Brewer on a mission for mead

Jesse Hollett
Posted 1/18/17

ORANGE PARK – There’s something ancient brewing in Orange Park.

John Harris’ home off Milwaukee Avenue sits in a housing development studded with finely manicured lawns, birdbaths and a …

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Brewer on a mission for mead

Posted

ORANGE PARK – There’s something ancient brewing in Orange Park.

John Harris’ home off Milwaukee Avenue sits in a housing development studded with finely manicured lawns, birdbaths and a white picket fence. At first, the structure blends into residential camouflage.

Go out back, however, and the suburban façade drains away to sparkling machinery as Harris’ $60,000 mead brewery touches the pitched roof of his garage’s ceiling.

Established in June 2016, Harris Meadery is the culmination of long talks with the town to convert his house’s zoning to facilitate an operational brewery for mead, essentially the alcoholic intermediary between craft beer and wine made from fermented honey.

“It’s the world’s oldest fermentable beverage,” Harris said. “It’s over 8,000 years old – any culture that has contact with honey and beekeeping has naturally discovered mead all on their own.”

He jokingly theorizes that civilization first discovered mead when they discovered drunk bears. Still, mead is an alcoholic beverage and the town’s agreement with Harris came with a caveat – do not sell alcohol on site.

Despite the challenges, with bare bones equipment, Harris Meadery currently distributes its flagship meads to roughly 60 different vendors between Clay, Duval County and Georgia.

“We were more nervous about how we were going to be received in the marketplace, but now that most people really do seem to enjoy the mead and our sales are up, that’s very fortunate for us,” said Harris, who runs the business from home with his wife Melissa.

“We thought we would be in about 20 different vendors by this time, and we’re closer to 50, coming up on 60…so we’ve been quite happy.”

Happy enough, in fact, that Harris said he intends to review his revenue after his first year in business and within two years, if all goes well, move up to a larger facility. He said he will use the first year to pay off the $60,000 investment they injected into buying their equipment and building the garage in the first place. However, he said he got off rather lucky considering a normal brewery can cost anywhere from $750,000 to $1.25 million to jumpstart.

He hopes to stay in Orange Park, “and I’m sure Orange Park would also like us to stay,” he said.

He is currently looking into a freestanding warehouse located near the corner of U.S. Highway 17 and Milwaukee Avenue formerly owned by the current owner of Cheers bar on U.S. 17. Harris said if he is able to relocate to a larger facility, he hopes to open a tap room to give residents a chance to taste his mead first hand.

Some of the nervousness of his first months in business and the months prior is fading away as his business grows.

“It’s one thing to be a decent brewer, it’s another thing to get out into the marketplace itself and go to these events and press palms and make contacts and make friends, so that’s been a lot of the learning curve for me,” Harris said.

Just as his business is scalable, so are mead batches. And businesses have a beginning just like any good brew, he said.

“I started home brewing in college because I couldn’t afford the high price of Milwaukee’s best,” he said.

Harris started brewing meads in early 2001, but admitted that every mead maker’s first few essentially turn into “rocket fuel.”

Mead is really a cross over drink. It has characteristics from both craft beer and wine, and can be sweet, semi-dry or dry. Traditional mead is brewed with honey, water and yeast. Harris said the artistry comes in with what kind of yeast to use with what adjunct ingredients the brewer includes with the brew.

Harris specializes in meads with added spices, fruits or juices. His chief flavor is a key lime pie mead along with a cherry raspberry and black currant mead. He also makes limited small brews of seasonal fruits, but admits essentially when they’re gone, they’re gone. For instance, The Teaches, his peach mead, sold out almost instantaneously. It takes anywhere from 14 days to two and a half months to fully finish a brew.

“As soon as our product is available…we’re pretty much selling 100 percent of what we package, which is what I was hoping for [when we first opened.]”

This may be due to a recent uptick in the popularity of mead. The American Mead Makers Association found an 85 percent growth in last year, while craft beer grew at a steady 13 percent.

“People are branching out. They’re not afraid to try new things,” Harris said. “People see it, it’s getting out of that renaissance fair and more mainstream, we’re seeing it as the next evolution in craft beverages, right now the big internationals are looking at cyber markets Angry Orchard, which is owned by [Samuel] Adams [Brewery], that’s the market they’re trying to tap into, cideries.”

The fantasy television series Game of Thrones, Harris said with a laugh, often offers free marketing due to the sheer frequency that the characters drink mead.

Harris starts a pilot batch to try out new flavor combinations. He’s currently working on a pineapple mead and has just finished a semi-dry blueberry mead special for the Georgia market.

Just like his pilot batches, Harris also had a pilot trial of professionally brewing his batches at Pinglehead Brewing Company, located in the Brewers Pizza restaurant and bar located on Blanding Boulevard.

“He and I did a collaboration together that enabled his product to be served under my license technically,” said Steve Halford, co-owner of Pinglehead Brewing Company. “I’ve known John for a log time he’s been a good friend and a good resource being that he has a wealth of home brewing knowledge and I’ve been able to rely on him for years.”

“I’ve always kind of known for years that if he got the ball rolling that he would be successful in any aspect. We’re glad to have him here, and he’ll be on permanent tap here,” Halford said.

As a another testament to mead’s popularity, Green Cove Springs native Ed Stansel Jr. opened The Mazer last June at 1512 King St. in Jacksonville. A homebrewer for years, Stansel offers honey meads and ciders at the pub.

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