There’s an old, pink bicycle propped up against a high table in the tasting room of Charm City Meadworks. It’s a dingy contraption, gunky and nicked up, and at the moment, its resting place is less than ideal.
The single-track vehicle is parked under a mural depicting – amongst other things – one glass snifter, two oak barrels, three puffy beehives equipped with tap handles, and about half of the meadery’s logo: a large bee atop a honeycomb. The lightly psychedelic work is arguably the room’s centerpiece, so it seems like as good a backdrop as any for a portrait of Charm City Meadworks’ co-founders, Andrew Geffken and James Boicourt.
The pink bicycle must go.
Rather than simply roll it elsewhere, though, Geffken suggests launching it into the branches of a tree outside the meadery – and he’s only half kidding.
“This is one of my employee’s bikes, and he refuses to lock it, so if we’re somewhere in public, he literally throws it up in a tree,” the former consultant explains. “His assumption is that he’s the only person who cares enough about this bike to climb a tree to get it. It is absolutely ridiculous.”
Ridiculous, sure, but there’s no denying the logic of the approach. One might even call it inventive.
“That’s why we hired him,” Geffken kids. “I like that kind of creative thinking.”
In 2014, Geffken and Boicourt, two longtime friends, embarked on their own journey of creative thinking: opening a meadery in Baltimore. To many in the area’s alcohol industry, it was an idea that probably looked as ridiculous as a guy throwing his bike into a tree. No one in Maryland had opened a business dedicated solely to the production of mead, an ancient honey wine that results from the fermentation of water, yeast, and honey.
Three years later, Charm City Meadworks has eight employees, operates a 7,500-square-foot facility in the heart of Johnston Square, and is set to open a new tasting room within that space this weekend.
“Meadworks has grown so far beyond what we thought it would be,” Geffken says. “When we started, we said, ‘Let’s give it six months and see what happens.’ Now, I’m thinking about things like company culture.”
While the meadery has come a long way from 110-gallon plastic tanks and Baltimore’s “best garage to get drunk in,” that cautious “wait and see” mentality remains ingrained in the company. A bootstraps approach to building the business – both psychically and figuratively – has too.
So far, it’s worked out, but that doesn’t mean it’s come easy.
Throwing a bike into a tree is one thing; caring enough to climb up and get it is another.
For two-and-a-half years, Charm City Meadworks self-distributed its mead with two automobiles. One was a 1984 Toyota pick-up truck decorated with red and oranges flames across its hood. The other was a 2003 Kia hatchback – a gift from Geffken’s grandmother. That car lacked hubcaps. Geffken and Boicourt used to joke about which one would be the first to fall apart under the load of kegs and cans.
“This was – and continues to be – a budget operation,” says Geffken. “We wanted to bootstrap everything so we could fail quietly.”
In other words, even in its idealistic early days, Charm City Meadworks always recognized that opening a meadery was a significant risk, and its founders sought to insulate themselves from the reasonable possibility of failure.
“You only hear about the guy who maxes out his credit card, puts his house up, clears out his kid’s college fund, and is now worth ten million dollars,” Geffken continues. “You don’t hear about everyone else who does that, loses everything, and regrets the decision for the rest of their lives.”
Geffken and Boicourt met fifteen years ago on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the two worked in the boatyards of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. From there, it was Boicourt who developed dual interests in beekeeping and homebrewing, which naturally led to mead production. He carried that hobby to Baltimore when he moved to the city in 2010, keeping bees on the roof of his Federal Hill home.
“Meadworks is James’ dream more than mine,” Geffken admits. “He got me into mead, and I’m passionate about it, but he was the one that’s been talking about this for fifteen years.”
An alumnus of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, Geffken worked for a few prestigious D.C. consultancies out of graduate school before becoming the first hire at Cadeo, a boutique firm specializing in energy efficiency. (As his Charm City Meadworks bio notes, he can tell you the carbon footprint of a Skittle.)
