Mead and cider make a comeback in Maryland

WinesDistilling and Brewing IndustryHuman InterestMontgomery County (Maryland)

Make room for cider and mead.

In Maryland, cider was last popular in Colonial times. Mead never has been.

But a new generation of mead and cider makers, with their feet planted firmly in Maryland soil, are rethinking these age-old fermented beverages and introducing them to new audiences.

The meads from Orchid Cellar Winery in Middletown and the small-batch cider wines from Millstone Cellars in Monkton are showing up on the shelves of boutique wine and liquor stores. Bartenders are crafting them into cocktails at restaurants like Woodberry Kitchen and Bluegrass.

Andrzej Wilk Jr. of Orchid Cellar and Kyle Sherrer of Millstone are the new agers, inspired by and committed to the attitudes about methods and sourcing that have inspired a generation of farm-to-table chefs.

The respect is mutual.

"One of the reasons we're so excited about Orchid Cellars and Millstone," said Connor Rasmussen, head bartender at Woodberry, "is that their size and attention to locality and their commitment to this region yields products that are completely in line with our sourcing methodology at Woodberry."

Rasmussen uses cider wine and mead as finishing touches on cocktails concocted with homespun ingredients like molasses, maple and raw honey gin.

When it comes to fermented ciders, American drinkers are more accustomed to hard ciders than cider wines. Hard ciders like Woodchuck, which behave like beers, are found in most corner taverns. Cider wines, especially ones like Millstone produces — with their focus on local ingredients — are a newer thing.

For Wilk, 27, and Sherrer, 24, having their products poured at Woodberry Kitchen is nothing but good news, both for brand exposure and for affirmation, like a musician hearing his song on the radio.

Orchid Cellar is owned by Wilk's parents, but he has the title of meadmaker and runs the Orchid's tasting room and daily operations. Kyle Sherrer co-owns Millstone with his father. Both fathers are biochemists.

That could be more than just a coincidence.

"[Meadmaking] is both and art and a science cloaked in a veil of magic," said Chris Webber, president of the American Meadmakers Association. Millstone, on its own website, calls cider making, "half science, half artistry." Gauging how a blend's character will change in the aging process and knowing when a batch is ready for the bottle are the skills of the trade.

Working alongside their fathers, Wilk and Sherrer are intimately involved with every step of the process, from sourcing to fermenting to aging, and they're both eloquent spokesmen for their family's craft.

Learning a trade is nothing new. Sons have been learning from their fathers for millennia. But it's Wilk's and Sherrer's devotion to local sourcing that makes them worth paying attention to, said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wine Association.

"What makes Maryland cider and Maryland mead special is Maryland soil," said Atticks, who will be helping to welcome winemakers from all over the United States to Baltimore on Saturday for the annual Drink Local Wine Conference.

Atticks said that he's impressed with the two men's respect for agriculture.

"[Sherrer] is thrilling to work with over a period of time," Atticks said. "He has that attitude of 'I'm willing to try and produce anything.' He has local ginger. He has local hops. And he's going to make a product that's really good."

The support from the wine association and from Baltimore's bartending community — Sherrer recently gave a presentation at the Baltimore Bartenders' Guild — is helping Wilk and Sherrer introduce their products to new audiences.

Wilk wants newcomers to know that the new meads are not the cough syrup you drink once a year at the Renaissance Festival. Mead is ready for the dinner table, he says, and not just for dessert. The next time you're looking for something to pair with Chinese or Mexican food, Wilk wants you to think of mead.

Wilk has timing on his side.Mead is catching on nationally. The number of meadmakers has tripled in the past 10 years, according to Webber, who says there are now 151 commercial meadmakers in the United States. (Not all are "meaderies," a term reserved for operations that exclusively produce mead.)

"Mead is the greatest new old thing out there," said Vicky Rowe, organizer of the Mazer Cup, the world's largest mead competition.

Rowe said modern American meadmaking took off first in Colorado, where it attracted craft-beer makers, and in California, where it caught on with winemakers.

