After hearing Michael Fairbrother speak about his journey from homebrewer to professional mead maker at the Australian National Homebrew Conference, Chris Thomas thought it was time to do a feature on mead. It’s one of the simplest alcoholic drinks: water, honey, yeast. Why isn’t everyone doing it?
An Introduction to Mead
In 1995 Michael Fairbrother was at a party and someone offered him a cyser. Probably like you and me, he didn’t know what it was. But he was a homebrewer and he didn’t want to embarrass himself so he passed his glass over.
“I’m like wow! What is this stuff?” he recalls.
Turns out cyser is an apple mead and that was Michael Fairbrother’s introduction to mead. That night he listened while he was told how to make mead and the next day he went home and made his first batch.
Now he has seven meads rating above 96 on RateBeer. One of those has a perfect 100. He makes some good stuff. But it wasn’t until more than a decade later that he had the epiphany that really set him on the path to making mead instead of beer.
“I realised that when I pulled out a bottle of beer it was my buddies hanging around,” says Fairbrother. “When I pulled out a bottle of mead every woman in the room was knocking somebody over.”
The following year 2007, he took his mead making more seriously and he formed his company, Moonlight Meadery.
“I got this idea I could do this part time at night and that’s how I got the name, I was going to be moonlighting,” says Fairbrother.
He didn’t do anything on his company that year. But he did win his first New England Mead Maker of the Year award. 2008 was the same. He didn’t do anything on his company, but he did win another Mead Maker of the Year award.
In 2009 he still wasn’t doing anything with Moonlight and was about to throw the company away.
A mate pulled him along to a craft brewers’ conference in Boston. He was talking with professional brewers there and talking about Moonlight Meadery and how he had planned to do it at night while holding down his day job. Then he met Omar Ansari from Surly Brewing Company out of Minnesota.
“I’m telling him how I’m going to do this part-time and he looks at me and he changed my life with one single sentence,” he recalls.
“He said, ‘How can you possibly think you can do something you love part time?’”
From there Fairbrother headed home and really worked on his business plan. Then he won his third straight Mead Maker of the Year award, something that has never been replicated. And he took out best in show from 353 entries. That’s a lot of entries. I’m not even sure there were 353 people in Australia experimenting with mead last year! Omar Ansari’s acumen and Fairbrother’s sustained success turned everything around.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Fairbrother.
His mead went on sale on 7 July, 2010 and sold out in one day. On 8 July, 2010 Michael Fairbrother quit his job in IT. Moonlight Meadery soon outgrew the garage and moved to a warehouse. After that he hired his fiancé to look after sales and marketing.
“She got us featured on a local television program and we had 400 customers show up on one weekend and it’s been crazy ever since,” he recalls.
Moonlight Meadery became the first winery in New Hampshire State history to be distributed to California. And Australia has been happy to make them international distributors.
Kurt’s Apple Pie – 100 on RateBeer
To get 100 on RateBeer.com you’ve got to produce something pretty exceptional. Something that makes you sit-up straight and say ‘wowee’. Kurt’s Apple Pie is this drink. ‘Sure, it tastes like apple pie’ I hear you say. No it really does and it works awesomely. The story is cool too.
“I met Kurt back in 1982,” begins Fairbrother.
They both worked at the local grocery store and were competitive about everything – who could pack the groceries the fastest, girls, careers and of course brewing.
“Two years after I started brewing Kurt came over to the house with a bottle of mead that he had made and he declared it to be an apple pie. I was a little sceptical and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings so I said I’d try it at some other point,” he continues.
Fairbrother put the bottle on the shelf in his basement and forgot about it for a solid 12 months. A year later he decided it was time to pop the cork.
“I thought, wow that smells like apple pie.” Remembering who passed on the bottle, he took a sip. “I’m like you’ve got to be kidding me, it tastes fantastic,” he enthuses.
He proceeded to drink the whole bottle. Unfortunately that was the last bottle – not because Kurt had given him the last bottle but because in that 12 months it had sat on the shelf in Fairbrother’s basement, Kurt had polished off the rest. Turned out he was happy with his brew.
“I said you’ve got to make some more and he goes ‘yeah, yeah’ I’ll make some more. But I’ve known that ‘yeah, yeah’ line since 1982 and it means he ain’t doing anything,” explains Fairbrother.
When Moonlight Meadery opened up in 2010 Kurt came over to Fairbrother’s house with a bottle Fairbrother had made in 1996. Kurt had kept it in the confidence that one day Fairbrother would go pro and he wanted to hang on to it until he did.
“He said, ‘If I can ever do anything for you and your company you tell me’. I looked him right in the eye and said I’ll take that apple pie recipe,” he recalls. “And he gave it to me. It’s literally our best seller.”
Advice when making mead
- Never give up. There’s tonnes of good information on how to make mead and Michael Fairbrother is happy to answer a question or two for you
- Use fresh, quality ingredients – honey, water, fruit and spices
- Eucalyptus honey can be used, but it will probably work best as a blend
- Blending is the art of being a mead maker
- Do small batches to start so you can quickly dial in to what kind of honey works
- Don’t use Champagne yeast as that would strip all of the honey characteristics from the mead you’re trying to make
- Fruit goes in at the beginning and spices at the end. If using whole fruit it’ll float to the top and make an insulating blanket, which you’ll need to push down from time to time
- Mead ratios: dry mead – 22/78 honey to water; semi-sweet 25/75; sweet 30/70
Three Great Meads from Moonlight
Kurt’s Apple Pie (RateBeer 100): Made using fresh pressed apple cider (juice) and honey and spiced post-fermentation with Vietnamese cinnamon and Madagascar-bourbon vanilla beans. It’s currently rated as one of the top five meads in the world
Desire (RateBeer 99): Won the best of show competition and the mead that started Moonlight Meadery. Made with black currant, blueberry and black cherry, it’s got really rich fruit notes to it and a nice long finish. Great with dark chocolates and cheeses
Fling (RateBeer 98): Made with strawberry and rhubarb with orange blossom honey. A nice, light mead that goes beautifully with goat’s cheese salad
Traditional Mead Recipe
Expected Brew Figures
Volume: 2 litres
500g Honey of choice
0.25g Yeast Nutrient
0.25g Yeast Energiser
Lavlin 71B White Wine Yeast or Whitelabs Sweet Mead Yeast WLP 720
- If you don’t have a 5lt fermenter just use a 3lt PET bottle and drill a hole in the lid to fit a grommet and an airlock
- Add the 500g honey to your fermenting vessel
- Add 1.5 litres of good clean water
- Shake it up or stir it so they mix well
- Pitch your yeast, yeast energiser and yeast nutrient
- Ferment for about three months at 18-20OC
- Bottle (no carbonation drops required) and enjoy. Like with beer, time will mature the flavours