Mead, Cyser and Braggot, Oh My!
Behind The Bottle
As the owner of Rabbit’s Foot, one of nation’s oldest and most successful meaderies, Mike Faul talks in comparisons. Cyser? It’s cider, only made of honey. Braggot? Honey-based beer. Mead? That’s wine made of honey—a beverage that has been around since Friar Tuck whipped up a batch for Nottingham’s Merry Men.
But this isn’t Robin Hood’s mead. Like many modern producers, Rabbit’s Foot makes its products from honey that comes from specific locations, similar to the vineyard-designated varietals in grape wines. Some of Faul’s honey is harvested in a 20-square-mile block of orange orchards in California, and that citrus-blossom scent makes its way into the dessert mead, Melia, named after his wife Maria and the Greek “melia” for little honey. His Mead of Poetry, made from pure California clover honey, is a 16-year oak-aged sipper that he compares to a fine sherry or scotch.
“It’s a huge trend in the industry,” Faul says, explaining his artisanal, terroir-based approach. Put your nose into a glass of mead and you’ll realize that honey does have a scent, both familiar and unexpected. That scent is the common thread in all meads.
Cyser, Braggot—It’s All Mead
While mead wine was the start of Faul’s business, the anchor of his product portfolio might be his Red Branch ciders, which are riding the nationwide cider trend. Red Branch was one of the top 10 cider brands in the United States, until giants, including Boston Beer Company, Diageo and Anheuser-Busch, entered the market. “Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard cider sales went from zero to almost one million cases in one year,” says Faul.
“Ciders appeal to the younger drinker,” he says. “Really, 21 to 29 is the new target market for all beverage manufacturers. They are more into crafty things, more into experimentation—they don’t want to be like their dad, drinking Coors Light.” Red Branch ciders include apple honey, black cherry, raspberry, peach, lemon, apricot plus two seasonal ciders—pomegranate and pear—that sell out quickly.
The Red Branch brand also includes a lineup of honey-based beers ranging from stout to Irish red ale. The beers, made with traditional malts, hops and an untraditional helping of honey, have won seven gold medals in seven years. Instead of a growler, Faul will fill and seal a 32-ounce can of beer from the tap for guests who want takeout.
A Tasting Room with a Soul
A sign in the lobby of his building prepares visitors for the mead experience: Drink of Romance; Nectar of Gods. It’s an important phrase for Faul, who started home-brewing mead after his wife, Maria, fell for it on a trip to Ireland. “After 50 or 60 batches, we finally got it right,” he says. As of today, their meads have won a total of 95 awards; so many that he has decided not to enter any more contests. “People keep stealing the medals,” he says.
Accolades aside, Rabbit’s Foot has won a place in the hearts of its customers. Faul started his homebrew project in his garage in Sunnyvale, then moved to a small industrial space, and now runs production and a tasting room/bar out of a large, commercial building. The tasting room grew organically out of a need to give people a place to pick up their orders and sample new products. The original bar top from his first location is still part of the current tasting room, but a new bar has extended it to four times its original size.
Faul needs the space—his tasting room is open five days a week and is a popular spot. At least 30 people are there at any given time, more on the weekends. The space feels like an authentic pub—no surprise since Faul is Irish. There are taps behind the bar, generous wooden barstools, low lights and a pegboard of 50 coveted black mugs, reserved for regulars. But even these aren’t guaranteed; every year they go up for grabs and people camp out overnight to make sure they are first in line to renew their mug standing. “It’s crazy,” says Faul.
Mug frenzy aside, he is happy to serve a local, loyal crowd. A few years ago, his meads were sold in 24 states. Today, he’s cut back to six—with the main criteria being that he can visit his distributors during the day and still be home for dinner. This simplified model allows him to keep his staff and distribution small and self-sufficient, and allows him to provide his customers with the service they expect.
Think Outside the Glass
For those not quite ready to give up their Chardonnay, Faul’s ciders and meads can play a supporting role in beverages and dishes. For desserts, meads are natural companions for anything creamy or fruity. In fact, a menu from The French Laundry hangs in Faul’s tasting room, showcasing a “Whipped Tupelo Honey Ganache and Walnut-Mead Ice Cream,” made from Rabbit’s Foot Honey mead.
Mead ciders can replace beer in savory dishes and be used as a braising liquid for pork and meat dishes. The fruity traits brighten anything fatty or gamey in the same way that cherries and orange compotes are often served with duck.
As for cocktails, sweet and aged mead are great accompaniments for a strong cheese course or poached fruit. Mead of Poetry is aged with spices including cloves, cinnamon, ginger and mace, making it an inviting seasonal after-dinner drink or an aperitif when served on the rocks.
For something lighter, consider a Raspberry Cider Collins, which is refreshing and hip as a bright pink mojito. Fruit meads, like blackberry, would also be at home in a holiday sangria or punch bowl.
Rabbit’s Foot Meadery products are available at:
Whole Foods Markets
Selected craft bottle shops and on tap at restaurants across California
Rabbit’s Foot Tasting Room
1246 Birchwood Drive, Sunnyvale
Tuesday, Wednesday & Saturday 2–8pm
Thursday & Friday 2–9pm