Dan Cook’s journey as a maker of mead began, in part, as the result of a New Year’s Resolution of sorts.
“It was 1998, and it was January 5th or something like that and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘what do I want to do this year?’ And I said to myself, ‘You should learn how to brew beer, you should starting brewing beer,’ and I thought ‘OK, let’s do that.’ But I was living in Richmond, VA and I thought we’ll there probably isn’t even a home brewing shop, and lo and behold there was!”
Thus began Dan’s foray into home brewing. No stranger to craft brewing, he had actually worked at Berkeley’s Bison Brewing while doing a PhD in materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley in the late 80s and early 90s. After finishing his degree, he’d spent a couple of years traveling and living in Grenoble, France and in London before taking a job with Reynolds (the aluminum people) in Richmond, where he decided to embark on his home brewing odyssey.
But making beer was to be a short-lived endeavor for Dan. After four or five months of home brewing—which included a ruined first batch that became bacterially infected—a friend suggested he try his hand at brewing mead. At first, Dan said, he was sort of like “what’s mead?” He had a vague recollection of hearing about it in school, but says it was one of those things that you associate with something like reading Chaucer. But his friend thought Dan would like it and told him it was fun to make.
“To me, it sounded like one of the foulest alcoholic beverages you could possibly drink. Because it’s based on honey. All I could think was, this was some kind of sweet, thick, gross, maybe heavily spiced thing, and my friend said, ‘no, no, try it, it’s going to be great,’” Dan remembered.
So he found a couple recipes for mead in a home brewing book by Charlie Papazian, founder of the Association of Brewers and the Great American Brew Festival and author of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing. “He had an appendix in his book on mead and just went overboard on how wonderful it is, so I thought, ‘OK if he thinks it’s good.’ I’d followed some of his other recipes and they’d all turned out to be pretty good, so let’s try it. So I did,” he said.
Dan describes mead as being “in between beer and wine,” both in taste and in how it’s made. Beer can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month or so to make depending on the type of brew, whereas wine tends to take at least six to eight months for a white varietal and even longer for reds. Mead, on the other hand, takes approximately four or five months to age properly—so it took a few months for Dan to discover what he had on his hands.
“I went to bottle it and, as you do when you’re bottling any beer or wine or mead, of course you’re drinking it, and you have a spill tray because you’re pouring it into bottles so you have a spill tray and that goes into your glass that you’re drinking from while you’re filling up the bottles and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t know, I’m not sure.’ I didn’t know what to expect, and it’s weird enough that it’s not beer, it’s not wine, it’s a different beverage. And I finished everything up and I stood up and was like ‘whoa, I got a great buzz on. This is actually pretty good.’”
After letting his first batch sit in the bottle for another couple weeks so that he could get some carbonation on the mead, he and his friends tried it again and thought it was “crazy good.”
How is mead made? First the honey must be diluted in water—without water, it won’t ferment, it will just crystallize (like when you have honey at home that you haven’t used for a while that solidifies). Then yeast is added to spur the fermentation process. That’s it. And it can be flavored however you want, Dan says. “It’s the original alcoholic beverage,” Dan says.
The primary fermentation (converting the raw sugar into alcohol) can take between a week to one month; after that, a secondary fermentation, or aging, process begins where the drink smooth out and the alcohol levels mellow. Mead Kitchen meads contain approximately 8-10 percent alcohol—Dan says he shoots for 9 percent. “Yeast control is the hardest thing to deal with,” he said.
Although Dan continued to work for Reynolds for a few years, as well as teach at Virginia Commonwealth University, California had never left his blood and he longed to move back. Eventually he came back west to Mendocino County, where he had friends and had met a girl.
“I never had any intention of dying in Richmond, Virginia. There’s all these places in the world where you think, ‘this isn’t so bad, but this isn’t where I want to live for the rest of my life.’ I really missed the Bay Area,” he said.
After moving back to California, he did consulting work and continued to make mead on the side. It was in Mendocino that Dan discovered that his mead could take on a whole host of new flavors and nuances based on the quality of the local honey. Rather than just using drums of commercial processed honey from the grocery store like he had in Virginia, he started using artisanal honey for his brews.
“There’s lots and lots of wildflowers up there,” he said.