“I helped get Cadeo going, and I liked being in the small business world,” the co-founder says. “I knew that I wanted to do my own small business, and I liked the idea of making something tangible, something real. I’d written a lot of long reports that nobody cared about or even read. I’m not really an ‘ideas guy,’ but I execute on them.”
Boicourt’s dream of a meadery presented them with one such tantalizing idea.
“There was nobody really doing this,” Geffken observes. “There was no one putting mead in cans. But we felt like there would be a market based on what we were seeing with craft beer – even spirits and cider, too. So, we wrote the business plan. It made sense. It was a weird thing of we think people want this, and they don’t know it.”
In early 2014, the two began laying the groundwork for Charm City Meadworks in their free time – and working unconventional schedules at their full-time jobs to maximize it. The plan was for the meadery to be sustainable enough for the duo to leave their jobs three years down the road.
By March, they were producing mead using four 110-gallon plastic tanks. (Unlike brewing, there is no “hot side” to mead production, so all that’s required is fermentation vessels.) They chose to set up shop in Baltimore’s industrial Curtis Bay neighborhood, in part because Boicourt was already renting space there, in part because of the opportunities presented by the city, more generally.
“From a brand and marketing standpoint, people identify with Baltimore,” Geffken explains. “Baltimore people love Charm City, their Baltimore stuff, the Raven, crabs, Natty Boh. Whereas D.C., where I was living, it was more transient. People didn’t really identify with D.C.; there wasn’t as much hometown pride. And the economics made a lot more sense up here. This is where we could find a tiny little warehouse and give it a shot, and not pay an arm and a leg for it.”
That tiny little warehouse space got more crowded when Charm City upgraded to three 10-barrel tanks – each one capable of holding 300 gallons of mead.
“We felt like we were totally legit,” Geffken remembers. “We couldn’t believe how ginormous those tanks were. But that’s when we started to get a little nervous about how small our space was.”
There was a certain charm to that space: the taproom in the middle of the production floor, surrounded by tanks and barrels. It was, again, a “total budget operation,” in Geffken’s words. Then Charm City sold off two of its 10-barrel tanks and bought 30-barrel vessels.
“We realized we really needed a new space,” he recalls. “We said, ‘We have employees. We’ve kind of proved this mead concept. We think it has legs. Let’s get up into the city so that we can have a spot, be more part of the neighborhood and less a destination.’”
By this point, Geffken and Boicourt had long since left their jobs to focus on the meadery. Instead of three years, it had taken six months. The company had started canning, too, which doubled its demand practically overnight. To facilitate the dissemination of its output, Charm City signed deals with distributors in Maryland and D.C. a little over a year ago. This summer, it expanded into Virginia with another.
“I never thought we’d get the meadery to the point where we would be on the radar of three Miller-Coors distributors and a Bud house,” Geffken says. “I was used to being the self-distro guy. It was like, ‘Oh great, the Premium truck has blocked half of 14th Street, so I can now park behind him and run in on my delivery.’ But it’s been fascinating and really cool to have access to all of the stuff that distributors can provide. Everyone says, ‘Oh you’re a small fish in a big pond. How do you get their focus? You’ll still have to sell a lot.’ And we do. We’ve always felt it’s important to tell the story of the brand ourselves. But we don’t have to deliver it, which is really nice, and I don’t have to chase checks. Because I can tell you the first guy to get screwed in any situation is the mead guy.”
It’s never easy being the mead guy.
The average person has no idea what mead is.
Or, if they do, there’s a good chance they associate it with a trip to the Renaissance faire or textbooks on ancient civilizations.
This gap in consumer knowledge is both an obstacle and an opportunity for Charm City.
“We get a lot of people who don’t know anything about mead, so we kind of sit here with them, and it’s like, ‘What do you usually drink? OK, then try this,’” Geffken says. “We’ve got 21 taps. That’s lot more mead options than you see anywhere else. In here, we can steer you and try to put our best foot forward.”
