Hard cider and mead, two craft beverages out of the pages of history, have seen a recent surge in popularity. Over the past 10 years, sales of domestically produced hard cider have more than tripled. Now mead, that old-world brew made from fermented honey and enjoyed by the Vikings, has begun to see a renaissance as well.
John Harris is the founder of the first commercial meadery on the First Coast, the Harris Meadery. He describes himself as “a mead nerd.” Harris started homebrewing beer in 1991, and brewing meads in 2001. For Harris, brewing mead is a craft that is literally done by hand.
“When we make our fruited meads, we like to hand-pick those fruits ourselves, or we get them from reputable farms in the area,” Harris said. “When the blueberries were ripe this season in April and May, we went and hand-picked our blueberries from Miller’s Blueberry Farm in Interlachen. And that way we get a real feel for what the crops are like from year to year and what we need to do with them to try to bring about the best possible and highest quality meads that we can make.”
“Mead is half science and half art, in that it is a scientific endeavor when you are fermenting any products to produce something that is a good quality and consistency. The art form is in the taste — how much of a particular spice they have, how much particular fruits to add to it. We’re tinkering with our meads all the way up to bottling time to try to bring out the best quality in our products.”
Harris feels that it is important to preserve the craft of making mead because of the rich heritage behind it.
“The first recorded meads were documented well over 8,000 years ago in China and Mongolia,” he said. “It’s a very universal beverage — most cultures in the world have come into contact with fermented honey, and we would like to re-introduce people to what was, at one time, not only the oldest, but the most popular, beverage in the world.”
Hard cider is another alcoholic beverage with a history. The craft of cider making was brought to this country from Europe by the colonists. Colonial Americans drank hard cider, not water, to quench their thirst, which could harbor sickness in the days before water purification and public sanitation. Apples were plentiful, and fermentation was a relatively simple process compared to liquor distillation or the brewing of beer. Wine was mostly imported, and as a result, was too expensive. Beer became more widely available as the country expanded, and wheat and grain production became prevalent. Prohibition ended the production of both products in the U.S., at least legally, and the popularity of cider didn’t return until relatively recently.
In March 2016, Engine 15 became the first Jacksonville brewery to begin brewing hard cider. Luch Scremin, an owner and brewmaster for Engine 15, said it was customer demand at their Jax Beach brewpub that prompted the addition of cider to their offerings.
“We noticed ciders becoming more and more popular, and we were putting more and more of them on draft,” he said. “We thought this is something people want, and we got curious about doing it.”
Engine 15 hard cider is now on tap at both of their locations, as well as in various restaurants and bars around town. Later this summer, they plan to launch a six pack that will be available locally.
“The craft aspect to me, the way we brew beer as well as the way we make cider, is we use a very traditional approach,” Scremon explained. “We don’t use preservatives, we don’t back-sweeten our products. We work hard during the process to make sure that the end result of the process is what we wanted, without having to go back and change it afterwards. To me that’s craft — doing things in a traditional way, a handmade sort of way, and not relying on super-modern or non-craft methods, mechanized way of doing things, mass-produced. A craftsman is someone who has a trade and does things in a traditional way. That’s ‘craft’ to me, and we certainly strive to do that.”