“I grew up in the Midwest where honey comes in those little bears and it’s really processed and it’s just basically sticky sugar. There’s nothing all that exciting about it. And I never understood why people really liked honey because that’s all I’d ever had…Then I get up there to Mendocino and start to get like blackberry honey and all these different varietals and it was like ‘wow, this really makes a difference.’ So I continued to make mead there,” he said.
While he was living in Mendocino, he got a job offer from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) to teach a joint venture between mechanical engineering and theatre in the engineering department, which took him to Las Vegas for a few years. “We called it entertainment engineering and design. The idea was to train engineers to work with people like Cirque du Soleil and those companies doing big shows.”
When his current girlfriend, who he met at UNLV, got into grad school at Berkeley in 2010, he came back to the Bay Area once again. Having moved without a job, Dan began doing some consulting work for area businesses and became involved in some tech start-up projects. Then an old friend from Richmond, a beer maker named Brad Mortenson contacted Dan and inquired whether he was still making mead. Brad encouraged Dan to think about doing something with the mead he was making because he felt it was better than the other mead he’d tried on the market.
“I started working with some start ups…and I started seeing this start-up mentality. I’d been doing this kind of thing for a year, living off my savings and these were all stealth mode start-ups where there wasn’t any funding and they were trying to prove concepts and then go find funding, and I was thinking, if I’m going to do something, if I’m going to do this and devote my savings and my time to something, none of these projects do it for me. None of them were the kind of thing that made me want to get up early and get dirty and that kind of thing. And it was just about then that I’d talked to Brad and he’d said, ‘you should do this mead,’ so it was just kind of like a very synchronicitous kind of thing that happened. People ask me how did I get started doing it here [the Bay Area], and it was because no one said it was a bad idea.”
Dan started to investigate the possibility of starting a mead brewing business. And no one he spoke to along the way was the least bit discouraging. In fact, what he heard from people was completely the opposite—there wasn’t anyone he encountered that thought he couldn’t do it or make a living from it, particularly in the Bay Area. From wine makers to brewers, it made sense.
“I didn’t realize. I had batches of mead going for 16 years. It was something I did all the time, no matter what. It was my relief, it was my whatever. It wasn’t like I did it 24 hours a day or something, but it was always there. So all of these things came together,” Dan said.
Then Dan began looking into zoning requirements and spaces where he could brew his mead on a commercial scale. After looking into space in both Oakland and Berkeley and talking to the zoning offices, a woman at the Berkeley zoning office suggested he speak to the owners of Urbano Cellars about requirements because they had just gone through the process to open their winery and tasting room off 4th Street in Berkeley.
Meeting with Urbano Cellars owners Bob Rawson and Fred Dick turned out to be a serendipitous thing. Dan started working with them, helping with the crush of 2012, and then Fred suggested Dan rent space from them at their facility to make his mead.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s very common in the wine industry. You have a winery, and then Urbano rents space to Two Mile and a bunch of other small wineries…because that way you don’t have to buy a $30,000 press, which is expensive,” he said.
“I actually emailed him the next day and said ‘Fred, I’m going to give you an out because I know we were drinking when you offered me that opportunity. I just want to make sure you’re OK with this,’ and he said ‘No, we don’t have problem.’ He and Bob had discussed it. We’re very sympatico kinds of guys. They make good wine, they’re close to where I live, we work together well, which is another big thing,” he said.
To partner with him in the venture, Dan recruited Paul O’Leary, someone who he’d worked with on some of the start-up projects he’d been involved in. Although Dan works full time at Mead Kitchen, Paul has a day job and helps with the business side of things.
“Everything just fell together,” he said.
They laid down their first batch of mead in January 2013, Dan said, but weren’t able to officially open their doors until October of that year because it took that long to get their licensing approved. This was due in part because mead recipes must be approved by the government in order to get a license to make it for sale, and because the government has a very specific definition of what mead can be. Even though Dan and Paul have both a tart cherry and orange ginger flavored mead, legally mead can only be made from honey, water, yeast and a small amount of hops. So their flavored meads have to officially be called “wine flavored with honey.” They plan to add other fruit-based flavors, such as mango and grape, at a later date.
“The hard part is finding out all of this information,” Dan said. “Because it’s not always obvious. You just learn. And it’s why people hire compliance officers.”
