Ken Schramm: A Friend With Mead is a Friend Indeed

EXTERIORWalk through the door of Schramm’s Mead and you’ll likely encounter two kinds of individual: Those who have no idea what mead is and those who know who the American Homebrewers Association named 1984’s ‘Meadmaker of the Year’.

I’m guessing that the former category includes most of the walk-in trade visiting the comfy, street side meadery on W. 9 Mile in Ferndale, MI, and I’m confident that the latter is restricted to a single dude, Ken Schramm.

Schramm, who has operated the place since 2013, learned to master the art of turning ambrosia (honey) into alcoholic ambrosia (mead) from Bill Pfeiffer, considered by many to be the the best meadmaker (as well as the best home brewer) the state of Michigan has ever produced.

For the record, Pfeiffer passed in early May, 2000—just as the bees were beginning to stir in their hives.

Ken Schramm in his native habitat

Ken Schramm in his native habitat

Although finding the majesty behind meadmaking took decades, Ken Schramm discovered the groundwork techniques when his brother bought him a book about basement brewing in the 1980s.  At the time, his career path was in television—he was a production supervisor for the Pistons for many years, and in fact, a nice chunk of our interview involved a primer course in why Detroit is home to an industry-envied gang of sports producers whose talents often outstrip the teams they’re filming.

These twin passions may seem random, but in fact, both require a certain meticulous mindset.  Those who have it know it and may make Emmy-winning television and kick-ass mead, while those who don’t often mock it as overtly anal and requiring an eyeroll-level of detail-sweating.  I’m in the latter category; and, in consequence, I’m not sure which end of a camera you’re supposed to look through while my homemade mead sucks: And I’ve been keeping bees in the backyard for a generation.

Fair to say that in the hour I spent with Ken Schramm I learned a little about video production and a whole lot about what’s been going wrong with my mead.

The Good, The Bad and The Rip-off

graduateHere’s how it happened:

Ken Schramm draped an avuncular arm over my shoulder and took me for a stroll by the pool, saying, “Chris, Chris, I want to say one word to you.  Just one word:  Nitrogen.”

It was a lot like ‘The Graduate’, only without the sex.

It turns out that if you intend to make decent wine out of honey,  it has a different bucket list needs than grapes, and the primary thing you have to do is boost the nitrogen level.  Without it, the all-important primary fermentation results in stressed yeast, and some of the undesirable flavors produced (and evident in my mead) are burnt rubber and rubbing alcohol.

The simple addition of Diammonium Phosphate in this critical, opening volley of meadmaking takes care of that.

As referenced in the section heading, my mead is bad, but since I’m not licensed to sell it, no harm, no foul.  No rip-off; mine is merely a learning curve.

I will, however—with malice aforethought—contrast my tasting of Ken Schramm’s meads, which are intrinsically, objectively and immediately delicious, with a very bad experience I recently had with another local product.

mcbwThis one suckered me with the back-story:

Motor City Brewing Works claims they discovered a barrel of mead they’d forgotten about, which had been been aging like a dusty cask of Amontillado for lo, these seven year.  They bottled it in 5 oz. portions, one of which I purchased at a local beer store, quite intrigued and prepared to learn what honey wine does when, like Fortunato’s bones, in pace it requiescats.

What I paid ten bucks for was a mouthful of stank, totally oxidized, and not in a stable, vintage Amontillado sort of way.

Now, I get the whole caveat emptor concept, and my concern is not for my sawbuck, but for yours: If this is the first experience you have with mead, it will likely be your last.

I love this logo. Pun central.  Look closely and you'll see Ken's bar bee.

I love this logo. Pun central. Look closely and you’ll see Ken’s bar bee.

Schramm’s Mead is the beacon on the horizon when most meads flounder in the sea of mediocrity like mine, or are sucked into a maelstrom of unintended pollution like MCBW’s.

Ken understands this—and has, in fact, invested a huge portion of his nest egg—into doing it the right way.

The mead mantra, as it is in all things consumable, is that your end product is never better than the ingredients that make it up.  To produce good mead, you need good honey, and to produce great mead, the raw stuff needs to perch upon the same plateau of exultation.  These days, thanks in part to the phenomenon known as ‘colony collapse disorder’, the bottom has dropped from under the apiary industry, and honey ain’t cheap.

