The inaugural search for the best meads in the country resulted in an astounding 344 entrants in the National Honey Board’s Mead Crafters Competition. New Hampshire-based Ancient Fire Mead & Cider's Sweet Burn Dude! won the silver medal at the event, and we spoke with owner Jason Phelps about opening the meadery and the story behind Sweet Burn Dude!
How did the idea of Sweet Burn Dude! take shape?
In 2009-2010 I started experimenting with chili peppers, and in 2012 I actually made a mead with wildflower honey and peppers we had grown in our home garden. It won best in show in our local mead competition, and people who tried it thought it was an awesome combination of those flavors.
I like the heat of the chili peppers as an opposition ingredient to other things, and I started experimenting with it. Once we started drafting a list of our potential products for our commercial meadery, it immediately came up in the list. It was there from the beginning — one of those things hiding in the shadows — and the response to it in 2019 has been overwhelming. It’s named for the exclamation everyone makes when they try their first sip. It definitely exceeded our expectations with three gold medals last year and second place in your competition, and it sold out.
What prompted you to decide to enter Sweet Burn Dude! into the mead competition?
My first contact with the National Honey Board was through the AHA home brew conference in 2015 in Baltimore. My mission is to get people focused on honey, and obviously I wanted to enter and see what would happen with it. I’m also interested in socializing surrounding honey; it’s the core of what we do. We have a honey tasting bar at the meadery to get people more interested in what we are doing. We hope our second-place win is the only the beginning of working with the National Honey Board because it’s such a big part of what we do.
Tell us more about this honey tasting bar!
We opened the meadery in March 2018, and the tasting bar was there six weeks later. We wanted to engage the public and share the honeys we wanted to use. I have a whole bunch of recipes with different varieties of honey, and we feel the differences in honey are something we can use to make our product stand out.
We start our tours at the honey tasting bar. We’re trying to tell people that we make ciders and meads with different kinds of honey, and people didn't even know what a varietal honey tastes like. Now people can ask questions about the different honeys, and then they go back and have a sip of the drink and can then distinguish what the flavors of the honeys are. It’s been so exciting, and it’s so cool to see consumers react that way because they don't expect it.
We also do honey tastings on Thursday nights, and we have people who come in because they’re curious. I always tell people I want them to be a part of the process, and as I taste new-to-me honeys they watch me experiment with flavors to see where new ideas come from.
What kind of flavors are you hoping to pull out of honey through the fermentation process?
We originally made our chili pepper meads with a series of different wildflower honeys. The floral nature tended to come through a bit more, and it just wasn't quite right with the chili pepper. I found mesquite blossom honey, and it has what I call a fruity earthiness to it. It’s almost like an overripe apple — it’s got the ‘apple is just past its prime, earthiness’ of the peel. But you still have fruit. Once I found that combination it became an earthy, fruity and spicy complement through all of it. It definitely is the reason why I think this product has been so popular — it’s got the right combination. It’s been exciting to see the combination very well received by everybody, and it’s a fun honey on its own; we barrel age mead made with it too.
Tell me about how you make this mead?
Sweet Burn Dude! is a honey wine, so we typically will do the entire ferment with the honey upfront and once that is fermented out we’ll let it age for a while. It’s initially 14% to 15% alcohol, so it needs time to mellow out. Then we add the chili peppers as a finishing activity. We use crushed up dried chili peppers and steep for three to 10 days, depending on how the amount of heat is developing. It’s a small amount of material, so you don’t need a lot, but you need to monitor it. Even by weight chili peppers aren’t all the same; there are varying amounts of heat, so it’s an artistic outcome. Once it’s finished it gets filtered and bottled.
You said that it’s currently sold out. Is it going to be available again?
We are going to make more. There’s a fun story there too; the newest batch is there, but it’s being a little fussy with me. I’ll have to make another batch, which will delay the next release of Sweet Burn. People will be jonesing for it, and it’s awesome to have that kind of success making a product people love and have it in high demand. We do three to four other chili pepper meads as well, so people will be occupied until Sweet Burn is back.
For a full list of 2019 winners, please visit http://meadcrafterscompetition.com/2019-winners/.
Do you have a favorite mead? Tell us about it in the comments section below.