A Cumberland County business dedicated solely to making mead has found a retail home for its honey-based products.
Larsen Meadworks, located in downtown Mechanicsburg, will begin selling four of its meads on Monday at the Weis Markets store at 5140 Simpson Ferry Road in Lower Allen Township, just outside of Mechanicsburg.
"I'm happy they are taking a chance," said owner Nate Larsen, who has been looking to expand into retail in the wake of last year's state liquor law changes. Act 39 opened the door for wine sales in supermarkets and convenience-store chains.
Since early 2016, Larsen has been operating in a small storefront along West Main Street that doubles as a production facility and tasting room.
Mead, which starts as a blend of honey and water fermented by yeast, is the world's oldest known alcoholic drink. It qualifies as a wine, though several varieties made by Larsen are comparable to beer because they are made with hops.
Larsen envisions a strong market for his products among beer drinkers because several of his recipes blur the lines between beer and wine.
He has his own takes on pilsner and India pale ale styles. And like many craft brewers, he has a coffee-based product called Breakfast in Bed and a sparkling wine called Spicy Wife that incorporates fresh jalapeno peppers.
Larsen is on the popular mobile app Untappd, which caters heavily to beer drinkers but has a growing number of meaderies.
Additionally, Larsen makes a product called Captain Awesome that is inspired by spiced rum spirits.
Because it contains honey, people expect mead to be sweet. Larsen's products tend to start sweet but finish dry.
"I like being middle of the road," he said.
Larsen is hoping to sell mead through more retailers, which could lead to hiring staff. Another goal is to contract with a private-label entity to diversify his revenue stream.
The four varieties of Larsen mead being sold at Weis — called Jelsa, Aura, Honey Hop and Ginger Hop — range in price from $19 to $24.
Weis spokesman Dennis Curtin said the supermarket chain also is looking to put Larsen's products into its new flagship store in Hampden Township.
The Valley Road superstore has a pub and carries 900 beers and 500 wines.
The Sunbury-based chain operates 50 in-store beer cafes in Pennsylvania. Because of Act 39, Weis tweaked the shelving in its 49 cafes to include 180 varieties of wine, Curtin said.
On average, the Weis beer cafes offer about 800 varieties of beer.
Mead is the oldest known alcoholic beverage, with lineage back to 7000 B.C. It predates wine and beer by thousands of years. But it’s only now gaining favor among American consumers. The American Mead Makers Association’s inaugural Mead Industry Report showed mead to be the smallest but fastest growing segment of the American alcohol industry. In the past decade, the number of commercial meaderies in the United States has increased nearly tenfold, from approximately 30 in 2003 to now close to 300 in 2016.
Mead is growing. But it has yet to solidify its identity with the drinking public. Part wine, part beer, but not wholly either, mead is a strange beverage. Those who know it as honey wine are shocked to encounter something dry or even hopped, instead of something viscous and saccharine. It’s perhaps mead’s resistance to classification that has turned off drinkers for so long. But it’s also what’s fueling its current momentum, especially among novelty-craving Millennials.
I recently encountered mead in an unlikely place—Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. That’s where Larsen Meadworks is quietly producing some of the freshest, most creative and delicious concoctions I’ve ever tasted (see my brief notes below the fold).
Nate Larsen, who opened his Mechanicsburg tasting room in late 2015, has only been making mead for three years, but in that short time he’s become proficient at achieving balanced and brightly nuanced meads. He uses only the freshest local ingredients—no concentrates and no evident backsweetening—and brings together techniques from winemaking and brewing. Fermentations are done completely in open-top containers, lasting anywhere from two to four weeks, with different ingredients added in stages. This incremental approach imbues the mead with distinct layers, which unfold almost sequentially, allowing you to taste every bit of each ingredient. The rapidity of the process says beer, but the complexity and alcohol level, which ranges from 10 to 15 percent and is dangerously imperceptible, says wine.
When it comes to ingredients, everything is intentional. As a former bartender, Larsen knows the difference between a lime that is juiced and one that is pressed—and chooses the latter in his mead making because of the rind essence that it produces. And for anyone who knows what it’s like to eat a fresh stalk of rhubarb, the Larsen Meadworks Aura is just about as close as you can get to the real thing.
The lineup of meads at Larsen is long, but each is interesting in its own way, not least for the backstory. You’ll want to read my notes below, but to list some of the ingredients that come into play: strawberry, rhubarb, cascade hops, ginger, mango, passion fruit, peppermint, peach, turmeric, saffron, maple syrup, and almond meal.
Larsen meads are now available for order nationally on Vinoshipper.
Somewhere between wine and beer, mead is carving a niche all its own. There is great pressure, say some, to turn mead into something wholesale and sugary, sold in six packs. Thankfully, mead makers have yet to acquiesce.
Larsen Meadworks Aura
One of Larsen’s first creations and my favorite. Three ingredients: local wildflower honey, strawberry, and rhubarb. Light effervescence. Off-dry. Larsen’s version of a brut rose. Fruit forward. Distinct and delicious layers of rhubarb and strawberry.
Larsen Meadworks Jelsa
Named for the Larsen family farm in Norway. Inspired by brut champagne. Only three ingredients—honey, passion fruit, and raisin—yet still complex. Pleasantly effervescent. Nice acidity. Reminiscent of a saison.
Larsen Meadworks Missionary’s Downfall
Inspired by an antiquated tiki drink recipe. Four ingredients: honey, pineapple, peach, peppermint. Fermented in three stages. A perfect reflection of Larsen’s approach to fermentation. Hints of anise and white pepper. No carbonation on this one.
Larsen Meadworks Honey Hop
Made with only two ingredients: honey and raw cascade hops. Dry and sparkling. Larsen’s reinvention of the archetypal lite beer.
Larsen Meadworks Ginger Hop
Made with four ingredients: honey, raw cascade hops, ginger, and orange. Like a lite ginger beer with a hint of orange.
Larsen Meadworks Breakfast in Bed
Cold steep of blonde coffee imparts a mellow coffee flavor. Also made with dark cocoa powder and organic orange zest and juice.
Larsen Meadworks Zoborodo
Inspired by a Nigerian softdrink for children. Ingredients include hibiscus flower, organic lime zest and juice, vanilla bean, saffron, and grain of paradise.
Larsen Meadworks Cello-Verde
One of three meads in Larsen’s Cello series, all of which have a base of honey, mango, and vanilla bean. Verde has the addition of lime rind. Balanced and not too heavy on the vanilla.