New venture raises the horns to Sussex County mead-making

Date Published: 
Aug. 11, 2017

Special to the Coastal Point • Christina Weaver : JR Walker and Jon Talkington, owners of The Brimming Horn Meadery in Lewes.Special to the Coastal Point • Christina Weaver : JR Walker and Jon Talkington, owners of The Brimming Horn Meadery in Lewes.Brimming Horn Meadery recently opened on Route 9, west of Lewes. Although locally-owned craft breweries and wineries are now commonplace in Sussex County, the Brimming Horn is the only meadery in Delaware south of Wilmington.

One of the challenges for business partners Jon Talkington and J.R. Walker is to introduce mead — the oldest known alcoholic beverage in the world — to many people who have never even heard of it.

Mead is basically the result of fermenting honey and water. Primitive people probably came across it accidentally after bees settled in a hollow tree and then their honey was exposed to rain. A 7,000-year-old drinking bowl containing actual remnants of mead was discovered in China. As is the nature of humans to improve upon what nature provides, mead has been continuously enhanced with yeast, fruit, herbs, flowers ever since.

Although mead is consumed around the world, and is especially enjoyed in Ethiopia, where it is called “tej,” the drink is most commonly associated with Nordic countries, their culture and mythologies. According to Talkington, the symbol for the Brimming Horn itself is a horn overflowing with mead — also known as “the nectar of the gods” and ‘the drink of kings.” A brimming horn would be passed amongst friends and kinsmen to drink, boast, make oaths and bond people together.

“We hope our mead will be able to do just that amongst everyone drinking it,” said Talkington who is the Brimming Horn’s meadmaker.

“I first made mead 24 years ago, while I was in high school. My science teacher was talking about fermentation and mentioned a cookbook with a recipe for a low-alcohol mead that Finnish children drink to celebrate their spring Vappu festival. I decided to make it at home, and have been making and experimenting with mead ever since,” he said.

Talkington’s experiments have led to his renown in the mead-making world. He has twice earned Best of Show honors at Mead Free or Die Festivals, as well as winning gold and silver medals at the prestigious Mazer Cup International, held annually in Boulder, Colo. In fact, he has more than 60 mead recipes to his name.

Some of the ways Talkington and Walker have been getting the word out about mead is through crowdfunding efforts, taste-testing parties and educational talks. Last Saturday, Aug. 5, was the 15th International Mead Day and, to celebrate, they held a private “how to make mead” class at the Brimming Horn.

The 12 attendees met in the Brimming Horn’s main tasting room, which has been designed to look like a medieval drinking hall. It has a beautifully crafted wooden bar and back wall, a chandelier made from antlers, and is decorated with Nordic symbols. On the top of the bar are tasting racks for four or six small round glasses. One’s mouth starts to water in anticipation.

From there, the group went into the “kitchen” of the building, where Talkington performs his magic of turning honey and water into delicious concoctions — all different, all appealing to different palates, and all producing sighs of satisfaction and a sense of conviviality.

David Mitchell of Dagsboro heard of the Brimming Horn website from Ted Banks, owner of Banks Wines & Spirits in Millville.

“I grew up in Ocean View, where my father had bee hives and made his own mead,” said Mitchell. “We always used mead for toasts at special occasions, so when my son got married recently, I was running around at the last moment, trying to find mead. Ted found me a couple of bottles and told me about this new meadery, which I’d never heard of. When I saw the announcement about this class, I knew I wanted to learn more.”

Indeed, according to an article in Mead News, for centuries mead has been used at weddings to toast the bride and groom. After the wedding, the couple was given enough mead for them to continue toasting each other for one month, or one cycle of the moon — hence the term “honeymoon.”

Before Talkington demonstrated the mead-making process, the group had the opportunity to sample six different varieties of mead. Each of these meads is part of a small batch, considered to be in research and development.

“We have some meads that are tried and true favorites and that we will have available year-round, and others that are special for the season or a particular ingredient Jon has available,” said Walker as he poured everyone a sample of tej — the Ethiopian style mead. Tej, he explained, is flavored with gesho, a native tree in Ethiopia that gives it a bittersweet taste and slightly cloudy appearance.

According to Ethiopian lore, women are the meadmakers and a man seeking a wife would base his selection on how well her mother’s mead tasted!

The next sample was called Avocado Blossom mead and was made from honey from where bees pollinate avocados, such as California, Hawaii or Mexico. It had a slightly buttery sensation on the palate, as one can taste in some wines. Then came Orange Blossom, which included hints of mango and lime, and Strawberry Basil, which two foodies in the group thought would pair wonderfully with a Caprese salad.

Muscadyne Pyment was the next mead. It is a mixture of mead and wine, and uses the big muscadine grapes that grow near rivers in the South. Its peppery taste, or foxy character, comes the skin of the grapes. It was a big hit for Hack and June Jones, who were visiting from Pennsylvania.

“We love sweet wine,” said Hack Jones. “We used to travel to North Carolina twice a year to purchase muscadine wine and then we found we could get it shipped from Florida. This is even better. We’ll definitely be back.”

Walker noted that the Brimming Horn would soon be able to ship their mead to certain other states, including Pennsylvania, even though Delaware does not permit such shipments from other states here.

Calamundan mead was the last tasted. The fruit is similar to a kumquat orange and is grown in the greenhouses of Jim Passwater in Georgetown. Talkington made it with a combination of wildflower honey and fresh cider, and fermented it with beer yeast to give it a heavier, citrusy flavor.

The Brimming Horn sell two types of mead. One is traditional, like the ones mentioned, and has an alcohol content of 11 to 18 percent. The others are known as “session meads” — they are carbonated and have an alcohol content of 8 percent. Session meads tend to be sold in 12-ounce glasses and traditional meads in 6-ounces glasses. Or you can try several at a time from the tasting rack.

Mead is also available to for take home purchase by the bottle. For the time being, it can only be purchased directly from the Brimming Horn.

To make a one gallon of mead requires three pounds of honey. The ingredients are much more expensive than beer or wine, so it is considered more of a sipping beverage.

Talkington and Walker have both been fulltime employees at Dogfish Head Brewery for many years. Talkington is one of their brewers, and Walker is on the warehouse side of the business.

“Sam [Calagione], owner of Dogfish, has been extremely supportive and has offered us some business tips. We want this to be an independent business into which we pour our heart, passion and expertise,” said Talkington. “In fact, some of our most frequent customers are employees from local breweries who are welcoming us to the brewing family and enjoying a change of beverage.”

This weekend, the Brimming Horn is going full-metal, collaborating with one of the world’s most prominent death-metal bands, Incantation, with an official special-edition mead called Goat’s Blood.

“It wasn’t our idea for the name, but that is what they wanted,” said Walker, a friend of the band and former heavy-metal musician himself. “Jon’s crafted it with red grapes, tart cherries and buckwheat honey. The color is crimson, and the release date is Aug. 11. The labels have been numbered, and some are signed by Incantation members. It’s a big deal for us.”

The Brimming Horn is located at 28615 Lewes-Georgetown Highway, Milton. It is a few miles west of Lewes on Route 9, just before the railway track crosses the road. It is open from noon to 7 p.m. every Friday and Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. The website is at www.brimminghornmeadery.com, and they can be liked on Facebook, where new announcements are regularly made.