And their first batch was almost ruined. Because Dan started to brew it in January, they had to contend with weather in the warehouse. Unlike this year where January was unseasonably warm, it got cold, which caused the yeast in Dan’s fermeting kettles to start going dormant. Worried that the venture was going to fail before it could even get off the ground, he panicked, unsure of what to do. Then Fred from Urbano suggested he go out and get electric blankets to warm up the tank to keep the yeast alive. “Would that work?” Dan recalled asking. “’I don’t know,” Fred said, “but it’s worth a try.’”
“So I went to Bed, Bath and Beyond and got myself a twin-sized electric blanket and one of those space blankets at REI, you know those reflective blankets? And I wrapped that fermenter with the electric blanket, and I put the space blanket on the other side and duct taped it all together and had some bungee cords all around. Heat transfer, right there! It got right up to temperature and started bubbling away.”
Because of how mead is classified and licensed by the government and the state, Dan and Paul can distribute their product themselves, which makes the whole process a lot easier, Dan says. In addition to selling out of the tasting room at Urbano Cellars, they currently have product at a number of restaurants and bars in the East Bay (Lanesplitter Pizza, Albany Taproom, East Bay Spice Company, Jupiter) and also in San Francisco (ICHI Sushi and Zeitgeist). He ages in steel barrels but is considering starting to use oak barrels. Dan currently sources honey for his mead from the Bay Area Bee Company in Vallejo and from Bee Healthy Honey Shop in Oakland. The next step for the company is to try to get investors, Dan said.
Although he didn’t set out to have a career in the brewing business, but now Dan feels like he’s finally found something that he really enjoys and resonates with who he is. Even though he did enjoy his engineering work, neither corporate environments nor academia really fit for him, he says.
“Especially coming from the Midwest you have this whole mentality of ‘I’m going to work hard now and I’ll reap the benefits later.’ But when is later gonna come, right?”
For many people, the thought of being an entrepreneur, of starting a business making something you love to make or getting spiritual fulfillment from your job is a new thing, Dan says.
“I look at the last 20 years and think a lot of the dot com – the tech stuff, the geekiness of it – it’s this change in attitude that’s happened in the last 20 or 30 years, that you don’t have to work for The Man all your life, you know. My dad worked for the Man all his life and most people older than us did. The idea of being an entrepreneur was not common, as much as people might think of it. It was not a common thing, and the vast majority of people in the United States grew up went to high school, got married or maybe went to college and then you got a job and got married and you stayed with that company all your life and you did stuff that was not necessarily fulfilling. There was not spiritual fulfillment in what you were doing.
And for me, I’m making something that makes people happy. They enjoy drinking it, and I enjoy making it so they can drink it. That’s the core of it when I wake up at 3:30 in the morning, and I’m staring at the ceiling going ‘did you really blow all of your savings on this project?’”
Dan also says that the Bay Area has been an ideal place to begin a craft beverage business. From the support and positive feedback he’s gotten from the community to the interest people have in artisanal products and even the availability of top-notch ingredients, he believes this place, in addition to the skill he’s developed in making mead for 16 years, have led him to this venture.
“Everybody has been supportive. This was just a harebrained scheme, and I’ve had so many harebrained schemes in my life. And people have just been supportive,” Dan said.
“I just got lucky. I say it. I say it again and again. If anyone along the process had said, ‘that’s a dumb idea’ I probably would have gotten scared off. But everyone said, ‘that’s very doable,’ starting with Brad and even my girlfriend. She’s so supportive of it. She’s happy that I’m doing something that I really enjoy. And Bob and Fred have been supportive…the scary part was making five gallons into 200 gallons. And even with that, these guys were around. Having people around at every step of the way when I’ve come to some hurdle that could have been problematic – where to source the barrels, where to source the fermenters, where to source the fruit – it’s like there’s a guardian angel – somebody shows up. There’s just this positive juju in the Bay Area.”
What drew you to the beverage industry?
[Laughs] I flippantly tell people it was because I’m an alcoholic and all my friends were alcoholics so I started brewing at home and then it just kept going. As your friends find out that you have kegs of beer in the house, they start coming over more and more, so you have to brew more and more.
But really I got back here and I didn’t have a job. So, it was something I could do. And it was something, as I’ve said, everything seemed to push me in this direction. Everyone said ‘you should try this, you should try doing this.’
The market’s not saturated. It’s up and coming. It’s gonna to get bigger, just like kombucha or something like that. There are bars that have kombucha on tap now, which is crazy.
