Meet & Eat: Nathaniel and Thatcher Martin, Manhattan Meadery

Meet and Eat: NY

Conversations with chefs and food personalities in New York City.

"I would love it if Stephen Colbert actually faux-bashed our product. I would take it as a big compliment."

20090304manhattanmead.jpgI don't know about you, but when I think of mead, the only thing that comes to mind is Ye Olde Days. The Martin brothers, Nathaniel and Thatcher, are aiming to change that, and to bring mead into the modern age and to the urban masses. But first--what is mead, exactly? Let's allow the gentlemen to educate us.

Name: Nathaniel and Thatcher Martin
Occupation: Meadmasters, Manhattan Meadery
URL: manhattanmeadery.com

How did you get into the mead business? Nathaniel: I've been brewing beer and making wine for about ten years. I've always been the DIY type. Brewing beer and making wine started off as a hobby but today I have kegs, brewing kettles, fermenters, malt bins, CO2 tanks, wine corkers, and all sorts of other equipment. I love experimenting with different ingredients and fermentables and began brewing beer with honey and eventually mead.

Thatcher: I've always been a big fan of home-brewed beer and homemade wine, especially mead. Some of the stuff we were making was so great that we decided that we needed to share it with others.

What are some of the barriers to urban winemaking? Thatcher: The biggest barrier to winemaking in New York City is finding a suitable production facility at a reasonable cost. We make our mead on a small scale and sell to select stores and restaurants, so we have been able to make it work. We like making it in small batches because it allows us to focus on quality over quantity.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming legislation to legalize beekeeping in New York City? Will that increase your level of mead production? Nathaniel: We think it's great! A lot of people are disconnected from their food. In the past few years, many people have started to ask questions about where their food comes from. People are starting to grow tomatoes and herbs on their windowsills and shop at the farmers' market. I think beekeeping is a natural outgrowth of the slow food movement. As pollinators, bees are the cornerstone of our food supply. There is no better way to know your food than to know the bee that made it possible. I'd love to make some mead out of honey collected in New York City.

Since mead is not as popular now as it was, say, in the Elizabethan days, can you give the Serious Eaters a primer on mead? What is it and how is it made? Nathaniel: Mead is one of the oldest fermented beverages on earth. Anthropologists believe that humans would collect honey (their only source of concentrated sugar), mix it with water and allow it to spontaneously ferment. Mead was a traditional wedding drink. The couple would be given enough honey wine to last for one month, known as a moon cycle or a honeymoon.

As agriculture expanded and populations grew, wild plants were domesticated and people turned to making alcohol from barley and grapes. Because it's easier to expand agricultural production than honey production, mead became less common. It remained an aristocratic drink well through the middle ages but with the advent of the industrial food production, mead just couldn't keep up.

Thatcher: Producing mead essentially entails mixing high quality honey with spring water until the sugar is at the appropriate level. From that point forward, we follow the traditional wine production process with a few important secret steps. One big difference between wine and mead is that honey is naturally resistant to wild yeasts and therefore we use minimal sulfides compared to regular wine. In fact, the product is not sulfited prior to fermentation like wine grapes are after crushing because of the natural bacterial resistance found in honey.

Your first product is Brooklyn Buzz--tell us more about that. Nathaniel: Our first vintage is a dry honey mead with about one-percent residual sugar. Many meads out there are sweet, but Thatcher and I found that dry meads are much more interesting. We also wanted to make it as approachable as possible for uninitiated mead drinkers. We even call it "honey wine" on the label. The result is similar in body to wine but you can smell and taste the floral aroma.

Thatcher: Depending on your tastes you can have Brooklyn Buzz with pasta or seafood, or as a dessert wine. Perilla restaurant is pairing it with cheese on their dessert menu.

Where do you get the honey that is used to make your mead? Thatcher: All of the honey for our mead comes from the Finger Lakes region of New York. The beekeeper sells his honey at the Greenmarket in Union Square as well. It is high quality seasonal honey. Like wine grapes, honey is weather and seasonal dependent. The flavor and color of the honey is determined by the flowers that the bees visit. Therefore, honey collected in the spring will taste very different from honey collected in the fall. The same goes for honey from bees in an apple orchard compared to honey from bees in a blueberry field. There are many different kinds of honey, and they're all very unique. It takes about 2.6 million stops on flowers for bees to collect enough pollen to make one bottle of our mead.