"The beauty of mead is the variety of mead," Rowe said. "It can be everything from bone-dry to tooth-numbing sweet, and everything in between. If [people] are tired of the same old merlots and chardonnay, then step over to the wild side and try something different."

Essentially a fermentation of honey and water, mead is widely associated with Renaissance festivals and Beowulf. Wilk's operation now produces 10 different meads in a range from sweet to spicy, with ingredients like berries, vanilla, kiwi and even rose petals.

The Wilk family entered a few of its meads in the 2013 Mazer Cup International Commercial Meadery Competition. Two of them picked up silver medals in their categories, an impressive achievement for a newcomer.

"That's pretty phenomenal," said Rowe. "They should be proud."

An Orchid Cellar mead made with hot peppers named Hunter was a hit with tasters — but they wanted it spicier. Enter the Big Game Hunter, which debuted this year.

Wilk's parents moved to the United States when he was 7 years old. His first exposure to mead was on his family's summer trips back to their hometown of Lodz, Poland.

"Mead is a very well-maintained tradition in Poland," Wilk said.

Orchid began production in 2006 in the basement of the Wilk family's home in Montgomery County. After a stop in Thurmont, the winery now operates out of the family's home in Middletown, about eight miles west of Frederick. Four beehives sit on the far corner of the property, although Orchid still sources most of its honey from apiaries.

The house's lower level contains a public tasting room, which is open to visitors on weekends. There are separate rooms for packaging, fermentation and aging. But it's in the climate-controlled, carefully maintained barrel room, where the mead ages, that the drink reaches its full potential.

The operations at Orchid Cellar, to a visitor's eye, are governed by order and discipline. At Millstone Cellars, which makes cider wine in a picturesque 1840s Monkton grist mill, there's the feeling of mad science.

"It's a huge playground," said Sherrer, who studied business at the University of Baltimore.

Three floors of the mill are filled, haphazardly, with old oak barrels, reclaimed from wineries and distilleries. The barrels are marked with the names of apples Millstone is experimenting with — Crispin, Smokehouse and Black Twig. Deciding which apples to blend together, what additional fruits and herbs are added in — rhubarb, anyone? — and how long each blend should age is, for the Sherrers, a matter of joyful experimentation.

But finding the right ingredients takes intense effort.

The apples are sourced only from orchards that maintain clean heirloom varietals, and the other fruits Millstone uses are native to Maryland and acquired at the peak of season. The Sherrers are trying to rehabilitate an abandoned orchard on the grounds of the Genesee Valley Outdoor Learning Center in Parkton.

Last fall, Millstone debuted its first three cider wine blends, Harvest, Ciderberry and Winesap. They're sold in clear bottles that convey wholesomeness and freshness. The handsome and uncluttered labels suggest, Sherrer hopes, a classier and more complex taste profile than that old hippie standby, Boone's Farm Apple Wine.

Millstone made its Baltimore Farmers' Market debut last fall, offering samples and selling its opening line of cider wines. They sold out quickly. In May, the Sherrers will open a tasting room on the lower level of the mill.

"What we're doing is something people haven't seen before," Sherrer said. "I get to introduce it to people."


If you go

The brainchild of Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre and wine blogger Jeff Siegel (the Wine Curmudgeon), Drink Local Wine's goal is to spotlight wine made in the 47 states and Canada that aren't California, Washington or Oregon.

The organization's fifth annual Drink Local Wine Conference is at the Tremont Suites Hotel & Grand Historic Venue in Baltimore. Conference activities include seminars, tastings and guest speakers including Jerry Pellegrino, executive chef at Waterfront Kitchen, and Al Spoler, host of WYPR's "Cellar Notes."

The conference's grand finale is the Grand Tasting & Twitter Taste-Off at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Saturday's conference and grand tasting are open to the public. The cost is $125 for the conference and tasting, or $40 for the tasting alone.

For more information, call 410-252-9463 or go to www.marylandwine.org.

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