“Bee” Charmed in Baltimore

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Photo by Charm City Meadworks
Austin Haynes, sales manager, savors the success of Charm City Meadworks.

When I turned off the overpass onto Biddle Street to find Charm City Meadworks, I had a direct view of the oldest penitentiary in Baltimore, Maryland — the Baltimore City Detention Center, a Gothic Revival-style stone structure that opened in 1859. Though this inner-city spot has a history of corruption and neglect, it’s nestled amid the many iterations of urban renewal that Baltimore has championed. Depending on your point of view, it’s a bit rough, or it’s ripe with potential. For one fermentation entrepreneur, this unique vantage point meant restoring manufacturing to a piece of urban real estate that, historically, was once Baltimore’s industrial hub.

Adobe Stock/jonbilous
View of the Washington Monument at night, in Mount Vernon, Baltimore, Maryland.

James Boicourt is a true alchemist when it comes to point of view. He saw opportunity in an odd chunk of history: an awkwardly shaped warehouse at the base of the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood, a few blocks north of the ominous penitentiary, flanked by the Jones Falls Expressway, and within walking distance of the nexus of city center. His Biddle Street location has allowed him to invest sweat equity into not only developing a business in a neighborhood in transition, but also changing perceptions with his modern mead-making techniques. I’m happy to say that his efforts are as successful as they are delicious.

Photo by Charm City Meadworks
Owner James Boicourt is shaking up mead-making in Baltimore.

Mead: Nostalgic Novelty

When Boicourt first discovered mead, the beverage tended to be a sweet, hard-to-find novelty item in liquor stores. His mead-making journey began with the realization that his engineering education had him, as he puts it, “destined for the cubicle farm, and that was something that just didn’t interest me, because I’m a very hands-on person.” He switched majors and ended up taking an entomology course in beekeeping. “I got really excited about bees,” he says. He found an interest in honey, and started making mead during college, which was a hobby that he didn’t intend to be a career. Nevertheless, in 2018, along with a small group of like-minded friends, he decided to rent space and experiment with mead, in particular to create “something lighter and refreshing with lower alcohol by volume (ABV) — something that folks would want to drink every day.” After a few career shifts, this college-curiosity-turned-side-gig found its niche alongside Baltimore’s craft beer boom. As of June 2019, Charm City Meadworks has produced enough mead to have become one of the largest meaderies in the U.S.

Photo by Charm City Meadworks
Charm City Meadworks offers a dog-friendly taproom for customers.

Boicourt reveals that over the past seven or eight years, information and experimentation with mead have grown, as has his own knowledge of mead-making. The scientific-minded engineer in him would brew large batches with 20 different variables, along with one control batch; test for acidity and nutrient additions; and, of course, record how differing honey samples tasted in the final products. He explains, “Mead is particularly challenging to brew because it’s nutrient-poor,” as opposed to beer, which starts with starchy, protein-rich grains; or wines, which begin with fruit — both nutrient-rich beginnings for microbial growth and fermentation.

“Yeasts are very particular, and we’ve learned a lot about how to work with different yeasts, which are huge components of flavor in any fermented beverage,” Boicourt says. In general, fermentation can change certain flavor components, and there are many yeasts with which any mead-maker can create numerous taste variations using the same basic ingredients. However, with an alcohol content of 7 percent or lower, there’s a risk of pathogenic microbes in mead that can also quickly destroy flavor. Boicourt says filtration is the way he deals with the high yeast load and low ABV in mead fermentation. Filtering mead keeps the process of low alcohol production free of unwanted microbes and increases its stability. And recently, he’s been experimenting with kveik yeasts, which help create bright, fruity esters with a quicker fermentation time. “So the art,” says Boicourt, “ is in the mix — the balance of honey, water, temperature, yeast, and flavorings.” As a result, Charm City Meadworks produces mead that’s dry, balanced, and refreshing. Boicourt confirms that experimentation “is part of the craft.”

Photo by Charm City Meadworks

Modern Mead the Charm City Way

So what exactly does modern mead taste like? Charm City Meadworks exemplifies what happens when mead-making is reexamined within the context of intense public interest in fermentation and homebrewing, along with the soaring sales of craft beer. For Boicourt, a great deal of his effort goes into educating consumers about mead’s uniqueness. “For example, when I do a tasting at a liquor store, I ask the customer, ‘Would you like to try something light and refreshing?’ instead of asking people if they want to taste mead.” He explains that asking the second question leads to an immediate loss of interest because of preconceived notions about mead as a sweet, syrupy dessert drink. For Boicourt, it’s crucial to present mead as a unique beverage category, and allow people to form their own opinions after tasting his brews.

