On the Job: Mead Makers

Suddenly, in the Short North district of Columbus, it’s cool and stylish to drink an ancient elixir. When you walk up to the bar at Brothers Drake Meadery, you’ll likely see owners Oron and Sarah Benary, mead maker Sarah Schiffbauer, or Jake Webb, the bar manager – and all of them are intense about their mead.

Mead is the oldest known fermented beverage, with traces of it found as early as the pre-Bronze Age. The honey-based drink can be produced in a “beer” style or a “wine” style. Against that lengthy history, the Brothers Drake serves still (not bubbly) wine-style mead, created from wild honey made by Ron Householder in Custer, Ohio. Terroir, or environment, affects honey just as it impacts grapes, making Ohio honey different from, say, Maryland honey.

Oron and Sarah ran a San Francisco meadery before they came to Ohio, launching Brothers Drake a decade ago. In San Francisco they didn’t operate a stocked bar, just a production room with tastings and tours, and retail one day a week. So running the Columbus meadery is a grand experience for the couple, who live nearby. Oron wants to be the one who answers the phone, responds to emails and guides the tours. “Very important – I’m the one who talks with the customer. It’s the last thing I’m going to give up. I value time and I respect other people’s time,” Oron says with his characteristic high intensity.

Mead flights at Brothers Drake rotate with different flavors; a recent one included Wild Ohio, Honey Oak, Ginger Verve, Peach Rush, Apple Pie and Brioso coffee. Just like grape wines, meads should be tasted to explore the personal palate. Applewein, a German-style Cyser (mead made with apples), is a favorite, with beer on the nose and dryness on the palate. Ginger Verve is smoothest; it tastes of bright lavender with chamomile taking a back seat. If you’re a wine lover, the blackberry will remind you of Pinot Noir. The meadery’s money-making months are November and December, when the customer favorite, Bourbon Barrel Apple Pie, sells out.

The bar sports a full cocktail menu. Mead-based cocktails vary by season depending on available local produce – in summer, for instance, they serve a blueberry basil limeade. All the liquor is made in Ohio by OYO Spirits and Watershed Distillery.

Mead maker Sarah Schiffbauer is a former Ohio State University physiology instructor and yoga teacher with the talent and curiosity to learn how to produce mead. “She works hard and smart, with intention. She was worth luring away from OSU,” Oron says. Mead is relatively simple to make; it’s the mixing and profiling that give it personality. Brothers Drake now has 200 distribution accounts and produces 8,000 to 10,000 gallons a year – about 4,000 cases – and if they expand in the future, their top priority will be maintaining the mead’s quality.

During Jazz Wednesdays, Brothers Drake hosts local and some touring musicians to entertain in the tasting room. Rather than choosing all the music himself, Oron explains, “a handful of people curate and send notes to me about what’s available. I have this.” When the music’s playing, the dancing tends to leak out onto the streets.

Short North happy hours can be wild, but this is a well-behaved bar, not a place to get drunk. People enjoy learning about the mead, and they sip it slowly. “Everyone becomes very happy when they’re here drinking mead,” Oron says. “It’s nice to see.” Even the Benarys’ pre-school daughter enjoys the rhythms of the tasting room with her mom and dad.

Sustainable practices reign here. Recently, Brothers Drake started using environmentally-friendly corks. The meadery belongs to the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and they take a holistic view of their enterprise: they’re committed to preserving community resources and acting on their values, believing that when people explore and live their true vocation, and connect with other business owners and the community, they decentralize power and interconnect with the natural world. This is good for all. Even the repurposed wooden doors to the production room and decorative wood-frame windows make a statement about dedication to the environment.

The best way to appreciate mead making and the resplendent beauty of the building’s design is to sign up for a tour on the Brothers Drake website. Two tours are scheduled on Saturdays but as they fill up, another often is added. Food trucks park outside the doors on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. On a recent Sunday, Sobremesa, a Latin-inspired mobile kitchen, was parked outside. Whatever truck you find, the food will be good because nothing at Brothers Drake lacks quality.

When you visit, say “hi” to whomever is tending bar that night, and they’re sure to strike up an intense conversation.


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