Mead is the world’s oldest known alcoholic beverage, dating back to around 9,000 BC in China and favored by ancient cultures for centuries. Andrew Geffken, a co-founder of Charm City Meadworks, believes this has to do with the drink’s simplicity—at its base, mead is simply honey fermented in water and yeast.
“The theory that makes the most sense to me is that there was a beehive in a tree that dropped into a pool of water,” Geffken says. “There was some yeast floating around in the air that fermented it; a caveman drank it.”
Also known as honey wine, mead was glorified in Norse and Greek mythology (“nectar of the gods,” as the Greeks called it) and consumed heavily by the characters of “Beowulf” and Chaucer. The tradition and popularity of mead has lived on in Ethiopia in the form of tej, honey wine often flavored with the leaves of the hop-like gesho plant. But in the west, mead has long been treated as little more than a vestige of civilizations past. Since the advancement of agriculture in the Middle Ages, beer and wine have taken precedence over mead, and beekeeping took a hit during the 17th century boom in the cheaper and more easily mass-harvested sugar trade. Now, mead is most commonly associated with the aforementioned literature, “Game of Thrones,” and the cough syrup typically sold at Renaissance fairs.
Except in Baltimore. Just a little over three years since its establishment in a tight 1500-square-foot warehouse in Curtis Bay, Charm City Meadwork’s take on the ancient libation has become a go-to for the craft beer crowd and the beer-averse alike. Founded by Geffken and his partner and head meadmaker James Boicourt, Meadworks offers two styles: a more traditional still version with 12 percent ABV sold in bottles and a carbonated draft version with 6.9 percent ABV sold in cans, and a variety of flavors within those styles.
“Part of the challenge is—and also opportunity—with mead is it’s a blank canvas,” Geffken says. “Nobody really knows the styles of mead they do IPAs, porters, or this is a sauvignon blanc, or a moscato, or a merlot.”
All of Meadworks’ concoctions are available at their new taproom, opened last November in their 6,500-square-foot Johnston Square facility, where they moved their production last spring after some delays. The tap area boasts ample seating with a sci-fi-esque chrome sofa and coffee table carrying an assortment of games, wooden barrel tables with honeycomb-octagon tops, and awards from mead competitions displayed on the walls. There, visitors can participate in mead and honey tastings, guzzle Meadworks’ offerings as well as root beer and cold brew coffee on tap, play Dungeons & Dragons at recurring game nights, and learn how honey becomes mead.
At the facility on a mid-January afternoon, a handful of Meadworks’ eight full-time employees (one of whom, Elliot Madre, appropriately wears a yellow and black striped beanie with wings and antennae) are moving from tank to tank, adjusting valves and checking on fermentation status. One corner is covered with stacked barrels, another with lines of plastic totes filled with honey. Between them are a row of massive metal tanks, much like those found in breweries. There’s no brewing in the production of mead, however: Honey, yeast, and water are mixed and left to ferment in the 1,000-gallon tanks for anywhere between 10 days to two weeks before being transferred to either totes to maintain the bright, floral flavor of the honey, or wooden barrels to smooth out the alcoholic taste. Geffken says the mead will sit in the barrels for at least a few months.
“We’re not worried about freshness the same way the breweries are with IPAs, things like that,” Geffken says, “because it’s a wine in its base form. It’s just gonna get better with age.”
The mead is then returned to the tanks for blending, and is flavored by infusion either during or after fermentation, depending on the ingredients. Traditionally, mead flavored with herbs and spices is called metheglin (from the Welsh word for medicine—mead was frequently used to treat various ailments back in the day); mead flavored with fruit is melomel. Meadworks boasts a series of interpretations on both metheglins and melomels. Though they have their lineup of mainstay flavors—with the still, wine-like variety sold in bottles, there’s original dry, rosemary, and sweet blossom; the draft comes in basil lemongrass, wildflower, hops, and elderberry—Geffken and Boicourt continue to experiment with seasonal flavors and limited editions. Right now in liquor stores and on taps around town you’ll find the pumpkin fall seasonal and the “retire by the fire” winter seasonal (cloves, vanilla, and cacao nibs—by my assessment, a toasted marshmallow in a can). Meadworks also offers single kegs of experimental flavors through the taproom; recently, the team has been concocting cocktail-inspired varieties.
