EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 17, 2013

Moonlight Honey

Romance comes by the glass in Londonderry, where the ancient craft of making mead is alive and thriving

By Kelly Burch

---- — Driving up to the Moonlight Meadery, which is housed in an industrial complex just off I-93, your mind is far from sprawling vineyards and ancient traditions. As soon as you walk through the door, however, you are transported to such places.

“High guys,” chimes a staff member. “Welcome.”

As the staff finishes a tasting, new visitors are encouraged to look around the showroom, which is stacked high with small bottles with names like “Desire” and “Mischief.” The smell of honey, with a touch of alcohol, permeates the room.

The Moonlight Meadery got its start in 2010 in the garage of founder and mead-maker Michael Fairbrother. Despite the fact that most people are not quite sure what mead is, the operation quickly outgrew the garage. Fairbrother moved into one, then two blocks in this industrial complex.

Now, “We’re ready to outgrow the facility again,” he says. “I want to build a bigger facility, with more draw for the tour, and maybe a bistro. I want people to make a trip out of it.”

Thousands of visitors already are making the trip to Moonlight Meadery to learn about mead, an alcohol made from honey. For fermentation to occur, yeast need to feed on sugar. For beers, this sugar comes from cereals; for wine, it comes from grapes; for mead, it comes from honey.

The purest meads are made with just honey and water, although the Moonlight Meadery crafts recipes that include everything from chocolate to spicy chilies.

Although it is not well known today, mead is the oldest type of alcohol. Ancient hunter-gatherers collected honey and covered it with water to keep bees away. With time, this mixture fermented and became mead. The drink is depicted in ancient cave paintings and mentioned in classic texts, such as “Beowulf.”

Today, many home brew experts and wine drinkers are rediscovering mead.

“Honey is an ingredient that people like to work with, that they like in their food,” Fairbrother said. “So it’s no surprise that they love to drink honey wine.”

After taking in the variety of meads in the showroom (the meadery makes about 60 types), visitors gather for a tour.

Chris Killinger, a fermentation specialist at the meadery, leads the group into the back room, which truly is a warehouse space. Giant 250-gallon containers of mead age against one wall, their reds and yellows adding some warmth to the concrete and stainless steal space.

“Making mead is an ancient tradition driven by modern science,” Killinger begins, as he points to a variety of equipment.

Killinger’s passion for mead-making is evident and the visitors are drawn in.

The process begins with 100 percent pure, unprocessed honey, heated just enough so that it can be pumped into a mixer. Here, the honey is blended with water, before being pumped into a primary fermenter, where it ages for six to eight weeks. Next, flavors and spices are added to give each type of mead its signature taste, all under the guidance of founder Fairbrother.

“My mother taught me to cook,” Fairbrother says. “She always taught me to think about the flavor, not to follow a recipe.”

This has led to interesting combinations for the Moonlight Meadery. On any given day, mead-makers may be adding cinnamon, coffee, vanilla beans, or even hot peppers to a container. When the mead has matured, it is filtered, bottled and packaged on site.

As the tour ends, Killinger brings the group to a stack of traditional oak barrels, which are used to brew the signature meads. The barrels were first used to age bourbon, then to age Sam Adams’ Utopia beer. Today, they are used to brew “Utopian,” a traditional mead that picks up complex flavors as it ages in the barrels.

“People love it,” Killinger says.

With the tour complete, it is time for the tasting to begin. Killinger tells the group that preference in wine doesn’t necessarily indicate preference in mead. He first offers the signature “Utopian” mead, then follows with samples from a large array, moving from dry to sweet.

Coleen Sullivan, who traveled to the Meadery from Haverhill, immediately likes “Utopian.”

“That’s delicious!,” she exclaims. “That just comes from the barrel?”

Killinger gives a look that tells the group he knows exactly what Sullivan means.

Jenny Getting and John Brodie are home-brewers from New Jersey. They came to pick up tips for brewing their own mead, but are taking away a much larger message.

“It’s great to see that people can still take an awesome idea for a small business and make that work,” Brodie says.

Fairbrother agrees.

“If I could do this all again, I’d do it sooner,” he says. I have never been so happy in my life.”

If You Go ... * What: Moonlight Meadery tours, tastings, and retail sales. * Where: The Moonlight Meadery, Londonderry, N.H. * When: Hours are Sunday to Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tours are offered on the half-hour. * How: Visit www.moonlightmeadery.com, or call 617-216-2162.