The Nectar of the Gods Is Coming to a Bar Near You
By Chris Klimek
Photographs by Laura Chase de Formigny
It’s almost certainly five o’clock somewhere. But when I find my way to Baltimore’s Charm City Meadworks on a Tuesday in May, it is the sober hour of 1 p.m. Out front is a welcoming plot of grass, picnic tables arranged beneath a tarpaulin and a bench orienting visitors with the slogan “BALTIMORE: The City That Meads,” a sly reference to a 1988 citywide campaign to fight illiteracy.
Inside, a painting of a giant bee hovering above three hives with barroom-style tap handles plugged into them lends an element of whimsy to what is otherwise a fluorescent-lit, industrial space. A person-size teddy bear in a yellow-and-black bee-striped T-shirt, sunglasses and a fedora slumps in a chair, looking like it’s sleeping off last night’s revels. Off to the side, a tattooed woman with a nose ring is using a forklift to stack pallets. A low shelf holds an inviting selection of board games—one boundary of the “taproom,” really just a small section of the site set aside for the mead makers to do their work.
The man who emerges to greet me is Charm City co-founder James Boicourt, a solidly built, bearded, ballcap-wearing 40-year-old whose tired eyes peg him as either a small business owner, the father of young children or both. It’s option C, it turns out. He’s got a 3-year-old daughter and another who’s 6 months old, and there’s something paternal in the way he talks about his business, too. Exhaustion and pride come through in equal measure: Since Charm City’s founding nine years ago, he tells me, it has become one of the nation’s top four or five producers of mead, the ancient libation made from mixing honey with water and yeast. “I’m saying that very conservatively, by volume,”Boicourt adds.
Mead is believed to be the world’s oldest alcoholic refreshment, possibly predating the advent of beer and wine—not by centuries but by three or four millennia. Researchers in China have found evidence of the beverage inside 9,000-year-old jars, according to Fred Minnick, author of Mead: The Libations, Legends and Lore of History’s Oldest Drink. As with many of history’s great innovations, it probably came about by accident. “The first time a beehive got flooded by rainwater, there was naturally occurring mead,” Greg Heller-LaBelle, president of the American Mead Makers Association, told me. “Every single human civilization has had some permutation of mead.”
This article is a selection from the September/October 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine
Gradually, beer and wine displaced it, not least because grain and grapes are on the whole less expensive to source than honey. There’s no single explanation for mead’s dramatic re-emergence over the last decade or so, but a renewed cultural interest in Norse mythology, and of fantasy stories derived from it, is likely a contributing factor. If you want to credit Game of Thrones, HBO’s hugely popular series adapted from George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels, in which characters enjoy a ceremonial horn of mead, the timing works out—the show first aired in April 2011, when the number of commercial meaderies operating in the United States was shy of 200. Today, there are at least 480.
Until this year, Heller-LaBelle was CEO of Colony Meadery in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which he co-founded in 2013. “We thought our market was beer people, but it turned out our best customers were ones who don’t like other forms of alcohol,” he says. “Because beer is too bitter for them, wine too acidic, and cider, on a mass scale, too sweet. Mead is such a versatile beverage, and, frankly, it can be made so that it doesn’t taste like alcohol.”
Boicourt was already homebrewing beer as an undergraduate at North Carolina State University, where he was studying engineering and political science, when he enrolled in a popular course called Introduction to the Honey Bee and Beekeeping as a way to fulfill a biology requirement. “I got so interested in the beekeeping side that I almost ended up graduating with an entomology minor,” he says. Before long he had more honey than he knew what to do with. “What’s a college student going to do with some yeast and some fermentable stuff? They’re going to figure out some way to make booze.”
After he graduated, in 2006, he spent a few years as an engineer, helping a cable company install fiber-optic wires on the seafloor using remotely operated underwater submersibles. But the work eventually bored him, and he continued to make mead on the side. In 2014, he and a pal, Andrew Geffken, gambled that the boom in craft brewing and an increased consumer appetite for locally sourced, natural food and drink had created ripe conditions to make mead the next frontier in fancy libations, and they founded Charm City. (Geffken has since scaled back his involvement, but he still holds a small stake in the company.)