“We’ve had some pretty good ones the last couple of weeks that were kinda like a mojito, adding a little bit of mint to them,” Geffken says. “There’s been a lot of requests for some sort of interpretation of a moscow mule . . . and then we’ve had a couple that come across really nicely, almost like an amaro or sherry character to it.”
Essentially, Meadworks is attempting to stretch the appeal of a libation long relegated to a niche audience by redefining what mead can be. Traditional mead is thick and potent. Back in its heyday, when water wasn’t so potable, mead was made as alcoholic as possible, and in turn super-sweetened with plenty of honey. After all, it was strong enough to knock out the monster Grendel in “Beowulf.”
Still more drinkable by comparison, Meadworks’ bottled, non-carbonated version most closely resembles traditional mead. For something more authentic, go with Meadworks’ sweet blossom flavor—their sweetest mead, though Geffken notes that it’s still only semi-sweet. A sip fills your mouth with a warmth that lingers, the way straight honey does but with a smooth, refreshing delivery. It’s intense and full-bodied, but not syrupy like most European meads. Meadworks’ draft version is more like what Geffken refers to as the “modern mead,” similar in taste and drinkability to cider. The rich honey flavor takes a little more of a backseat here in this lighter take.
“They’re all still mead, which is the exciting part of it all,” Geffken says, “but we looked at it and the meads that we found that were already out there were those little bit thicker, heavier ones. That wasn’t what we were making at home, it wasn’t what we were excited about, it wasn’t what we wanted to drink when it was 95 degrees out in the summer. So we felt that hey, there’s this opportunity to do these lower ABV meads, kind of mead for the craft beer people.”
Even as they make efforts to reach people who may otherwise never try mead, Meadworks is still focused on what it does best: honey. In the beginning, Geffken and Boicourt (who both share a background in engineering) wanted to use honey from their own hives, but the rapidly-growing scale of their operation made that impossible—last year, Geffken says, Meadworks went through about 60,000 pounds of honey and sold around 30,000 gallons of mead. Just one 3,200-pound tote of honey takes thousands of hives. So instead, Meadworks gets their honey from an aggregator in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most of it is wildflower honey, but they’ve expanded to other honeys, like orange blossom and buckwheat. Geffken says he wants to show consumers that there’s more to honey than what they buy in the grocery store.
“Now that we’re finally three years in we feel organized enough that we’re going to start doing some smaller batch stuff to showcase the terroir of honey the same way people do with grapes,” Geffken says. “We started doing honey tastings here, where people come in and taste these honeys then tastes these meads because even if you haven’t had mead, you can easily tell the difference.”
Some local wineries such as Linganore Winecellars also offer mead, and Maryland Meadworks is looking to open soon in Hyattsville. But Charm City Meadworks is still Baltimore’s first and only meadery. First picked up by The Wine Source in Hampden, Meadworks products are now available in stores and on tap at hundreds of locations throughout Maryland as well as Virginia, Georgia, and Washington, D.C.
“You’ve got this really great, strong brewing scene going right now with Union, Monument, Diamondback, Key, all those guys,” Geffken says. “It was started even before them by Brewer’s Art. They’ve kinda paved the way and now that people are excited about beers—OK, what’s new, what’s next, what else can I try? So we’re getting some crossover there.”
Geffken says Meadworks has received a lot of support from the craft brewing and distilling scene here.
“It’s an interesting and exciting time to be here in Baltimore doing a tiny little alcohol business. I mean Baltimore people just love, love their booze.”
Charm City Meadworks (407 E. Preston St., Suite B; public entrance at 400 E. Biddle St.) is open to the public Thursday through Sunday.