Edible Food Finds: House Bear Brewing

Photos by Katie Noble

What do you think about mead? Not sure what it is? Way too sweet? Tried it once and didn’t like it? You’re not alone. Over time, the negative buzz about mead has stuck and created a kind of orphan-child reputation. Add to this mead’s dubious notoriety at shadowy medieval re-enactment parties and its geeky associations with Nordic mythology, and what you’ve got is an overlooked although perfect candidate for today’s craft brew movement. With the increasing number of small batch producers of beers and whiskies and house-made spirits, and the vaunted reputations some brands have attained (I myself have pilgrimaged to one of these celebrated cellar/warehouses to partake), mead needs a break-out best-seller, or at least some good PR.

“There’s actually a lot of good mead out there but it’s very, very sweet, and that’s a turn-off for most people. People hear ‘mead’ and they think ‘honey, syrupy sweet.’” I was speaking to Beth Borges, co-owner of the 2-year-old meadery in Amesbury called House Bear Brewing, where she and business partner, Carl Hirschfeld, hand-craft an impressive variety of refreshingly dry, crisp, and flavorful meads. I caught up with the 40-something business partners in mid-December, when they were still in the thick of their frenzied holiday tasting tour—ten stops (with 5 more to go) across eastern Massachusetts. How did it go, I wanted to know? Buoyed by their successful road trip Carl replied, “A lot of people who came up to us to say they don’t drink mead, or don’t like it or have never experienced mead tried it and changed their minds. The reception has been phenomenal.” So confident are they of their product that they feel they can change the way we think of and use mead.

House Bear Brewing occupies about 1,800 square feet in a repurposed, 1830s brick mill building in Amesbury. The mill stands at the edge of the rushing Powwow River. The Powwow crashes right through the center of Amesbury and once provided the waterpower needed for the early industrial development of the town. The historic building houses the brewery and a variety of other small businesses, including Ovedia Chocolates, Workspace 36, and Pause Yoga. With its warm brick walls and cave-like atmosphere, House Bear Brewing is a little old-world, a little Willy Wonka. Spread throughout the space is an assortment of huge barrels, hanging coils of tubing, giant plastic funnels, and oversized glass beakers. Beth and Carl, who both work full-time at the brewery, often build their own tools to suit specific purposes in the brewing process. They hand mix. They keep track of their specimens in a handwritten, spiral notebook noting barrel numbers, taste, appearance, which honey was used and where it was purchased, etc. Beth says, “Record keeping is one of the bigger things we do. There’s no computer program that we’ve found—no one program that tracks all the info we need.” They constantly experiment with yeasts and herbs and additions/subtractions of varying amounts of fruits and spices. All the bottling is done on site. Beth, with her background in graphic design, creates most of the labels, and Carl, who likes the chemistry side of production and appreciates a good pun, comes up with the clever titles—like World War Bee (one I tried; it is dry, delicious, and tastes of fresh-squeezed lemons), Show Bear, their “show” mead made with blueberry blossom honey sourced locally (lightly sweet but mostly dry and crisp), and Paradise Unpaved, their passion fruit mead (hints of prickly pear and ginger.) The brewery also has a small tasting area where Carl and Beth offer mead samples along with a well-curated selection of foods that complement the meads.

Mead has been described as the world’s oldest fermented beverage. There is reported evidence of mead’s existence as early as 2,000 BC, and some sources date it back 9,000 years! Like beer, which results from fermenting the sugars in grains, or wine, which is made by fermenting the sugars in grapes, mead is made by fermenting the sugars in honey with water. The resulting alcoholic beverage may contain from 8% to 20% ABV (8%-12% is standard for House Bear Brewing meads). It may be dry, semi-dry or sweet. It may be still or sparkling.

Mead can take on an enormous breadth of flavor profiles. Just think of all the various plants and flowers pollinated by bees, and then the variations of those plants based on geographic location and you’ve got the spectrum of honey flavors. Mixed with specific yeasts and with the addition of herbs or fruits, meads’ flavors are almost infinite. The promise of unique flavors, the sheer versatility of mead is what Beth loves about the beverage, what keeps her experimenting with combinations and additions, tweaking the yeast here, adding more spice there. These are her “works of art.” She “babies the yeast.” She says it’s like choosing which colors to use from a brilliant box of paints. In her lab, she is the queen (bee?) of small-batch, a brewer extraordinaire.

Before they went commercial and placed their first bottles in stores, House Bear Brewing entered Show Bear, their blueberry-blossom honey mead, in the Mead Free or Die International Mead-Only Competition in New Hampshire. It won the gold medal in the Professional category.

With the rise in the popularity of craft cocktails, craft beer, and house-made spirits, mead is slowly leaving the fringes of the movement. According to the American Meadmakers Association, there is now a meadery in almost every state. Their figures show that the mead market grew by 130% from 2012-2013. Mainstream media touts it as the fastest growing sector of the US alcohol market.

Beth and Carl couldn’t be more pleased. But it’s not the recent uptick in interest that attracted the two to the beverage—they both genuinely love the stuff. Beth learned brewing in college. She was introduced to mead by a group of friends in the Society of Creative Anachronism, an international organization that promotes the research and recreation of the arts, culture and skills of pre-17th century Europe, a time when mead was the drink of choice! Later, with an MBA from Babson, a breeding ground for future brewers (Craig Theisen of Peak Organic, Catherine Portner of Portner Brew House in Virginia, Matt Nuernberger of Grand Ten Distilling, are all Babson alums), she figured out she could make mead for a living.

Beth’s good friend, Carl, was a harder sell. After a career in the computer industry, he was looking for a change, but Carl did not like mead at first. Beth introduced him to some really good mead and persuaded him to seriously consider mead’s commercial potential. He began noticing how bottles of mead were taking over more and more liquor store shelf space, and how some shops had whole mead sections. He loved how friendly folks in the alcohol industry were. And he loves the chemistry behind brewing.

Beth concedes that mead, good mead, well-made mead, is an upscale item. “Honey is the most expensive fermentable,” she says. A bottle of House Bear Brewing mead costs roughly $10–$11 for 16.9 ounces (500 ml). And there’s a long lead-time–some meads take 6–8 months to ferment and reach full flavor.

For now House Bear Brewing's staff consists of Carl and Beth. They used personal funds for start-up and (as of this writing) haven’t taken a paycheck. They figured that selling 30–45 cases a month would cover their expenses and they did sell 30 cases their first month in business. They forecasted that by year three they would be paying themselves, but they did not anticipate it would take over a year to obtain all the licenses they needed. But there’s good news. Beth tells me, “We tried to be a little conservative and give ourselves a little cushion with our forecast, but I think we were more conservative than we could have anticipated. We are far [sic] ahead of the curve than we had anticipated after 4 months of sales.” In December they sold enough mead to pay for almost two months worth of bills. “Between the farmers markets we do and new orders, January is looking almost as strong!”

Ultimately, mead’s success depends on educating the public about its many flavors and styles, on steady marketing, and on an influx of well-made product. House Bear Brewing thinks mead can become a go-to beverage, “We want people to feel free to have it with meals, or before or after dinner. We think there’s a mead out there for everyone.”

House Bear Brewing housebearbrewing.com 36 Main St. #7, Amesbury 978.388.1506