Where do you make your mead? Thatcher: As I mentioned, producing wine in the city is a big challenge for the little guy. Our first vintage was produced about 25 miles north of the city. We're currently looking for affordable warehouse space in Brooklyn for our second vintage.

Where can serious eaters find it?

  • Astor Wine & Spirits: 399 Lafayette Street, New York NY 10003 (map)
  • Chelsea Wine Vault: 75 9th Avenue, New York 10011 (map)
  • Perilla Restaurant: 9 Jones Street, New York NY 10014 (map)
  • Chambers Street Wine and Liquors: 160 Chambers Street, New York NY 10007 (map)
  • Abigail Cafe and Wine Bar: 807 Classon Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11238 (map)
  • Camaje Restaurant: 85 Macdougal Street, New York NY 10012 (map)
  • Spuyten Duyvil: 359 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11211 (map)
  • Big Nose, Full Body Wine Shop: 382 7th Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11215 (map)

Any response to some of the mead-doubters out there? Thatcher: Ha, funny that you saw that. It's very Colbert-esque. I read this as a tongue-in-cheek joke. Partially because it was written about six months before we even released our vintage but also because of its Colbert Report faux-mocking style. I would love it if Stephen Colbert actually faux-bashed our product. I would take it as a big compliment.

Nathaniel: In any event, Thatcher and I are doing this to expose people to something different and unique. The goal isn't to make a mainstream beverage available at every corner liquor store. The goal is to produce something local and sustainable. Some people are going to like it and some people aren't. We're okay with that. We're doing this for people looking for something they've never tried before. We're not making this for people who are looking for the same old thing.

When you're not drinking mead, where do you like to drink in the city? What's your favorite non-mead beverage? Nathaniel: I love beer. I still brew my own beer in my backyard and have a draft tower on my sink and kegs under my counter. So my apartment is my favorable place to grab a beer in the city. Other than that I love Spitzers, Beer Table and Spuyten Duyvil.

Thatcher: Blind Tiger has an incredible number of great beers. I also love Barrow Street Ale House.

Best pizza in the city? Nathaniel: Touristy yes, but Lombardi's has great pizza. Thatcher: Grimaldi's in Brooklyn.

Favorite burger? Thatcher: JG Melon or Rare. Nathaniel: The Spotted Pig.

Favorite bagel? Nathaniel: Nussbaum and Wu has excellent bagels. Thatcher: H&H.

Best late-night eats? Nathaniel: Greasy pizza from a pizza place you wouldn't normally go to during the day. Thatcher: Pizza bites. They are amazing.

Undiscovered gem? Nathaniel: Canyon Road on the Upper East Side. It's a trek to 1st Avenue, but they have great Mexican food. Thatcher: The raw bar at Fish. You can't beat 6 oysters and a PBR for $8.

Guilty pleasures? Nathaniel: Peppermint ice cream. Thatcher: Cannolis.

Food you won't eat? Nathaniel: I'll eat almost anything but I won't eat sweetbreads. I was fooled once. They are not actually bread. Thatcher: Vienna sausages. They are gross.

Most memorable New York City meal? Nathaniel: I do the New York City Triathlon every year and we always go to Tony's di Napoli the night before for some carbo loading. It has become a tradition. Thatcher: A Nathan's hot dog in 2007 before Joey Chestnut brought the Mustard Belt back to the U.S. It was one of the greatest moments in sport that I have witnessed live.

Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? Nathaniel: That would be my girlfriend and resident foodie Kira. I love to cook and she loves to eat out. She has quite a taste in restaurants. Thatcher: My fiancée Sarah. She loves to eat.

What's the best recommendation these ladies have given you? Nathaniel: It's not in the city, but we love American Flatbread in Waitsfield, Vermont. They take the slow food mantra to a new level. The food is incredible. Thatcher: The Little Owl in the West Village. The sliders are legit.