“People had treated mead as more of a novelty beverage, something you might have at the Renaissance Faire or on a special occasion,” Boicourt says. “Our vision was to push something that people would drink every day—making mead that’s very approachable, very light, very refreshing.”
What began as a two-man operation out of Boicourt’s kitchen soon required a 1,400-square-foot warehouse in an industrial area of South Baltimore. They scaled up to their current 18,000-square-foot flagship brewery-taproom in 2017. Today, you can buy their meads from California to Texas to New York at the chain retailer Total Wine & More, but the company’s footprint remains largest in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. They go through as much as 10,000 pounds of honey a month, enough to produce 1,200 or so barrels of mead each year. For Boicourt, that’s almost good enough. “My goal is to get to consistently 1,500 barrels a year.” After that: “Ideally, one day you’ll be able to go into a Chili’s and find next to the cider tap there’ll be mead.”
Charm City’s meads aren’t as sweet as you might expect. The spectrum from “dry” to “semisweet” to “sweet” mead is at least as wide as you can find in beer or wine. But the essential character of a mead is defined first and foremost by the honey used as a base. “A lot of people’s perception of honey is that it just tastes like ‘honey,’ and that it’s sweet,” Boicourt says. “But honey is quite variable.” Honey from two neighboring beehives will taste different from each other even if the honey is of the same type, so long as the bees are foraging from different plants. “A lot of the ephemeral, volatile compounds that help a flower smell also help honey taste different,” he says. “So you’ll come up with honeys that taste like marshmallows, or others that are darker and have fig or plum or date notes. You’ll have honeys that are really floral, some that are herbal, and that’s where our process starts.”
That reliance on honey makes batches of mead trickier to standardize than other beverages. “Mead makers talk about mead having a distinctive terroir in a way that beer really doesn’t have or can’t have as immediately,” says Theresa McCulla, curator of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Brewers can use malted grains or hops from all over the world and even play with the kind of water that they’re brewing with, tweaking the pH to make it taste a certain way. Whereas the honey that a mead maker uses is very much of a particular place, often of a place that’s very close to where that mead maker is working.”
Charm City sources most of its honey from a supplier in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a company called World Honey Exchange to import varietal and regional honeys from abroad. Boicourt—himself a master beekeeper—still maintains a few hives at what he terms “the hobby level,” but nothing on the scale that would produce the quantities Charm City requires to keep the taps flowing.
But he remains something of a bee romantic and hopes to incorporate an “observation hive” into Charm City’s future offerings. “We’ll have the entrance for the bees far enough away from the door that people can’t really cross paths with them,” he assures. It’s part of a larger plan to make Charm City a gathering place not only for families and beverage enthusiasts but also for beekeeping organizations and others who are bee-curious, a chance to provide “an educational component to the taproom.” He recently acquired a trove of historical beekeeping gear, some of it dating to the 1800s, and he’s keen to find a way to display these treasures, along with other visual materials, to help visitors get a sense of what beekeeping entails and how the practice has evolved.
The equipment is on display for the public. But there’s no missing the fermentation area, including, just past the taproom bar, seven stainless steel tanks that each hold between 900 and 1,200 gallons, all filled with a base mixture of honey, water and yeast. “That’s where the magic happens,” Boicourt says. “The yeast will actually eat all the sugar in the honey and become mead over the course of a week.” The whole process, from original mixture to packaging, takes two to four weeks, or a little longer for varieties that will age briefly in oak barrels.
Charm City makes about a dozen varieties of mead at any given time, though it’s constantly shuffling the lineup with seasonal and limited-edition releases. There are carbonated meads, served chilled on draft or in cans with an alcohol by volume content similar to beer, and “still” meads, which are uncarbonated and more potent, like wine. “We use a wildflower honey as a base ingredient, and then we’ll use specialty honeys to work our way into more interesting flavor profiles,” Boicourt says. “Then, depending on the product, we’ll add a series of other ingredients—fruits, spices, other honeys.”