The co-founder is standing behind the bar in Charm City’s new tasting room, where an understated chalk board lists an array options, all divided between “draft” or “still.” The space itself isn’t entirely new to the business: Geffken and Boicourt have been producing mead here since March, and had originally lined up the property five months before that. However, a variety of unexpected landlord and permitting issues would push back taproom construction until late summer – a frustrating development not only because of the six-month loss of in-house sales, but because it denied Charm City the opportunity to interact with customers on its turf.
Beer drinkers are common patrons. If one of those customers tells Geffken they like IPAs, he’ll steer them towards Hops, Charm City’s dry-hopped mead. Or if they’re into sour ales, Basil Lemongrass has a slightly tart character.
“It’s about understanding where we crossover between certain beer styles,” says Geffken. “It’s not always a one-to-one correlation, but we’ve found that there are certain ones that people tend to line-up on.”
Both Hops and Basil Lemongrass are examples of Charm City’s “draft” offerings. These meads – four staples, plus seasonals and the occasional limited release – are all 6.9% ABV and carbonated. They’re light, refreshing, effervescent beverages, and the more modern of Charm City’s meads. They’re meant to appeal to beer and cider drinkers, and they come packaged in bright, slick aluminum cans to catch the eye of someone casually shopping booze, not unlike a colorful flower seeking to woo a pollinating bee.
“Our whole thing was that we saw people treating mead as a special occasion thing,” Geffken explains. “You went to the Ren faires once a year, and or you’d buy this really expensive bottle and wait to drink it with three or four friends. What we wanted to do was say, ‘Don’t think about it. You’re going to get your six-pack for the weekend – just grab one of these.’ What we’re trying to do is provide more of a gateway.”
“What Andrew is doing right now is really interesting,” 3 Stars Brewing CEO Mike McGarvey told me last year. “The mead that he’s producing is not your run-of-the-mill, 17% ABV mead that’s been fermented for a year and a half. That’s what a lot of people traditionally think of as mead. He’s going with something that’s more drinkable and accessible. You can drink many cans of his mead versus that one sipper of mead that older drinkers might be used to.”
Another way that Charm City has sought to reach beer drinkers is by collaborating with breweries like 3 Stars, as well as cideries like Graft, with whom it recently released the “hopped mochi cyser” Hivemind.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Charm City is turning its back on the traditional mead consumer. On the contrary, the meadery has sought to strike somewhat of a difficult balance.
“We’re trying to bring mead from the Ren faire and ‘Game of Thrones’ to the 21st century, but at the same time, we don’t want to alienate and offend our most knowledgeable customer base, which is the people going to the Ren faire, drinking these sweeter, higher-ABV meads,” Geffken says. “There are a lot of people out there that make those sweeter meads, and they’re phenomenally well done. We didn’t want to try to compete on that. A lot of those are much older, and we’re impatient. We like to have stuff just ready to go.”
While far from saccharine, Charm City’s “still” offerings are more likely to satisfy fans of traditional mead. These meads clock in at 12% ABV, come in 500mL bottles, and as you might guess from the name, they’re not carbonated. Like the “draft” meads, though, they come flavored with a range of botanicals like rosemary, strawberry and ginger, and cinnamon, or showcase different types of honey. These are the meads Geffken queues up for fans of fermented grape juice.
“We’re alright with white wine drinkers because meads look white wineish in color, and our Original Dry is very similar to a dry white,” he says. “It’s red wine drinkers that are tough; that’s our hardest demographic right now. We just don’t have anything for those people that compare to a big, dry red. But we’re working on it. We’re playing around with some fruits.”
Ultimately, because mead lacks a sizable, built-in audience, the hope is that it can appeal a little to everyone.
“There isn’t a very specific, defined drinker for mead,” Geffken continues. “We want to be able to hit beer and cider drinkers with carbonated ones, and the wine people with the still ones.”
There’s also a certain allure to the unknown.
“Our biggest challenge is the lack of knowledge, but we love that,” the co-founder says. “I’d much rather fight that than be stuck thinking, ‘How do I differentiate myself in a very crowded market?’ We’re starting to see that a little bit with breweries and the amount of beer that’s out there. Fortunately, with mead, it’s really just us in. We can get a lot of meetings with buyers just because they’re curious. They’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about this, so I’ll let them come by and sample me on something. I may not like it, but I have to try it.'”
