Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rabbit's Foot Meadery

Hidden in an industrial unit off Tasman Drive, a short distance from the Great America theme park in the heart of Silicon Valley is the Rabbit's Foot Meadery. Now you should know that this is a wine blog and that Mead is not wine. I just wanted to clarify that right at the start, so that there's no confusion. Mead is a drink made from honey; it can be dry or sweet, weak or strong. The name conjures up images of druids and vikings, but its history goes back over 4000 years; it may even be as old a drink as beer or wine. It was made by Ethiopians who call it Tej. It's mentioned in Hindu scriptures. You can add various flavourings to it to produce strange sounding brews such as metheglin, pyment, melomel or cyser. And as I said, nowadays it's being made in an industrial unit in Sunnyvale.

The Rabbit's Foot tasting room is open weekdays from 1PM to 6PM, and occasionally on Saturdays. And yet it's quite possibly the nearest thing to a proper pub that I've found anywhere in the US. For one thing, it's the only tasting room I can recall that had a dartboard. For another it seems to be populated solely by people who know the owner and who can switch the topic of discussion from the weather to politics via almost any topic imaginable.

There's a wide array of drinks available, all with at least some honey in the mix. For a start there are several meads, both traditional and flavoured. Then there are several cysers/ciders and finally there's a range of honey beers.

We began with a Dry Mead, Dry being a relative term; this has around 1% residual sugar, so it's more of an off-dry by wine standards, and 13% alcohol. The mead is matured for 2 years in new American oak barrels and has acquired a sherrylike quality. You can certainly taste the flavour of the honey in it.

This was followed by a Pear Mead. The dry mead is mixed with table pears (as opposed to perry pears, which are much higher in tannin and acidity) as well as a blend of spices. It seemed slightly dryer than the Dry Mead and tasted more of the spices than of pears.

Next came a Sweet Mead. At 3% residual sugar it's significantly dryer than most late harvest wines. On the nose there was a distinct floral/wintergreen characteristic, with a real flavour of honey on the palate.

Lastly there is a Raspberry Mead. This is a dry mead to which whole raspberries are added and left to macerate. It has a real bright raspberry favour without being heavy or artificial. In some ways it resembles a Belgian Lambic fruit beer, though without the sourness.

Rabbit's Foot also make two other true meads known as Melia and Mead Of Poetry, but they weren't available for sampling. The Melia apparently is sweeter still and resembles a dessert wine. The Mead Of Poetry is aged for 7 years in new oak, and is said to have a port like character. A new barrel is due to be bottled soon, so I plan to return to sample it.

After the Meads came a range of Cysers. These are a blend of apple juice and honey. The alcohol content is much lower than the Meads, making them drinks that you can enjoy by the pint. The regular Cyser comes in both still and carbonated forms; the still had good apple flavours with a fair amount of acidity. The closest thing I've tried was a French cider from Normandy.

I then tried sparkling cysers flavoured with cherry and peach. The cherry had really good, bright cherry flavours, again reminiscent of a Belgian Kriek; the peach was a little lacking, like the syrup from a tin of peaches (though not as sweet). But then I'm not a fan of Peach Lambics either. The Cysers are being marketed as Ciders, which of course isn't strictly accurate; Cider should be made solely from apple juice, but it seems that consumers were put off by the unfamiliar term.

Finally we moved on to the beers. Each of the beers gets around 25% of its fermentable sugars from honey. If you didn't know that you probably wouldn't guess; I didn't detect any noticeable honey flavours in any of the beers, which makes me wonder what the point is, other than a gimmick; I doubt that it's a cost saving. As with the Cysers the beers are all brewery conditioned, which means that the CO2 gas is added after they are filtered and stabilised. The brewers are considering making cask conditioned products and I hope they do.

First came Biere de Miele. This is a Kölsch style beer, which means that it resembles a Lager except that it's brewed at a warmer temperature, using a top fermenting ale yeast. Frankly this is a really good beer; honey or no honey it's a good example of what I remember a Kölsch to be - fruity like an ale with a light hop flavour. Very nice indeed.

Next came Honey Red, an Irish red ale. Not my favourite beer style, but a good`example of it nontheless.

Diabhal is a Belgian style ale with 8% alcohol. It's got that unmistakeable Belgian beer character, but there's a bit too much residual sugar which I'm not so keen on.

Finally, Hel is a spiced beer, flavoured with coriander and orange peel. At a whopping 10% alcohol it's stronger than many German table wines. The spices remind me of Anchhor Brewing Co's Christmas Ale, though it's way stronger in flavour as well as alcohol.

Behind the tasting room there's the shining stainless steel of the brewery and meadery. Yellow tape on the floor marks the border (for tax and licencing reasons) btween the two. There are two separate bottling plants, one for the still meads, the other for the sparkling beers and cysers. Off to the side are the barrels of mead and the kegs of new beer.

Most of the products are sold by the bottle, and several are available at BevMo. The draught cysers and beers are also sold by the pint. Tasting is free. Given the number of products offered it's probably wise to take public transport; the 55 bus stops at the corner of Tasman and Birchwood, or the Mountain View to San Jose light rail is just a short walk away.