On Nine Mile Road in the town of Ferndale, Michigan sits what many consider to be today’s mecca for mead. Ken Schramm, who first opened Schramm’s in 2013, is the “compleat” meadmaker to those who have been able to enjoy his craft. Throughout the years, Ken has been able to use his drive for success to craft some of the most delicate and distinct fruited and spiced meads out there.
Since co-founding the Mazer Cup Invitation in 1992, Ken has been at the forefront of the mead industry. Even after all of the success, he’s in no way slowing down. Whether it’s researching new fruits, looking into barrel aging, or increasing production, Ken Schramm is continuously setting the bar higher. I sat down with Ken to discuss how he first got interested in mead, his thoughts on a mead boom, and what’s in store for Schramm’s in 2016.
Paste: How did you first get into making mead? Were there any meaderies or breweries that influenced you when you first started?
Ken Schramm: I got a copy of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian in a brew kit that my brother Mike gave me for Christmas in 1987. My brother in law, Andy Henry, also got the same gift, and he made a batch of porter that he brought to a trout fishing trip we took the following spring. It was fantastic. I went home from that trip and dove right into the book. There was an appendix in the back that talked about mead like it actually was made by the Gods.
I think I had made two batches of mead, and when I met Bill Pfeiffer, he clued me into how to make them really well. I was hooked. Bill and I joined the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild, and before we knew it, we had started the Mazer Cup, and were doing the first “mead matrix” that I had heard of. We made 13 batches [using different yeast strains, different varietal honeys…] We took the whole thing to the 1994 American Homebrewers Conference in Denver and presented the experiment and let everyone taste the meads. It was pretty cool. Byron Burch, Charlie Papazian, and Bill Pfeiffer were pouring our meads. People loved it. That led to articles, and eventually I ended up writing The Compleat Meadmaker.
When I got started, there were meads from Pirtle’s and Bargetto that I could get my hands on. Beyond that, not much was being distributed in Michigan other than Starapolska from Poland. That was a big reason we started the Mazer Cup. We wanted to taste what great mead makers from around the country were doing, and it worked.
Paste: What ultimately made you decide to open up your location in Ferndale in 2013?
KS: After the book came out, I could tell by the number of invitations I was getting to speak that mead was going to take off. I got invited to speak from Massachusetts to Alaska to Nebraska. I had thought about starting a meadery since before I got started on the book. Then Brad and Kerri Dahlhofer got B Nektar off the ground, and that was too successful to leave a Schramm family meadery as an unfulfilled dream.
Initially, I wanted to locate the meadery in Traverse City, but there was no way I could keep my full time job and manage something that complicated in a distant city. We wanted a community with a vibrant, active food and beverage alcohol culture. Our ideal location was a downtown storefront with a rear entrance on an alley for loading and unloading honey, fruit, and pallets of mead. We chose Ferndale because it was a really welcoming city with a terrific, diverse population demographic, and it was close enough to allow me to keep working a day job and the night gig getting the place together.
Paste: You grow your own fruits for some of your meads. How are you able to protect your harvest with the weather you have in Michigan?
KS: We purchase much of the fruit we use, but we do have a small orchard and grow the fruit for our top meads. It has been incredible to see the struggles the vineyards in France have been facing with frost this year, and I do the exact same thing that they have been doing. I light fires in the orchard and tend to them all night to keep the temps around the trees up. I succeeded in saving our crop in 2012 when everyone else in Michigan lost their cherries. I’ve done it a few times this year when the buds were out of dormancy and the temps plummeted. It’s a serious pain in the butt, but it can work. I’ll know if I succeeded when we see how the fruit set looks in a few weeks.
Paste: When creating new meads, what type of research do you do to find the right honey/fruit pairing?
KS: First off, we try to find fruits with high acidity. It is the interplay between tartness and sweetness that makes a mead attractive. We do a lot of pilot batching. Sometimes we nail something right off the bat, but we generally go through a few batches by trying different yeasts, different honeys, different fruit varieties, and bracketing the fruit levels and the honey levels. I often like to taste the fruit together with the honey to see if they will work as a team. I do the same thing with honey and spices. If they play well with others before they are fermented, it’s a good sign, and if they don’t, there is very little chance they will be compelling together afterward. Then we pilot and pick the batches that we like, and adjust the constituent elements in increments until we hit the balance that really sings. It took nine test batches to get the Statement right, for example.
Paste: Are there any fruits you haven’t used that you want to look into for one of your future meads?