In my half dozen or so interactions with Andrew Geffken over the past year, the Charm City co-founder has never ceased to be “on.”
His focus simply doesn’t wane. In conversation, he always waits for you to finish expressing your thoughts, and if something pressing pops up to interrupt him, he’ll return exactly to what he was saying ten minutes later. His eyes are wide and alert, as if he’s perpetually just consumed his third cup of coffee.
If you owned a meadery, this is precisely the type of person you’d want as your Head of Experiments & Sales, particularly when it comes to the former responsibility. As the one charged with finding and testing ingredients that might go into the next Charm City mead, Geffken is constantly on the hunt for inspiration. And given the versatility of the mead canvas – as evidenced by Charm City offerings like Orange Lavender, Raspberry Coconut, and Retire by the Fire, a winter mead with vanilla, cocoa nibs, and clove – the possibilities are seemingly endless
“I’m always looking, because you have to be, and because that’s part of the fun,” he says. “My wife always gets annoyed when we go out and I spend, like, five minutes thinking about what beer I should have, or when I order a beer that’s really out there. She’ll be like, ‘You’re not going to like that. That’s not the kind of beer you drink.’ But it’s like, ‘I’ve never had something like this, and I have to try it. I have to see what is happening here.’”
That curiosity extends well beyond beer. In fact, Geffken says it has to: He doesn’t view Charm City’s mission as replicating what’s already happening in that sector.
“Right now, I’m paying attention to a lot of nonalcoholic trends,” he continues. “I’m looking at what’s happening in seltzer and sodas. There are now honey water drinks out there. I’m looking at ice cream flavors. It’s like, ‘What are some broader trends that we’re seeing? What are other people doing that’s really interesting?’ If we can take something that people are already excited about, and then make it alcoholic, they get even more excited about it.”
Geffken says one of his projects for the winter is developing a lower-ABV mead, something akin to a summery gose or the light lagers he’s been drinking lately. (He and Boicourt are sipping cans of UNION Craft’s Skipjack Pilsner when I show up at the meadery.) The trick will be finding the right yeast strain – one that doesn’t produce a “watery” mead at low alcohol levels. Given that it took Geffken four months of single-hop experimentation to find right varietals for Charm City’s Hops, this process could take a while.
“Our meads are already light,” he says. “I don’t want it to force it to be lower ABV for the sake of being lower ABV. One of the cool things about what brewers are doing with sours is that they’re low ABV but still really complex and flavorful.”
Geffken isn’t alone in his exploration. He credits the creation of the last three Charm City limited releases to other employees, and he’s sought to empower them in recipe development. He’ll need their help as Charm City seeks to produce more and more novel flavors.
“The market is always saying, ‘What’s new? Oh, I had that last week. What else do you got?’” Geffken says. “So, we’re moving away from seasonals to just doing limited releases.”
At Charm City’s old space, Geffken oversaw Project X, a small-batch and taproom-exclusive program that allowed the meadery to experiment with different yeast strains, types of honey, and botanicals. Each Project X creation was just one sixtel keg – or 5.2 gallons – and once that sixtel kicked, it was history.
Of course, not every Project X offering was a roaring success.
“Some of those were pretty bad,” Geffken admits with a chuckle. “A couple of them I wouldn’t even put on. There’d be this experience on a Saturday where everyone would be like, ‘Oh that’s so cool, the brewer-owner is tapping it.’ And then I’d try it and be like, ‘Nope, no one else is trying this keg. We are dumping this immediately.'”
After six months without a functioning tasting room, Geffken is anxious to get the successor of Project X up and running. The meadery will soon be installing a few two-barrel tanks, which will be the bedrock of the program.
“Usually everyone is excited to get bigger and bigger tanks, but we’re about to really start pushing our experimental program,” says the co-founder, who notes these small batches will leave the facility on occasion. “Two-barrels gives us a little bit but not too much. If it was just a one-barrel tank, we’d blow through that in a weekend.”
