In the field with 810 Meadworks
An enterprising couple reintroduces mead to twenty-first century drinkers
Photos by kc kratt
If the word “mead” conjures visions of portly, bearded men in Renaissance garb merrily swigging sweet swill from wooden tankards, then it might be time to give the biblical beverage another try.
Mead, or honey wine, is a fermented alcoholic drink made from honey and water, often with other fruits, spices, or grains added to vary flavor. The honey serves as the sugary catalyst for fermentation; while its scent often lingers in the finished beverage, most of the sweetness disappears as it’s converted to alcohol. This “too sweet for me” misconception is something that Bryan DeGraw, owner of 810 Meadworks, Western New York’s first and only dedicated meadery, encounters often.
“Most of the time, people assume it’ll be really sweet and have familiar honey characteristics,” explains DeGraw. “But many meads are drier and actually very floral, because that’s what they came from. When you remove the sugars through fermentation, you’re left with the remnants of pollen and nectar.”
Bryan DeGraw, owner of 810 Meadworks
In late 2014, Bryan and his wife Larissa opened 810 Meadworks inside a former shirt factory in downtown Medina. The couple moved to the area from New Jersey; Larissa has family nearby, and Bryan, a seasoned homebrewer and meadmaker who had been contemplating the idea of opening a meadery, was drawn to the historic location on the Niagara Wine Trail. The company name comes from a Bible passage, the tipping point that pushed the couple to make the move, invest their life savings, and open 810 Meadworks. Nehemiah 8:10 reads, “Go and enjoy choice foods and sweet drinks, and give some to those who have nothing prepared…”
Inside the warm brick-walled tasting room, an open but cozy industrial space that’s unpretentiously chic, merriment ensues five afternoons and evenings a week. A laid-back and eclectic crowd bellies up to a huge three-sided concrete bar and lounges on a spacious midcentury modern sectional and acrylic chairs that line a communal farm table strewn with reading material and board games. Small snack plates, vinyl nights, and local artisan wares add interest. Out back, one of the area’s most impressive biergarten—aka the “bee garden”—spaces occupies the building’s former boiler rooms. The series of spaces, connected by arched brick doorways and glassless windows, has had the roof removed to let starlight shine down between strings of Edison bulbs and steel beams, illuminating lawn games, picnic tables, and the gigantic boiler tank looms in a corner. The vibe inside and out is more taproom than winery, with mead being poured from brass tap towers or from bottles bearing funky, artful labels, and eyebrow-raising names.
There’s customer-favorite I Love Gingers, a slightly spicy, off-dry carbonated option; 21 Bean Salute, a semi-sweet buckwheat and clover honey mead infused with vanilla bean and a potent dose of coffee; and Bee Vomit, a fizzy, beer-like dry clover honey mead infused with Cascade hops and fermented with American ale yeast. With sixteen year-round offerings and nearly a dozen seasonal specialties ranging in ABV from seven to fifteen percent, 810 demonstrates mead’s surprising span of personalities. Many pair well with food, while others are best enjoyed as an aperitif.
At the heart of every drop of mead is local honey, sourced from several area beekeepers. Depending on the flowers, grasses, and trees bees visited to produce the golden nectar, honey has the ability to impart nuances similar to the way a grape varietal will impact a finished wine.
“There are so many different ways honey can hit the palate,” muses DeGraw. “Different varieties end up with different flavors in the finished product—wildflower ends up wilder, darker, earthier; clover is lighter and more floral. Alfalfa is light and sweet. Mesquite is nothing like anyone expects it to be—it’s not like BBQ, which comes from the wood. Mesquite flowers are white, so their honey is almost clear.”
In addition to carefully selecting types of honey and even burning one on purpose before fermenting it, DeGraw employs different yeasts and a cacophony of other edibles to meld creative combinations into his meads. Additions like maple, orange, lavender, pear, cinnamon, chili peppers, black tea, and rose petals layer complex flavors that make each sip an experience.
“I’ll take inspiration from anywhere and everything,” says DeGraw. “We had one with pineapple and cucumber that came from a friend who had been juicing, and it was a nice combo. Others come from test batches we play with and blend, then we’ll work up a recipe to perfect it. Sometimes I get an idea, go for it, and it’s good. And sometimes it’s bad. I have a lot more ideas in my head than I’ll ever get into a glass.”
810 Meadworks mead is available by the glass, flight, or growler at the tasting room; through its online store, which includes a mead club option with shipments and in-meadery perks; and at a growing number of small, independent wine stores.