Ever since making my first batch of homebrew in 1996, I wanted to work in the brewing industry. By 1999 I was determined to make it happen and had serious plans to start a brewery, brewpub or a homebrew supply store.
Then 2001 came along and I was laid off from an Internet company. “OK,” I thought, “I think I’ll brew some beer.” I drove over to my local homebrew shop only to discover that it had just gone out of business! I smelled an opportunity. Within weeks, Jay’s Brewing Supplies (www.jaysbrewing.com) was born.
I was in a great position to sell brewing supplies. Located in Northern Virginia, I knew tons of brewers personally, was a member of a few brew clubs, was a knowledgeable brewer — and had almost no competition. The business did well and selling brewing supplies was a fun job and I got to “talk beer” all day. Customers would often bring samples and we would try out their latest creations; then I’d usually crack open one of my beers.
Around 2003 life threw me a curve ball. I went to a brew club meeting one night and tried some mead. “What is this stuff? Didn’t Beowulf drink it?” I thought. When I tasted it, I thought, “Wow, that is incredible!” My story would probably be quite different if I didn’t have such a good mead to taste first, but it was great and I wanted to make it.
So make mead I did. My first dozen batches or so were not so great, but then I started doing better. Having homebrew customers available to me as guinea pigs was quite an asset — I had a near limitless well of tasters at my disposal. And,
of course, many of my customers also made mead, so we swapped bottles, recipes and advice.
Sometime around when I started making good meads my future plans started changing too. Plans for owning a brewery had never been far from my mind but the idea was not quite as attractive as before. Sure, a brewery would be a blast, but there’s already lots of great beer out there. With a brewery I could do something I enjoy, but could I make something that would be exceptional and stand out?
To me, making beer (or wine, mead, cider, etc.) is an art. And as such, it’s very important that I make something special. That doesn’t mean that I make maple cayenne Oktoberfest. In fact, when brewing I nearly always stick to basic styles. But my English Brown and my IPA are still works of art to me and I wanted them to somehow be separated from the pack.
From the “art” angle, I could see that making mead for a living would be a better fit for me than making beer. Despite being the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, mead is a new frontier these days, which is appealing to me.
Now, if you brew beer, imagine you’ve made a great batch of beer and you have ten friends over to try it. Imagine further that these ten people have never had a beer before. (A leap, I know, but try to imagine such a horrible, horrible situation). Naturally your friends love your beer. They want more. They want to know more about this amazing drink and learn the history. You’ve just opened a new world to them! That’s how I feel when I introduce mead to people.
My goal is to show folks how great mead can be. I’m not on a crusade to get mead in every pub (it would be nice, though). I love sharing this wonderful drink. Giving people tastes and seeing their reactions is my way of sharing my art.
So, a new plan was in place — a meadery instead of a brewery! My wife and I had always planned on moving from Northern Virginia to a place with more space and this seemed like the time to do it. After scouring the Southeast, we came upon Asheville, North Carolina and knew right away we had found our new home. We bought a house and several acres and set about building the meadery. According to state law, a separate building was necessary, so brewing in the basement was out.
After doing everything the federal, state, and local governments required us to do to operate legally, Fox Hill Meadery (www.foxhillmead.com) was born and batches of mead were finally started in January 2008 (after over two years of building and getting permits). As of summer 2008 we had a fermenting capacity of about 2,000 gallons (7,571 L) per year and a few more 185-gallon (700-L) fermenters.
While I have not been a professional meadmaker for long, so far I am having a great time. I have taken samples to Asheville wine shops, beer shops, pubs and restaurants, and the response has been fantastic. Everyone loves the mead and says they want to going to carry it when it’s ready. And as always, I love seeing the reaction when they try mead for the first time.
I’d like to thank Jay’s Brewing Supplies customers and the Northern Virginia brewing clubs of Worthogs, BURP and NoVA Homebrew. Everyone who tasted the hundreds of mead test batches and offered advice and encouragement were extremely valuable. More importantly, you are all good friends with whom I had the privilege of sharing good drink and good times. I raise my glass of test batch number 53.1b (Buckwheat Sack Mead) to you and say, “Wassail!”