KS: Yes, we’ve been trying out a number of new fruits. We have piloted batches that we have liked with rhubarb, aronia berries, and gooseberries. We have a few more tweaks to work out before we release our pineapple mead, but it is pretty good. There are a few fruits that are notoriously hard to ferment into meads that retain recognizable fidelity to the original ingredients – plums, strawberries, and peaches for example. We may do some more work with them. There are also some berries that we love very much, but are having a tough time finding in the quantities we need. We’re also intrigued by some tropical fruits, like acerola, mango, and papaya.
Paste: You’ve been hesitant to age your meads in barrels. Can you tell us why this is, and do you plan on trying to barrel-age any of your meads in the future?
KS: We’ve been most interested in really nailing the process on the new scale we’re working at, and we want to limit the number of variables we fool around with. It’s also a bit of a gamble to put 200-odd liters of mead into a barrel if you don’t know exactly how it’s going to taste when you’re done. We have aged our ginger mead in a bourbon barrel, and it seems to have taken on some very pleasant grace notes. Soon, we will be able to know the public’s opinion, and that will help “Inform our practice.”
Paste: What are your thoughts on the number of meaderies that have recently popped-up around the country?
KS: I think it’s great. There’s a huge opportunity in the beverage market for mead. There are plenty of folks who love the flavor profiles, and if it’s well made, mead can compete with any high quality beverage. We say we just need to get in on their lips once and they’ll understand.
Paste: With the number of craft beer enthusiasts that are learning about mead, do you think we could see a similar boom like we have had with craft breweries?
KS: We’re actually at the start of that mead boom right now. I don’t think mead will rival beer for market share, because it has a significant challenge with base-level awareness that beer and wine for that matter, do not have. I do think that there is a long way to go before craft beer has maxed out its potential, and that the public’s awareness and embrace of mead will grow substantially for many more years. It’s not really complicated; people love delicious things that are hand crafted, and mead is delicious. This stuff haunts you. If you taste some really great mead, you will have that taste and aromas echoing around in your head until you get to drink it again.
Here’s a short story that exemplifies that. A few years ago, I took four bottles of The Heart of Darkness to “Rare,” a charity benefit for Henry Ford Hospital. They saved my life when I was a kid, so I have a soft spot for them. Anyhow, it was limited to bottles above the $100 per 375ml or $200/750ml price point, so there was some pretty stiff competition there. At the beginning of the evening, everyone at the dessert wines table was going for the d’Yquem and the big name producers. But a few folks took the chance and tried the mead. There was one group of wine enthusiasts who just flipped out. One woman must have said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted. There are thousand dollar bottles of wine here, and this is the best thing in the room,” about 10 times. She and her friends dragged so many people over to the table that we drained all four bottles before everything else but the d’Yquem was gone. The challenge is not quality. It’s awareness. We can do it with mead; craft beer has proven that you can win that battle.
Paste: With the growing demand for your product, are there any thoughts about either expansion or distribution?
KS: We are expanding on a week-to-week basis. We have more than quadrupled the amount of mead we can make now from the batch size we started with in 2013, and we can start three different meads at a time now instead of just one. We have signed with a distributor for western Michigan, and one for the state of Ohio. We’d like to get up into northern Michigan, and we may expand into a few other states if things go well in Ohio. We’re growing slowly. Our VP of Sales, James Naeger, is doing a really good job of getting us as much reach as we can without exceeding our grasp. We don’t want to bury ourselves in debt, and we really want to expand only as fast as production at our quality level will allow.
Paste: If you could collaborate with any meadery or brewery today, who would it be with and what would you make?
KS: There are many, but I feel it’s a little ostentatious to talk about collaborating with really successful breweries today until we have our own act together. We have a lot of work to do before we’re going to be happy with where we are in terms of quality, consistency, and production efficiency. I’d love to collaborate with Bell’s or Jolly Pumpkin or Founders on a sour braggot with some Schaerbeek cherries, but I don’t think we’re ready for that on a lot of different levels. We’re playing the long game. Anyone who has aged one of our early batches understands that some things are worth waiting for.
Paste: What is your favorite mead you have made?
KS: I waver back and forth on that. It’s kind of like asking, “Which is your favorite child?” I’m pretty fond of The Heart of Darkness, and I also like the Statement Reserve, but if I have a plate of steelhead crudo or salmon sashimi on front of me, I only want the Ginger. Same with the Blackberry when I’m eating barbecued brisket, or the Statement and some pulled pork. Sometimes, I want to power slam a Zombie Killer or one of Mike Faul’s ciders. It’s about the situation.