Mead Maker: Interview with Ken Schramm of Schramm's Mead

Ken Schramm of Schramm's Mead in Ferndale, Michigan. Photos c/o Schramm's Mead

Ken Schramm of Schramm's Mead in Ferndale, Michigan. Photos c/o Schramm's Mead

By Dathan Kazsuk and Jennifer Primrose

Mead Day was this past weekend, and in honor of this libation that's fermented with honey, we here at Triangle Around Town have decided to make August our own personal #MeadMonth. To pay homage to mead will will be releasing our full Q&A's we conducted with the mead makers that were featured in our blog, "Mead 101: What you need to know about this popular 'honey wine.'"

This week we will feature Ken Schramm of Schramm's Mead in Michigan. Schramm is known for his fruity melomels, is a founder of the Mazer Cup and the author of the book, "The Compleat Meadmaker." If you ever find yourself passing through Michigan's interstate 75 in Ferndale – pay them a visit – you won't be disappointed. 

There are so many different styles of mead out there today. What are a few of your favorite styles? 

Schramm's does make very few meads that are not melomels or metheglins. We have made a few "show" style meads, but we insist on using spectacular honey, and that can get a little spendy. 

The melomels Schramm's Mead makes are amazing. We really enjoy meads such as The Statement, Red Agnes, and were fortunate enough to try The Heart of Darkness. How much fruit goes into making your melomels? 

We do use a lot of fruit, and all of our fruit meads are made with real fruit. We make our cysers with apple cider, but that is always 100 percent pressed fruit. I am not really willing to say exactly how much fruit goes into our recipes, but we generally use only enough water to dissolve the honey. More than 50 percent of the volume of the must is fruit, but the density of honey means that most of the fermentable sugar comes from the honey. I will tell you that some of our meads are crafted with more than 10 pounds of fruit per finished gallon of mead. Yes, that is very expensive. It makes the style and profile of meads that we enjoy and want to share with the world.

Honey is, of course, a big part in making mead. What is your favorite type of honey to use? 

Most of our honey is Orange Blossom, sourced through a broker from a beekeeper in California. We do use some Michigan honey, although the source we were buying from has not had much to sell us the past couple of years. We also use some Tasmanian Leatherwood, some Scottish Heather, and some Michigan wildflower from other beekeepers when the flavor and aroma profiles of those honeys are really wonderful.

Tell us a little bit about how you got your start into the wonderful world of mead? 

Mead got its big boost in the U.S. from homebrewers.  It was part of the homebrewing boom that Charlie Papazian started in the 80s. That is how I became a fan. I made my first mead in 1988 and got really hooked on the stuff. I started the first mead-only competition with some friends of mine, and that helped boost the knowledge and enthusiasm of the community. My friend, Dan McConnell, and I also did a cool 13-way batch with six different honeys fermented with the same yeast. And then the same honey with six different yeasts. And then all six honeys blended with the first yeast. We presented that at an American Homebrewers Association conference in 1992. People loved it. That led to articles in Zymurgy, and those led to the book.

The book being “The Compleat Meadmaker.” We still need to pick that one up. Being called “honey wine,” why do you suppose that it appeals more to beer drinks than your traditional wine drinkers? 

There is a much bigger following among beer drinkers, since most of the craft beer makers and connoisseurs came out of the homebrewing world, and most of them knew about mead from Charlie's book, Zymurgy, and the competitions and conferences. There is a growing fan base among wine drinkers. There are both awareness and some quality expectations among wine drinkers that need attention.

Mead is starting to make an uptick in the past couple years – but it’s not near the popularity of craft beers or even distilleries, which seem to be the latest craze. What do you think mead makers and meaderies need to do to get to that level? 

Mead needs to work its way toward recognition among the wine cognoscenti. That comes with some responsibility. Fine wine makers do not utilize some of the practices that are common among some mead makers, both amateur and commercial. The use of extracts and concentrates is unheard of among top winemakers – and it is one of the distinctions between fine wine and industrial grocery store wine for high end wine journalists and critics. If we are to attain a level of legitimacy among wine makers and wine critics, we will have to be using the finest ingredients and practices that they have come to accept as the lowest common denominator for a high-end wine. We're trying to do that at Schramm's Mead.

Going back to styles, we tried our first braggot last year at a local mead festival. A local brewer and mead maker teamed up to make the drink. We don’t recall seeing any braggots in your repertoire of meads. Do you, or have you ever made one? 

I have made braggots, and even won a National medal with one. Since they contain malt, they are governed by brewery law in the U.S. We have a brewery license, but we have not even been able to make enough mead to keep ahead of demand, so we haven't ventured into that ground commercially, yet. We are only going to expand when we are able to do that at the quality level that we insist on, and that is not possible right now. 

Here’s hoping you can expand in the near future, at least so it is easier for us to get your meads here in North Carolina. We just heard the other day that the term “honeymoon” refers to a couple receiving mead after they are married. Is that true?

The honeymoon story is widely circulated. The story is that newlyweds were given a month's worth of mead (one 'honey-moon') to ensure that they would get the, uh... romantic aspect of their marriage off to a roaring good start. The Oxford English Dictionary does not give credit to mead for the origin of the word, but the word and the same usage does exist in other languages. It may be that the English term derives from old German or Dutch. The story is known in both of those cultures. The story may be apocryphal, but mead has been around a lot longer than the OED.  

Last question … with this swing back towards mead, what are some great meaderies we should be looking out for at our local bottle shops, or while on vacation across the U.S.? 

There are a number of other good meaderies in the US, and I don't want to risk offending some folks by mentioning others. I would say that there is a huge range of meads, and they are appropriate for lots of different settings. There are folks making lighter carbonated meads that are much more quaffable on hot summer days, and some making lighter meads that pair well with the lighter cuisine that is the current rage.