As a result, for the same five ounces of Schramm’s mead, your tariff will push double digits, but that’s  because unlike MCBW, Schramm’s is no scam.  He begins with superb honey purchased in bulk, a lot of it from the orange groves in California, and dilutes it to what wine people recognize as 40 degrees Brix.  That allows fermentation to a suitable level of alcohol-by-volume—around 14%—while maintaining what wine people also know as ‘residual sugar’.  In a dessert wine, a high level of RS is a consummation devoutly to be wished; it acts a preservative and, when suitably balanced with acid, does not come across as cloying or undrinkably sweet.

Ah, but the acidity: Another fundamental difference between honey and grapes rears its head.  According to Ken, “The naturally-occurring acids in honey are gluconic, whereas grape acids are primarily tartaric, malic and citric.  Since organic acids interact with other compounds to equal flavor, understanding gluconic acids is—especially for wine lovers—something basic to measuring mead quality.”

Bee in the Now

PORTRAITTeaching the uninitiated to understand mead is part of Ken’s mission du passion, and one of the reasons he does not currently offer a dry mead is because—as is mirrored the appreciation progression of most wine drinkers who begin by liking sweet wines and graduate to dry wines—it takes a unique breed of meadist to love this style.  In in the meantime, he needs to keep his doors open and bills paid.

He does, however, offer lusciously sweet meads in which fresh, high-quality fruits and spices have macerated throughout fermentation, and these are some remarkable beverages indeed.

‘Ginger’ is a delightfully spicy, bracingly acidic mead with a bit of heat on the palate.  He uses quality ginger, citing the adage about making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but has future plans to seek out the ne plus ultra of the world’s ginger supply, which he believes originates in Jamaica and Hawaii.  Alas, he is unable to buy it in bulk, peeled and pre-crushed—an operation so labor intensive that it would place his bottom-line on life support.

As it is, if he’d have run the business plan—opening an upscale meadery a mile from Detroit—on Shark Tank, they’d have fed him to the piranhas.

menu‘Apple Crisp’ is so creamy that I asked Ken if it had gone through the secondary fermentation known as malolactic, in which malic acid is transformed into the lactic acid found in cream. It’s a winemaker trick to soothe overtly acidic wines, but often requires a nudge from the vintner; Ken is, for the most part, a non-interventionalist.  The quality I noted, along with the potpourri medley that smells like your grandmother’s linen chest, is the result of the apple/spice blend he relies upon.

‘Blackberry’ represents Schramm’s foray into ‘red wine’, primarily because it is made from fresh blackberries sourced from Willamette Valley in Oregon, also ground zero for phenomenal American Pinot Noir.  The mead is touch with tannins, which are inherent in the seeds of the blackberries—the hefty tannins in barrel-aged wine is often the work of often astringent vanillin in oak; anthocyanins in fruit seeds and stems is an entirely different, and much more tamable beast.  This mead is juicy and sweet, both ponderous and pretty.

awards‘The Statement’ makes no statement as to the sort of fruit it features, but I will: Balaton cherries from Traverse City.  I wrote a whole chapter about the cherry doc (Amy Iezzoni) to whom Michigan owes the introduction of this superb wine cherry, which reaches sweetness levels unheard of in tart cherries, and retains the titratable acids unheard of in black cherries.

This is my favorite of the bunch, balanced and scrumptious, and Ken tells me he has an even better one aging at home.

Finally, ‘Black Raspberry’ packs such a olfactory wallop that it’s served in a brandy snifter.  Indeed, it is true to both the subtle notes in black raspberries and honey, and contains such a pronounced level of the anthocyanins mentioned above that it is a mead that will require some aging before these tannins mellow out.

Honey on spoon

And therein lies an overcomable issue in the nascent national mead industry: Like all controlled substances, mead falls under the legal jurisdiction of the TTB and it is beholden to federal regulations.  As of now, Schramm cannot list a vintage date on his mead labels, because the jackboots in Washington have not figured out how to verify the data.  When they do, this is the sort of mead that will become prized for the year it was produced.

In any case, there’s your free, introductory course in meadology.  Now, go and make yourself useful…

Meading of the Minds

That means that when you stop by Schramm’s Mead, you’ll have zero excuse for being among the mead moronic and should be able to taste with shrewdness and perspicacity.

Although gentlemen, please be advised to check your ‘buzz’ puns at the door.


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1 Response to Ken Schramm: A Friend With Mead is a Friend Indeed

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ken is the best! Great article!

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