The city’s first commercial meadery in more than 100 years opened this month, launched by a pair of millennials in a 19th-century North Philly warehouse.
In a little-noticed milestone, Philadelphia Mead Well began public sale of the ancient alcoholic beverage, also known as honey wine. Though the region in recent years has seen an explosion of breweries, distilleries, wineries and even a few cidermakers, this is the city’s first fulltime meadery since the 1800s.
It’s the brainchild of Daniel Popil, originally from Ukraine, where mead and a fermented honey drink known as medovuha, are popular drinks. The Fishtown resident has partnered with a friend, Carter Krafft, to launch a small mead house that can produce about 150 gallons a month.
Corked bottles of fruit- and hops-flavored mead should be making their way into stores shortly, with draft varieties headed to local bars as well. Additionally, later this summer the pair will open a tasting room at their facility, inside a converted industrial site at 3525 I Street in the Harrowgate section of the city.
Inside, the space looks like a typical small brewery, with a couple of stainless tanks, sacks of ingredients and lots of kegs. It’s a modest operation, but already the two are producing some exceptional flavors.
Drilling Fig (11% abv) is light and delicate, with a lasting fig flavor in the finish. Drill Bit Hoperator, made with orange blossom honey, smells like a west coast IPA, but with a satisfying honey character.
Neither are not particularly sweet – thanks to a high-attenuation process in which nutrients and carbon dioxide are added during fermentation, to reduce residual sugar in the finished product, according to Krafft, who has a chemical science background.
Though mead has a long, long history that evokes images of Beowulf and medieval warriors, it is still a largely unknown drink in America. Despite a recent spate of growth, there are still fewer than 500 meaderies nationwide – compared to more than 7,000 breweries and 8,000 wineries.
Around Philadelphia, there are just two: Colony Meadery in Allentown and Haymaker Meadery in Montgomeryville. At least one local cider maker, Original XIII in Kensington, has dabbled with mead as well.
The local dearth is due largely to Pennsylvania’s typically inane liquor regs, under which mead is generally classified as wine. Until recently, that meant it could be sold only in state liquor stores, where statewide fewer than 20 brands – most of them imported – have made it onto the LCB’s notoriously unimaginative inventory list.
A recent regulatory change that allows beer stores to sell some wine to-go has paved the way for small mead-makers to reach a wider audience. Mead Well hopes to take advantage of that new opportunity.
“People have a concept of beer; they have a concept of wine. But mead is undefined for most people,” said Krafft. “That means we can do things outside the norm. We can bring a whole new experience to people. I don’t know what that will look like. But right now, we’re not bound by anything.”
Historical note: I had thought that Philadelphia Mead Well could be the city’s first-ever commercial mead house. But a bit of research, with the help of Philadelphia brewery historian Rich Wagner, reveals evidence of some 19th-century operations.
Based on online sales of antique stoneware bottles it appears a Philadelphia bottler named George S. Twitchell made mead in the 1880s. An advertisement in the Ephemera Collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia mentions something called “Phila. Cream Mead” made by S. Twitchell & Bro. at 225 Vine Street. (“Our motto: Full Weight, Measure, Count and Quality.”)
And Wagner pointed me to U.S. Census reports from the same era that mention a handful of companies that made “meade and mineral water.” Among them: McKinney & Co. at 614 S. 6th St.
I found no evidence of any post-Prohibition Philadelphia mead houses. If you know of any others, comment below.