Photo by Charm City Meadworks
Charm City cans their mead on site.

“We really wanted to separate mead from its place as a dusty afterthought at the end of a row of dessert wines,” says Boicourt, “so we had to market it differently, and shift the packaging away from that of traditional wines.” Beginning in 2016, Charm City Meadworks was one of the first in the industry to package its products in cans. Beyond packaging, its goal is to deliver a consistently refreshing and interesting beverage, which means overcoming some foibles present in crafting, bottling, and distribution. Specifically, Boicourt notes, “It’s important to realize that we’re a factory. Someone else can create a rare taste profile with a unique varietal honey at home, but we can’t replicate that on a larger scale.” He continues, “There are quality control measures we must consider for mass production, and expensive ingredients make some flavor profiles less possible.” Inconsistent sourcing of plant matter brings with it microbial risk factors. And, unlike beer-brewing, there’s no cooking process for mead. Fermentation happens over a period of 10 to 14 days, with temperatures between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, much like kombucha. And still other ingredients are difficult to manage on a large scale, such as woody lemongrass; on a small scale, adding the shredded herb is worth the exhaustive work, but for Boicourt, adding lemongrass to the primary ferment means replacing his industrial blades after processing each 300-pound load of plant material.

Photo by Charm City Meadworks
Charm City’s outdoor green space provides extra room for games and gathering.

Instead, the company uses a steam-distilled lemongrass extract for recipes, and the particularly herbaceous notes are achieved during a second fermentation to provide consistency in the recipe and product. Today, one of Charm City’s mainstays is Lemongrass Basil dry mead. Boicourt has learned to craft sophisticated taste profiles, and all his recipes are the products of trial and error. “The first time I put basil in a mead, it was terrible, because I left it in there for a while and it got vegetal and gross. I soon realized that the longest you can have something like that in contact with the ferment is a couple of days, when it really starts to give that fresh note.” 

Photo by Charm City Meadworks

Sparkling and Canned; Still and Dry

I was treated to a tasting when I visited Charm City Meadworks, and, honestly, it blew my mind. The samples completely defied my expectations, just as Boicourt had predicted. The meads canned at Charm City combine herbs, botanicals, honey, and water for dry, light, effervescent, and delicious flavors with just 6.9 percent ABV. There’s nothing cloyingly sweet about these sparkling draft meads, and while they go down like beer or cider, they simultaneously taste nothing like these other brews. They stand alone with flavor profiles full of sophistication. Ruby Red Rose has a complex taste from start to finish; made with whole rosebuds and grapefruit zest, the rose flavor upfront shifts to tangy citrus, and finishes with soft floral notes. Mango Comapeño, a mango and hot pepper duo, provides a ripe fruity smell and flavor at the outset, and then surprises the palate with a hit of heirloom hot pepper from Veracruz, Mexico.

Charmingly effervescent canned draft meads offer fruity flavors paired with interesting botanicals.
Photo by Charm City Meadworks

Aged in oak barrels, Charm City’s still meads offer a more traditional mead flavor at 12 percent ABV, without the carbonation. I tasted the strawberry-ginger concoction, in which the fruit is part of the primary fermentation. With the strawberry flavor at the forefront, it remains on the dry side, and makes for a lovely aperitif, especially with the ginger zing. While the mouthfeel for the draft meads is light and slightly fizzy, the still mead comes nowhere near viscous. It too is dry, light, and full of fresh flavor.

Charm City Meadworks is just one more delightful detail tucked amid the many unspoiled historical monuments of the city. You can taste a flight of modern meads in its dog-friendly taproom, a unique warehouse built atop an oxbow of the rerouted Jones Falls waterway, which was once filled in with debris from the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. But you don’t have to visit Baltimore to be charmed by Boicourt’s modern mead. It’s distributed throughout Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Virginia; and Pennsylvania, and ships to 32 states.

“I’m proud of what we’re doing here in terms of engaging with our community in the city,” Boicourt says. Most of his employees bike to work, and enjoy working there. Parts of the city jail have begun to be demolished, but the historic architecture remains. Perhaps the demolition took with it some outdated misconceptions about Baltimore. Boicourt says, “Here in the city, there’s an incredible shift toward positive change, and as a business owner, it’s an easy change to get behind. People are ready to work, and it’s great to see a city recover some of the remnants of its manufacturing history.”

Photo by Charm City Meadworks

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Jean Denney is an editor for Ogden Publications. As a former Baltimorean (and former bartender in historic Fell’s Point), she’s delighted to write about Charm City Meadworks and their craft brews.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.