Our little corner of the world is blessed with a bounty of booze: local beers abound (as you undoubtedly know), cider pours in from the Virginia and Maryland countryside, and spirits of all sorts are distilled in and around the Capital. But it was only in the past few months that the DC-Baltimore region could boast of its own mead. Yes, mead, the fermented honey beverage with the Ren Fair reputation. Andrew Geffken and James Boicourt are betting that adventurous local drinkers are willing to give the beverage a shot.
When Geffken and I met for a pint at Glen’s Garden Market, he certainly looked the part of brewer: flannel-clad and bearded, although somewhat deficient gut-wise. But it was only recently that Geffken had given up office work to pursue mead full-time. Nearing thirty and soon to be married, he had been searching for a way “to get out from behind a desk” while he was still young. Why not mead?
While doing graduate work in bee-keeping – apparently a thing – Boicourt had access to an abundance of honey. He took to fermenting some of the harvest, sharing the results with friends and refining his process as he went along. As he and Geffken, a fellow engineer who helped out on brew days, grew more confident in their product, they began to recognize the opportunity to create and occupy an entirely new niche in the local drinks market. They were licensed in March and began releasing products in July.
As their name implies, Charm City Mead is based in Baltimore, where Boicourt resides. Their 1,400 square foot warehouse is in the industrial area just south of the 895 tunnel. CSX’s coal facility is just down the block. It may not be the most picturesque setting, but Geffken says that the price per square foot, relatively easy zoning process, and great location for self-distribution made it a no-brainer.
Geffken commutes up from DC – his wife owns Capitol Hill’s Biker Barre – to help brew and pick up cases and kegs for sale in the District. The drive can be a hassle, Geffken says, but “we couldn’t ask for two better markets.” Baltimoreans have taken to the local product, swarming (ahem) the Charm City stand at the local farmers market, while District residents have proven to be exceedingly open to the uncommon brew.
Because the vast majority of their potential market is unfamiliar with their product, Geffken and Boicourt stress education. “When I tell people I make mead,” says Geffken, “people usually think that means I’m a butcher.” But he finds people who have never tried mead are usually more open to the product than people who have only had the sticky sweet, ultra-boozy variety. There are no preconceptions to influence the first sip.
Charm City’s meads are all dry, with little to no residual sugars left in the final product. The final gravity readings are below 1, meaning that they’re less dense than water because of the conversion of sugar to alcohol. That goes for both product ranges: the draft versions, which clock in at 6.9% ABV, and the 12% bottled still versions. Geffken says that the packaging signals to drinkers how to approach the beverage. A glass of carbonated mead poured from a tap looks and drinks more like beer, whereas the higher-alcohol still mead evokes white wine.
The process for making the two lines is nearly identical. Honey is brought in from a Southeastern PA broker in enormous containers that resemble oversized boxed wine. Geffken finds the 3,200 pound bladders “terrifying” – just imagine a wall of honey coming toward you – but appreciates that they’re 100% recyclable. Between 400 and 800 pounds of honey goes into four 110-gallon fermenters unboiled with water (the ratio determines the mead’s strength). There, white wine yeast goes to work at 70 degrees until all the sugars are consumed, at which point the liquid is filtered and conditioned in used bourbon barrels to soften and condition for at least three months. Most of the mead is then packaged, except for the still rosemary, which spends two weeks on herbs harvested from neighbor’s yards.
Once the bottles and kegs are all ready to go, Geffken and Boicourt load up their truck to deliver Charm City Mead to their accounts. Currently, they have about 6-8 accounts in DC proper, including Glen’s Garden Market and Each Peach Market, but that will grow as Charm City increases capacity. Some accounts have latched on to the still rosemary mead as a cocktail ingredient, which makes sense: it’s herbaceous and flavorful while remaining low in alcohol. Geffken loves to see the experimentation, but he believes it’s important to serve the product on its own, too, lest people think of mead only as a mixer. Ever since leaving his day job to pursue mead full-time, he’s been ramping up visits to local bars and retailers, so expect to see Charm City – and Geffken himself – around town in the near future.