Indeed, the potential variations are effectively without limit. Modern meads typically fall under one of four broad categories—traditional, fruit, spiced and specialty, each of which is then further sorted. Fruit meads feature some of the most exotic names: Cyser is mead fermented with apples. Pyment is fermented with grapes. Melomel refers to mead made using other fruits.
It’s in the spiced category that the bold find their herb and vegetable meads, such as an avocado-cacao, a prize winner at the 2022 Mazer Cup International Mead Competition. Specialty meads include braggot (mead made with malt), historical (traditional meads of a specific place not belonging to another category, such as Ethiopian tej or Polish trojniak), and experimental, which can be anything: Included in this category in mead maker Robert Ratliff’s 2017 Big Book of Mead Recipes are instructions for flavors like Blueberry Compote, Chocolate Maple Bacon Bochet and Peanut Butter & Jelly.
Despite its prodigious success, Charm City remains a small operation: Boicourt has only eight full-time employees, plus a couple of dozen part-timers staffing the taproom. The division of labor is accordingly fluid: The woman operating the forklift when I arrived, Lynn Pronobis, turns out to be Charm City’s head mead maker.
I make my way over to the bar with Boicourt and Pronobis for a tasting. Pronobis is wearing a Charm City T-shirt. She has a background in chemistry and planned to be a doctor before finding her way into the craft brewing scene. “After working at a hospital,” she told me, “I was like, ‘This is not the environment I want to be in.’”
As we chat, another mead maker, Matt Frager, comes over repeatedly, asking Pronobis to sip an in-progress beverage. She tastes, reflects and offers feedback that sends him back to his workstation. “We’re just trying to dial in the flavor,” she says. “Discussing the finish of it, the sugar level, the pH—things like that.” It’s a balancing act, Boicourt says. Mead makers have to prevent sulfurous compounds that can leave “eggy” or “burnt match” notes, flavors that in beer you can hide behind malt.
The first offering Boicourt sets out is called Mead Is Murder (“Rounded out with a poetic serenade of dragonfruit, this citrusy session mead lands with a flavor profile that pairs well with this iconic album,” a sly pun on a rock album by The Smiths). But the one I like best is an entry-level carbonated mead called Salt Box Sunrise, a “fruited sour” gussied up with mango and pineapple. Some of Charm City’s most reliable sellers, I learn, don’t taste all that boozy. There’s Elderberry (“Cheers to the fruit you’d rather drink than eat!”), Basil Lemongrass (“ultra-dry,” “uniquely refreshing”), Wildflower (floral and crisp, like a dry white wine) and Out of Left Field, a “crushed orange, wildflower honey, lemon-lime twist” that goes down very easy.
For my last tasting, I try one of the still meads, a Black Currant Red Raspberry, dry and fruity but not sweet. That one goes down nicely, too. “It’s very easy to make a refreshing mead that’s like 12 or 13 percent, and all of a sudden the party goes to places you weren’t prepared for,” says Boicourt, laughing.
By now it’s edging closer to five o’clock. With Boicourt’s warning in mind, and a 75-minute drive home down I-95 ahead of me, I swish the Black Currant Red Raspberry mead around in my mouth for a few pleasurable seconds and spit it back out—but I look forward to enjoying a bottle of it at home when I need not exhibit so much caution. Boicourt can count another convert in a campaign to which he’s dedicated a decade of his life.
Before I depart, as he hands me a four-pack of the Salt Box Sunrise, Boicourt pauses to admire the whimsical street scene printed on the cans. The colorful artwork features pigeons (one with a crown), a cat, a flamingo and even a rat using a straw to drink out of a pineapple. To Boicourt, the chaos suits a beverage he makes with tremendous skill, but without the kind of uniformity of more ubiquitous drinks. There’s a science to it, but also a lot of art.
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Chris Klimek | READ MORE
Chris Klimek is a writer and editorial project manager for Smithsonian.
Laura Chase de Formigny | READ MORE
Laura Chase de Formigny is a Washington, D.C.-based food photographer.Travel & Culture