But it’s tasty, I like it. The first thing is that I like it. I like my product. My Orange Ginger is my favorite, it’s one of my favorite drinks of all time. I like it, so it allows me the confidence to put myself out there in that realm. I’m a better mead maker than I am a brewer. And the market’s saturated in that area, right?
Where does your inspiration come from?
I’m just happier doing this than just about anything else I’ve ever done in my life. Even where there are times when I wake up in the middle of the night, 3 or 4 in the morning, and stare at the ceiling and go ‘Are you making the biggest mistake? Was this a dumb idea?’ But at the end of the day, it’s still I really enjoy it. And there’s parts of it I don’t enjoy, I don’t enjoy bookkeeping and all that, but making a big batch of mead and being able to share it with people really makes me happy.
And I’ve got people who go ‘oh my god, this is the greatest stuff I’ve ever had in my life,’ and that makes me feel good. I enjoy that.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I think the best piece of advice was what Elissa [Hambrecht of Belvedere Wines] said about figuring out how to get rid of it. That it’s easier to make than get rid of and figuring out how you’re actually going to sell it.
My advice for anybody else who wants to try something like this? The first place, you’ve got to really love doing it because there’s nothing romantic about it. It’s dirty. It’s a mess, all of this stuff. Everybody thinks it’s going to be romantic being a wine maker or beer maker or distiller. It’s a lot of hard work. But if you like it, you like it. And I think that it’s important to always use really high quality ingredients. One of the reason our stuff works, our products, all our components are top-notch. We use really good honey, and we use really good fruit, we’re not cutting corners on anything at this point. Because it’s a reflection of me. Anybody who does it—if you don’t have that attitude about it, then you’re probably in the wrong business. Yeah, you’re in the wrong business.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
Getting rid of it. Contrary to what a lot of people think, I’m not this huge extrovert. And it’s very difficult for me—I don’t see myself as a natural salesman. So it can be very difficult for me to walk into a bar and say ‘hey, try this!’ It’s a huge opportunity for rejection, right? So I have to psyche myself up any time I’m going to approach a new client or do an event where I’ve gotta be out there and selling, giving away product for something. To me, that’s the hardest part. I would much rather be sitting here in the winery just making stuff and have somebody to do all that for me, but I don’t right now, so that’s the joys of being a small start up when you don’t have money to hire your sales and marketing staff.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I have control over when I come in to work. It’s a funny thing, you know, people talk about this—you’re your own boss and I don’t have anyone yelling at me about stuff. I’m yelling at me for the stuff I’m not getting done. I only have myself—I’m to blame for it. If it doesn’t work out, I’m to blame. If it does work out, I’m also responsible.
What’s your favorite flavor of mead that you’re making?
The Orange Ginger.
There’s tons—the Bay Area is full of people who are doing creative things. That’s one of the best things about the Bay Area is all this mad creative juju, positive energy that’s around here. I really think what Bob and Fred here at Urbano Cellars, what they’re doing, is really great. They’re making really nice wine, good bang for a buck. And it’s the same thing as with me, they’re older dudes who are doing something that they’re really passionate about. I met some guys a couple weeks ago—it’s this donut company based out of San Francisco down in the Mission. They make these donuts out of yams or something like that and it’s so good. We were at this event a couple weeks ago and it was so delicious and they just kept coming by and giving us these trays of donuts with sugar glaze on them. They were so good! Those are the ones that stand out in my head right now.
And like I said, there’s so many people around here—the Bay Area’s conducive to taking a chance to do something that they really enjoy and making a business out of it and not just working for The Man and slowly dying.
If you had to chose your last meal or last drink, what would it be?
Well, I know what my last meal would be. There was a little Italian restaurant in Richmond, VA called Mama Zu’s and they made the best rack of lamb I have ever had on the planet. Well, outside of what my girlfriend makes. So rack of lamb would be my final meal. It was so good—with white beans and ham and grilled brocoletti and little pastas and cream sauce. And a bottle of Barbera.
Favorite Bay Area resto/chef/brewer, etc?
I don’t know a ton of chefs. If it were based on where I eat the most, it would probably be Lanesplitter’s Pizza that I go to and say, ‘oh, let’s go there.’ It would be Lanesplitter’s followed by the burgers at Albany Tap Room, followed by the Korean at Bowl’d on Solano Ave.
Photos courtesy of Mead Kitchen.