Improvements to the ancient art of alcohol fermentation rarely happen. What has worked incredibly well for centuries doesn't scream for much tinkering.
But Maine Mead Works in Portland is hoping to soon patent an original fermentation system that its creators say makes mead production cheaper and easier, which could help popularize the uncommon drink.
Maine Mead Works would benefit from a larger awareness of its product, which is made by fermenting honey and has an unusual flavor that is quite distinct from other alcohol. While the number of mead makers in the United States has grown from about four in the mid-1990s to roughly 125 today according to some experts, it's still completely dwarfed by wineries and brewers.
"We feel the more mead that is out there, the better," says Ben Alexander, Maine Mead Works' owner.
Alexander claims that his company's continuous fermenting technology is a viable alternative to the traditional process of fermentation in batches because it takes up less space, requires less energy and churns out mead more quickly -- in six to eight weeks versus six to eight months. He says it can cut fermentation costs by 50% to 75%.
"Wineries and breweries [and meaderies] are very capital intensive," Alexander explains. "They require a lot of upfront investment. It is just a big challenge for small operations to start up for that reason."
With the goal of seeing more meaderies, the company has recently received a $12,200 seed grant -- with a $20,190 match -- from the Maine Technology Institute.
The company will use the money to conduct scientific analyses of its fermentation system in order to more easily reproduce it. Eventually, too, Alexander hopes to apply the technology to beer and wine making.
Alexander and former partner Eli Cayer started Maine Mead Works in 2007, joining the burgeoning revitalization of the long-forgotten drink, which went out of style in Western countries about 500 years ago. They collaborated with a South African inventor and mead maker, Dr. Garth Cambray, who had adapted the Xhosa people's centuries-old continuous fermentation system to make the mead in larger amounts.
Alexander says Cambray welcomed the chance to work with Maine Mead Works as a way to "get his technology out there" in North America.
Alexander says that though he has not yet licensed the equipment to another company, he has two potential customers: a winery that wants to add mead to its product line and a mead producer. "We wouldn't outright sell [the equipment], we'd get them up and going for a lower cost with an ongoing licensing agreement based on sales," Alexander says. "It's consistent with our goal of lowering the barrier of entry."
Michael Faul, owner of Rabbit's Foot Meadery in Sunnyvale, Calif., which he started in 1995, says a continuous fermentation system will catch on with new mead makers only if the quality of mead, volume capacity and price all make sense.
Different mead-making processes create varying flavors, Faul explains. His meadery uses the traditional batch process and produces 15,000 gallons a year. He says he personally wouldn't shift his system now because he's invested half a million dollars into all his equipment, which includes fermentation, filtering and bottling equipment.
Besides the daunting startup costs, Alexander says new mead makers might balk at embracing unfamiliar equipment. "There's fear of the unknown," he says. "Fermentation science has been proven tried and true over thousands of years, and the knowledge base around existing process exists -- it's widespread. We're definitely in that trying-to-find-first-adopters phase."
Maine Mead Works, which recently upgraded to an 8,000-square-foot space on Washington Avenue, sold a little more than 12,000 bottles of mead in 2009, making about $179,000 in sales. In its new space, it now has the capacity to make 85 gallons a day but is currently running at half capacity. Alexander says he's hoping to push sales up to the half million-dollar mark next year by widening distribution to Massachusetts and New York.
"Fermentation science hasn't changed much in 5,000 years and this is a step forward," Alexander says.