What is mead, you ask? Allow me to elaborate.
4. That’s about it.
Of course, you can’t just throw those three ingredients into a cauldron and hope it turns into mead. You have to brew it, which is a process that can result in some pretty nasty stuff, if you don’t know what you’re doing. Fortunately, John Harris of Harris Meadery knows exactly what he’s doing.
It all started in 1991 with John’s dissatisfaction with the beer available to him. He was attending Coker College in South Carolina, and didn’t like what his friends were drinking. He also didn’t like paying for cheap beer. Seeing a problem and knowing the solution, John decided to brew his own beer. His first beer-brewing adventure was a Foster’s Lager clone, which took him three weeks to brew. Sadly, John didn’t even get to taste his first beer. He left his brew in the care of his roommate, who drank the entire batch. Apparently, it tasted good.
John, who has a degree in Psychology with a minor in Computer Science, first heard of mead through J.R.R. Tolkien of The Lord of the Rings. He was attracted to this beverage that dates back to 8000 B.C., and intrigued by its almost universal presence throughout Germanic, African, Asian, and Slavic traditions. If you’ve ever read The Odyssey (or, admit it, the SparkNotes version of it), you may remember reading about the nectar of the gods, or ambrosia. Ambrosia, the ancient beverage of the gods, is believed to have been mead. That’s right: Zeus himself drank it. After learning about the world’s oldest fermentable drink, John decided to start making mead, which he has continued doing since the early 2000s.
With a nation-wide mead production growth of approximately 130% in 2014 (according to the American Mead Maker’s Association), John knows that now is the time to brew, and Jacksonville is the place. He moved to Jax just as craft brewing started to take off in 2007. He’s found that it’s surprisingly easy to introduce people to mead. John isn’t shy about talking about brewing, and tries to absorb as much learning experience as he can. When Kelly and Jamie of Alewife put out word about opening their tasting room, John submitted his resume, and has been working at Alewife since it opened. During his time at Alewife, he has gained knowledge about serving beer and dealing with distributors–learning which distributors are doing what they should or shouldn’t do. John has also learned more about what it takes to make mead in a larger capacity. Currently, John is brewing in 20-gallon batches in his home. He is searching Clay and Duval for a brick and mortar so that he has more space to brew. In the meantime, he’s planning to acquire a manufacturer’s license, which would give him the ability to produce his meads for commercial and retail markets. That means he could start selling his mead. While he is Cicerone Certified, he isn’t yet able to sell. Fortunately, he’s searching hard for a space so that Jacksonville can be the city that reintroduces the world to mead.
To allay any doubts about Harris Meadery, I’ll go ahead and say that John’s mead medaled at Meadllennium, the oldest mead competition in the U.S. Harris Meadery won gold in their division for the Cherry Raspberry Current mead, and bronze for the Key Lime Pie. He was invited to this year’s Gastrofest and won the judge’s choice award for his Key Lime Pie mead. I didn’t get to try John’s famous Key Lime mead, but I did try his barrel-aged peach mead with first crop peaches from here in Florida. The drink was smooth and fresh, perfectly accessible for those who normally go for the sweeter drinks. It’s a bit of a dangerous drink, as it tastes too good for just one bottle. The great thing about mead is that it’s made of honey, which is naturally antioxidant and antiviral. That means mead isn’t going to harbor any scary stuff if it sits for awhile. John’s mead is unfiltered and unpasteurized, with 100% organic ingredients and raw honey. While John enjoys the clean, neutral flavors of traditional mead (just water and honey), he also makes flavored meads using fresh fruit, sourcing locally when he can. Some things, like vanilla bean, John hasn’t been able to find locally. If you know of a local vanilla bean farmer, let him know!
John says that he’s always tweaking his recipes, right up to the date that he bottles. Currently, his biggest critic is his wife, who supports his mead production and is wonderfully honest, telling him whether she loves or hates his mead. It took him a few years to perfect his brewing process. The biggest mistake he’s made was not hydrating a whiskey barrel. When he tried to barrel-age his mead, he forgot to float the whiskey barrel in sanitized water to make the staves swell. When he poured his mead into the dry barrel, it sprung a leak and dumped his mead everywhere. If you’re looking to start making mead and want a word of advice, take it from this pro who has learned how to bounce back from his mistakes. “Just do it,” John says. “Go and get yourself 3 pounds of honey, a gallon of water, and a 5 gram packet of your favorite wine yeast.” (He recommends a chardonnay yeast.) “If the mead ends up tasting like rocket fuel, that’s normal. Just let it age. It’ll get better.” Like most brews, mead gets better with age. John says at least 9 months per brew, if not a year.
John’s got a new love for Jacksonville. His favorites are the climate, the beach, and the people. He thinks Jacksonville is a good city for growth and expansion; he’d love to see the revitalization of downtown continue. While it’s hard for him to choose favorite restaurants, his tops are Moxie, Kickbacks, Orsay, and Bluefish, where he and his wife go every year for their anniversary.
If you’re wondering how to get John’s mead, sign up for Harris Meadery’s social media and keep a lookout for some free giveaways. John is always updating the Facebook page, as well as his website. He’s hoping to have a brick and mortar come 2016, and plans to start selling then. Eventually, Kelly and Jamie of Alewife are hoping to carry Harris Mead, as are Steve Halford of Pinglehead and Warren Freyfield of Beer 30.
John Harris isn’t reinventing the wheel; he’s perfecting the drink that has been around for thousands of years. I love that his mead is healthy, with local and organic ingredients. His mead is versatile and can be appreciated by beer and wine haters alike–it’s just that good. I can’t wait for Harris Meadery to become Jacksonville’s ambrosia.