“A lot of what we have to figure out is what is our niche?” he continues. “We want to explore different flavor profiles. We want to ask, ‘What are people not doing that I can be doing?’”
Visitors to Charm City Meadworks will find a space big and bright and open. Occupying 15% of a larger 50,000-square-foot warehouse – formerly a postal building – it has high ceilings and white walls. It’s peppily industrial, with the mead-making process on display.
“It was important for me when you came in here that you see the tanks and stuff,” Geffken says. “I want you to feel like you’re in a brewery. I want to give you the shock and awe of seeing those totes that hold our honey.”
The meadery is indeed a tote aficionado’s delight. The large plastic cubes decorate the space like a well-occupied Tetris screen. A few of these steel-encased tanks hold honey, but most are filled with various type of mead in various stages of aging.
Roughly 90% of Charm City’s honey comes from thousands of hives located on a farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The meadery’s founders initially had hoped to produce their own honey, but such ambitions were not long for the world.
“We were like, ‘This is going to be so cool. We’re going to have a bunch of beehives and make our own estate honey,’” Geffken recalls. “Then we quickly realized how many hives we’d need to keep. But we still keep bees over on the Eastern Shore, and we still go to the beekeeper meetings. We’re way more popular now that we’re the mead guys instead of just another beekeeper.”
For smaller-batch meads, Charm City works with local producers of “artisanal” honeys, but the Pennsylvania farm provides the meadery with a consistent blend of wildflower honey for its core offerings. Geffken estimates there are maybe six or so honey producers in the country capable of satisfying such needs.
“I can pick up the phone and say, ‘I want five 10,000-pound totes of honey,’ and they just say, ‘Cool,’” Geffken says. “They don’t even charge for shipping. They just send it down on their own truck.”
Honey is the most expressive component of a mead. Like wine grapes, it reflects the terroir of where it was produced. Geffken hopes to showcase such subtleties with limited-run single-honey meads. Along those lines, Charm City recently procured 400 points of Baltimore city honey to make a properly Baltimore mead. But Geffken seems sensitive to the potential criticism that Charm City doesn’t work with more local honey, something he brings up unprovoked.
“The local beekeepers are really better off selling their honey in a tiny Mason jar at the farmers market,” he shares. “Brewers can get local grain at a reasonable price because you don’t see people going to the farmers market to buy their bags of grain. With honey, it’s a lot more expensive, and I think that’s wonderful because it makes a lot more smaller operations viable.”
The process of producing mead – “from honey tote to drinking it,” in Geffken’s words – lasts three to six months. It starts with honey, water, and yeast fermenting in one of Charm City’s five 30-barrel tanks. If the meadery is producing a 12% “still” offering, it uses more honey, thus introducing more sugars to be converted to alcohol. After two weeks of primary fermentation, the burgeoning mead is lightly filtered and split between totes and oak barrels.
“Totes are great for keeping it bright, light, floral, and extenuating the honey character,” Geffken explains. “Barrels are great for depth, complexity, a little bit of that oak and smokiness, but they do damp down on the honey component a little bit.”
After several months in those vessels, it’s a matter of blending, and adding any fruits, herbs, or other botanicals to this “base” mead.
“We’ve been experimenting with adding fruit earlier on, but we generally like to keep it fresher and brighter,” Geffken says. “For instance, with Basil Lemongrass, if our product is going to be three-to-six months old and we put basil in at the beginning, it’s going to be muddy and gross by the end.”
Depending on the final product, Charm City may also add more honey to the mead – a technique called “back sweetening” that it has learned to embrace.
“We’ve gotten a lot better about chasing balance,” explains Geffken. “When we started, we’d make everything very dry. Some people liked that, some people didn’t. Now, we’ve moved towards instead of everything being bone dry, it’s a couple bone dry, some off-dry, one semi-sweet. We still don’t verge to the full-on sweet, though. Our challenge is that people think because mead is made with honey, it has to be sweet. Well, no, it doesn’t have to be.”
