Rosh hashanah | S.F. mead makers brew ancient beverage

This year at the Rosh Hashanah table, rather than dipping your apple slices in honey, try a libation with a rich history — a mixture of the two ingredients fermented in wooden barrels.

Local mead makers Oron Benary and Sarah Jones have combined the two Rosh Hashanah favorites in their signature “Apple Pie Mead,” one of three varietals they make at the San Francisco Mead Company, the Bay Area’s only meadery.     

Oron Benary in his meadery

Mead, a fermented honey drink that is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages — thought to predate wine and beer, sipped by Greek philosophers and Vikings alike — is making a comeback as an artisanal beverage. The drink is ideal for small-scale operations, easy enough to produce that “meaders” can use simple, local ingredients.   

“We’ve pretty much created a market for it,” said co-owner Benary. “The beverage is becoming more popular, but a lot of people still have no idea what exactly it is.”

Benary, 41, an Israeli who was raised in Vienna, was first introduced to honey wine when he moved to Ohio for college. “My friends were home-brewing mead and it was different and very interesting,” he said, peering into the stainless steel cauldrons in the Hunters Point micro-meadery.

Benary owns the micro-meadery with Jones, his wife and business partner, a former Olympic rower from Washington state. The two met in a San Francisco bar in the late ’90s and have been entrepreneurs ever since. “I said, ‘Hey, let’s quit our jobs and do our own thing,’” Benary said.

Their little meadery, housed in a small nondescript warehouse, is packed with various-sized tanks holding the fermenting mead. The distinct smell of vinegar permeates the high-ceilinged room. A small tasting area is open to the public on Saturdays and by appointment.

Benary calls himself a “self-taught” meader: He researched the process online, talked to friends in the wine industry and figured out how mead is made. “I’m pretty much making wine,” he said. “But instead of grapes, I use honey.”

Making mead takes about a year. Like wine, the product gets better with age after it’s bottled. Honey, not grapes, is used in the fermentation process, so no sulfites are needed. Benary is trying to get a hechsher (kosher certification) on his bottles. Because grapes aren’t involved, he says, “I’ve been told by rabbis it’s easy to make it kosher. Hopefully, by next High Holy Days, we can join the shelf of kosher products.”

The meadery produces nearly 4,000 cases a year of three mead varietals, containing 13 to 25 percent alcohol.

Benary believes in keeping everything local, so he doesn’t ship the mead out of the area. “Most of the ingredients are heavy,” he said, “so it makes more sense for me to source everything locally. Our honey is from Mendocino County, the apples are from Sonoma and we sell only at local establishments.”

By next year, Benary plans to find a brick-and-mortar space to open a dedicated tasting room in San Francisco. In addition to the Hunters Point facility, Benary samples his mead in stores, such as Whole Foods. A few local restaurants, including Bar Tartine in the Mission, are pairing the drink with food.

“One of our varietals (California Gold) pairs very nicely with spicy foods,” said Benary, citing Indian curries, Thai dishes and Stilton cheese as good pairings. “Mead is not like wine and it’s not like beer — it’s fermented honey, and with food, this stuff is amazing.”

Benary is experimenting with barrels donated by local vineyards to see how they change the taste of his mead as it ages. “Right now we are ramping up production because it takes a year until we get the mead into bottles.” He hopes to be producing around 5,000 cases a year by next year’s holiday season, with plenty of Apple Pie Mead for a Rosh Hashanah libation.