday business from tourists, who descend upon Prescott for Christmas-themed events, Jeff says. He notes that mead's high price point often makes it something consumers drink on special occasions, like Thanksgiving or the winter holidays. The company expects to book about $3 million in revenue this year, about 25 percent of which will come from November and December sales.

Modern appetites

That's not to say getting to this point has been easy for Superstition's founders. In the early days of the company, neither of them knew a thing about mead, besides what they had attempted in their garage. Jeff pored over mead-making books and trade magazines to learn more about the industry, and sought professional training to learn how to start and run a brewing business.

He enrolled in Chicago's Siebel Institute of Technology in 2010, where he took three days of courses on professional brewing. He learned what it takes to fund a business, which pipes and electronics he needed in the meadery, and how to run a restaurant. Meanwhile, Jen, who had worked in risk management at Arizona State University before leaving to start her own consulting business, brought expertise in financial management, safety protocols, and other areas that affect the business. 

While the couple now has a better handle on many of its early challenges, the cost of mead's ingredients, especially honey, continues to be a concern despite the plentiful supply. (The company gets its honey from many different sources, primarily within the U.S.) Special ingredients that add flavor, like saffron or vanilla, further add to the expense. Superstition charges from $15 to $48 per bottle; the product's novelty allows the company to command the relatively high price. Still, mead is not something people consume on a daily basis, Jeff notes. 

Fortunately, Superstition is located in a town with heavy foot traffic. And it's preparing to open a 3,500-square-foot space next spring in downtown Phoenix that they say will be the first mead and food pairing restaurant in the world. That should help raise the profile of mead, the Herberts say. "The key is getting people to try it," Jeff says. "There is great range--dry and sweet and carbonated. They will find something to fall in love with."

Published on: Nov 28, 2019