The last step is a second, sterile filtration. Hazy, unfiltered liquids may be all the rage in beer, and filtering can lessen a mead’s body, but a yeasty product can make for an unstable product when stored improperly.
“We were on the wrong side of that trend,” Geffken admits. “For us, it’s important to create a shelf-stable bottle at room temperature because the first thing to come out of a bar’s cooler or keg box is the mead. We know this. We don’t totally understand why, because mead’s one of your more expensive products, but our thing was that we needed to make it so that no matter how you treat this, it’s going to be fine. And we recognize that when people bring on mead, they’re taking a chance on us, so we felt to an obligation to make sure the product is good.”
The length of the overall process is a reason why a four-pack of Charm City Meadworks will cost a consumer $11 or $12 for a four-pack. Compared to standard pale ale’s four-week turnaround, three months is a while. Still, in the world of mead, it’s on the shorter end of the spectrum.
“As meads go, that’s almost offensively young,” the co-founder says. “I would love to get it up more in the nine-to-twelve-month range. We’re three years old now, we could have had a three-year-old mead, and we said we would. Our oldest mead is about six months old. We just never held any back. We’re starting to now.”
It’s the first Monday in November that I visit Charm City Meadworks. In less than 12 days, the meadery will throw a grand opening party for the tasting room. There are still signs to hang. There’s brick dust to clean. The fire alarm system needs to be inspected. James Boicourt sounds tired, but he’s not stressed about what remains to be done.
“Oh, I feel totally confident,” he tells me, sitting at the bar with his laptop, working through an endless pile of e-mails. “We’ve come so far, and we’re finally here now, which is satisfying.”
Charm City handled much of the build-out for the new space. Some things, like a slightly sloped production floor that leads spilled or soapy water towards a drain, required a contractor, but the meadery attained its own contractor’s license for the rest. Boicourt brought experience in project management to Charm City, and beyond that, he says he’s built things for as long as he can remember. That’s the kind of person who’s not bad to have around when you need to, say, put in a new sewage pipe.
Just as important – if not more so – than the inside of the space is where it’s located. Less than a ten-minute walk from Baltimore’s Penn Station and adjacent to the Mount Vernon neighborhood, Charm City’s East Biddle Street tasting room is close to the action.
“Our old neighborhood on the south side was just chemical plants, waste management, and us,” Geffken says. “Now, we’re right here in the middle of everything, with a 7500-square-foot space. There’s going to be a lot of really cool stuff happening in Baltimore because the infrastructure and the buildings are here. It’s not just row homes on row homes on row homes. We’re excited to be a part of it.”
The co-founder is standing near pallet upon pallet of Charm City four-packs. All in all, there are some 750 cases encased in shrink wrap, and they’ll all be spread across Maryland tomorrow. Between the Terrapin State, D.C., and Virginia, the meadery tallies just over 300 accounts at this point. That number will climb when Charm City expands into Georgia in December. Geffken says he’s eying the Philadelphia and New York City markets, too.
“Next month, I’m going to have to fly to a market that we’re sold in, which is crazy,” the co-founder reflects. “The timing for Meadworks was really good: People got really into craft beer, and then they started thinking, ‘What else is out there?’”
Geffken hopes to use the space for “more things than showing up and drinking mead.” He wants to expand tours and include honey tastings. He’d like to host a beekeeper day and help others process their excess supers. One Charm City’s employee is already organizing a Dungeons & Dragons night on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month. Geffken also wants to partner with breweries on monthly events. (Due to the nature of its license, Charm City is unable to sell other people’s products without a special permit.)
In addition to those events, the meadery will be open from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, and 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sundays, but if you’re reading this a few months down the line, you might want to check the website.
“The hours are very likely to change – and hopefully expand – soon,” Geffken says. “We just don’t know how many people want to show up to a mead taproom.”
As with everything else, Charm City Meadworks is cautiously optimistic, but if the past three years have proven anything, the answer is probably “plenty.”