Meet the meadmaker

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Ricky Klein poses with a glass of mead: a fermented honey beverage that dates back thousands of years. (Courtesy photo)

Long, lean and lupine, the Jarl of Groennfell thrums with restless energy. He’s cut down his working hours, from around 60 or 90, by his estimate, to 20, and the transition’s been hard on him.

He says he wants to open a teahouse, or maybe a hotel. He wants the teahouse to be a saloon. He’s trying to write a book titled “How I Created a Drink that Nobody Asked For and Changed the World,” but can’t, he says, “because I haven’t done that second part.”

He worries that cellphones are alienating people from their grandparents. His alter ego is 1,000 years old.

His name is Ricky Klein. He’s the brewmaster at Groennfell Meadery, a Viking-inspired mead-brewery on Hercules Drive. On Groennfell’s blog, Klein is listed as the meadery’s CVO (Chief Visionary Officer), and “Kindly Overlord.” His wife, Kelly Klein, is the owner and CEO.

The menu at the Colchester Mead Hall is inspired by historical Viking cuisine. Herring and cheese are staples, but they serve vegan and vegetarian fare as well. (Courtesy photo)

The couple sells craft mead, a fresh take on a 7,000-year-old beverage made from fermented honey.

“It’s the most story-based beverage,” Klein explained. “Most professional brewers are professionals because they had a beer that they loved, and they were like, ‘I could do that!’ Everyone who’s a meadmaker read a story about mead and wanted to be a part of it.”

Klein’s own story began in Copenhagen, Denmark. During his junior year at Middlebury College  he spent a semester studying abroad at the Arnamagnæan Institute, where the original manuscripts of the Icelandic sagas are kept under lock and key.

“I got to hold one of the oldest Njáls sagas,” Klein said. “It’s terrifying. They don’t even let you wear gloves, because gloves make you clumsy.”

Njáls Saga, which chronicles the life and eventual death of Viking lawyer Njáll Þorgeirsson, is widely considered the finest work in the Icelandic saga tradition. The particular copy which Klein held was most likely manuscript AM 133, an immeasurably valuable piece of delicate parchment, well over 650 years old.   

“I almost cried on it, like I had to hand it back,” Klein said. “It was so moving to actually touch something that ancient.”

Klein’s brush with antiquity catalyzed his obsession with all things Viking: their history, their mythology and, by extension, their tradition of mead-making.

Mead is one of the oldest fermented beverages in the world. Klein said it originally dates back to South Africa, though there’s some evidence it was first brewed in China in 7000 BC. Today, it’s popular amongst historical re-enactors and renaissance-fair attendees who associate it with the Vikings, Scandinavian raiders and traders who dominated the seas of Northern Europe from roughly 800 to 1050 CE.

But according to Nancy Brown, some Vikings would never have tasted the stuff.

Brown, an author and historian living in East Burke, might be Vermont’s preeminent Viking scholar. She’s written several books on the subject, maintains a blog in which she discusses Viking literature and history and leads a number of educational trips to Iceland every year.

Bees don’t thrive in the near-arctic latitudes of northern Scandinavia, Brown said, so the honey would have been imported from abroad at great expense.

Commoners couldn’t afford it – they drank beer instead – but Viking kings were incredibly wealthy.

When the Muslim Empire disrupted trade between Europe and North Africa, essentially cutting off Europe’s ivory supply, Viking rulers, with their fast ships and unparalleled access to walruses, cornered the market on ivory and traded for massive hoards of silver, Brown said.

Eventually, they converted their trading ships into raiding ships, cutting out the middleman and taking their wealth by force.

Mead, then, became a power symbol of the warrior class: Only the shrewdest traders and the toughest raiders could afford to serve it at their feasts. It was a costly confection, and they paid for it in silver, ivory, honey and blood.

A four-pack of Groennfell’s goes for $12.

“More or less,” Klein said. “$11.99.”

When the Kleins first opened Groennfell, the brewing industry was in the midst of a massive transformation. Craft beer’s surging popularity led to a flourishing of small, independently owned microbreweries like Heady Topper and Fiddlehead. Even previously sidelined drinks like ciders, gozes and shandies began to seep into the mainstream.

The flash flood of craft beverages swept the country, but it left the mead business high and dry.

“Most people make honey wine – no bubbles, very expensive, fancy bottles,” Klein explained. “There was nobody making an American-style craft mead five years ago. It literally did not exist.”

Drawing inspiration from craft beers and ciders, Klein developed what he now believes to be the first working definition of craft mead: carbonated, low-cost, low alcohol by volume and designed to sell in the beer aisle, Klein wrote on Groennfell’s blog.

As of press time, that post, titled “A Possibly Contentious Article,” is Google’s featured response to queries on the definition of craft mead. It served as a sort of manifesto for Groennfell’s early days and cemented Klein’s reputation as an authority in the newly emerging craft mead community.

But with great power comes great responsibility: Beer brewers, for example, have a wealth of reliable information online to help hone their craft. Meadmakers do not. Because the community is so small, experts like Klein find themselves in high demand.

Groennfell is inundated daily via email with more questions concerning esoteric details of the brewing process than Klein can possibly answer, though it’s not for lack of trying.

He a prolific writer, both on his own blog, where he posts detailed recipes and brewing tips for all Groennfell’s meads, and for the online homebrew magazine, “American Meadmaker,” to which he’s a regular contributor.

He also consults frequently with other brewers and hosts a long-running video series called “Ask the Meadmaker” in which he answers viewer-submitted questions – and which he called the bane of his existence.

“The vast majority of people who watch it are outside of Vermont, which means they can’t buy my product,” he said.

But Klein has no intention of ending the series any time soon, since as the craft mead community develops, his audience continues to expand.

Groennfell is expanding, too. The Kleins have considered moving to a new location for quite some time, though Ricky says neither of them are quite ready to commit. Even Klein’s family is expanding. He and Kelly just had their first child, a baby girl named Nora.

Ricky and Kelly Klein both work to keep Groennfell afloat. Ricky is the mead maker and Kelly is the CEO. (Courtesy photo)

“She’s so big,” Klein said proudly, drawing out the word with awestruck emphasis.

“Look how big she is!”

Amid this growth and change, mead seems to be the most reliable constant in Klein life. The basic ingredients – honey, water, yeast and time – have remained unchanged since well before the Vikings age.

For Klein, a former chaplain at the University of Vermont Medical Center, mead’s timelessness holds an almost religious importance.

“I know that it seems silly to be a brewer who considers his brewery a sacred space. We’re a warehouse back behind Costco,” he said. “We don’t have furs hanging up on the walls – I mean I’d love that, it’d be cozy – but we really do take that position in the community very seriously, that we’re this little place where you can come in and talk about anything.

“That’s something that we think about a lot here,” Klein said. “That the mead hall will still be here on your worst day.”