This sticky sweet stuff is what it's all about. Locally sourced from Swan's Honey in Albion, ME, brewers Nick Higgins and Andrew Peters go through 12 gallons of this wildflower honey a day (primarily goldenrod, but there's some clover and other wildflowers in the mix). Like they always say, another day, another 120 pounds of honey.
All of that nectar is mixed by hand with a large paddle and 40 gallons of water to make the must (since mead is a honey wine, the fermentation process and vocabulary is largely shared). Once it's thoroughly mixed, the must is drawn out of the tank by peristaltic pumps and into...
The Inline Pasteurizer
A series of metal coils twist back and forth within a hot water bath, killing off the naturally occurring bacteria in the honey. This prevents any unwanted competition with the yeasts, and helps to ensure consistency in fermentation.
I couldn't quite wrap my head around the concept of continuous fermentation (as opposed to the ubiquitous batch fermentation) until I saw it in action. The pasteurized must is continually fed into the bottom of a column containing an (proprietary!) active wild African yeast strand. The little buggers get down to business, gobbling up the sugars in the honey and converting them into alcohol (and other less exciting by-products). The alcoholic mead-in-the-making is then continually drawn off the top of the column into storage tanks.
And here's the kicker: these columns have been running continually since the meadery was founded 3 years ago. The dead yeast fall to the bottom and are periodically cleaned out, while their offspring continue on with their important work. It's pretty magical, with all of that honey bubbling away. And in case you're wondering, they're not running in series. Each column has an independent feed line and drain line—but four towers of honey are better than one!
Each mead monolith also contains two semi-fluid zones created by cubes of ginger. These zones help keep the yeast hard at work at the bottom of the pillar, and work again at the top to prevent too much errant yeast from escaping into the storage tanks. In this first stage, 70% of the sugars are fermented over the 36 hours it takes the must to work its way from the bottom to the top.
Make Way for Progress
While the four translucent tubes are a wonderful educational tool (not to mention hard working mead producers), MMW has outgrown their small production capacity. In order to hit a daily goal of 50 gallons of mead, they call on this stainless steel juggernaut. It contains the same ginger filters and works on the exact same principle, just at a much larger scale.
Final Fermentation and Flavoring
The mead drawn off from the columns is called 'base mead.' It needs to rest for 2 to 4 weeks in storage tanks to finish its secondary fermentation, where the remaining sugars in the mead are consumed and converted by the yeast that managed to sneak along.
This is the stage that flavoring agents can be introduced to produce the dazzling spectrum of meads MMW produces: oak chips, wild organic Maine blueberries, elderberries, lavender, a 'hop tea,' or strawberries are just some of the options. Here we have a batch of oaked mead on the left, and a blueberry tank on the right.
The mead is then cooled in a heavily modified contraption: copper coils filled with anti-freeze run around the insulated tank as the mead is cooled to 37 degrees. This stops all fermentation, and lets the yeast sink to the bottom for easy filtration.
Bottles and Corks
The mead is then bottled. The vacuum bottlers on the right create a vacuum within the bottle that sucks mead right into it, and the corking machine slams a cork home with the aid of air pressure.
A Label of Love
Finally, the bottles are meticulously hand labeled and sealed with shrink wrap and a heat gun. They're then boxed up and shipped out for distribution.
Many Colors in the Honey Rainbow
MMW produce a dazzling variety of meads, all with their own unique charms and applications. Here are their tasting notes, running the gamut from traditional Dry and Semi Sweet, to fruit infused Blueberry, Strawberry, Cranberry, Elderberry, and Apple Cyser, to the more experimental Dry Hopped, Lavender, and Reserve.
The Test of Time
Some of the mead gets the special treatment—aging in ex-bourbon barrels. The Reserve is the only barrel-aged bottling currently on the market, but rest assured, there are many tasty experiments just biding their time, waiting to be unleashed!
The Tasting Room
Our tour ended in the tastiest room of the 8,000 square foot meadery, where samples are poured and tours meet 7 days a week (see their website for hours). You can also take your pick from a pile of bee-related merchandise which is locally designed and produced.
A Final Sip
We were treated to a sampling of currently available meads, as well as sips of secret projects still in the works...The Blueberry mead pictured here was one of our favorites, with a full fruit flavor joining the luscious honey notes. Slightly sweet, but in a refreshing and enticing way. Unlike most dessert wines and saccharine liqueurs, I would have no problem polishing off a bottle on my own.
Maine Mead Works has, if not reinvented, then reestablished mead that sits well with the modern palate. You don't need to be feasting in Heorot to feel right at home with a bottle of this gift from our apoidean friends.