UNION (Union) – With craft breweries sprouting up throughout New Jersey and people itching to try the latest local beer, it’s no surprise that beer fanatics have been giving home brewing a try in their own basements.
Sergio Moutela of South Plainfield, founder of Melovino Meadery in the Vauxhall section of Union, started out as a homebrewer, too, until he decided that it was time to get a little more creative.
Moutela, who grew up making wine at home with his grandfather and went on to brew his own beer as an adult, stumbled across mead — a fermented beverage made from honey — online in 2011.
“I used to just know honey as the product that comes in bear-shaped bottles at the supermarket,” he said. “However, I soon found out that just like in the grape wine world, different varietals of honey can make completely different products.”
Most people know mead as what they see offered at renaissance fairs, but Moutela soon discovered that it was much more than that. He found that even though wine is also an archaic beverage, no one spoke about it in the way that they do of mead, and if people continued to do so and refer to it as the “drink of the Vikings,” it would continue to stay niche when it had the ingredients to become much more mainstream.
“In the homebrewer scene, a lot of people were talking about making this thing called mead and it intrigued me,” he said. “Mead is open to fermenting fruit with honey or spices, so the creative window is pretty endless. I tried it, and I was making a lot better mead than I was beer.”
With a plan for this new, extremely versatile beverage, Moutela was soon making mead with products such as ghost pepper chilies, bananas and vanilla beans.
Moutela’s mead was more than good — he won mead home brewing competitions at the local, regional and national level, including back-to-back gold medals in 2012 and 2013 at the Mazer Cup International, the world’s premiere mead-making competition.
Soon, all Moutela could think about, even at his full-time job as an import customs broker, was what kinds of mead he was going to make. So, he decided to take it to the next level.
“When I get into something, I really devote myself to it,” Moutela said. “My mind was 24/7 mead, so I decided to give it a try and open my own meadery in September of 2014. The best trait of an entrepreneur is fear, and I just dove into it headfirst.”
However, Moutela would soon learn that it wasn’t going to be that easy. Although there are about 300 meaderies nationwide, in New Jersey, there weren’t any, because unlike in other states, a meadery is classified as a winery in New Jersey, and all wineries need three acres of land to become licensed, something a meadery — which uses honey rather than grapes — has no use for.
So, Moutela went to the director of the Alcohol and Beverage Control and explained that his meadery couldn’t be classified as a winery because a meadery didn’t need land to grow fruit. As a result, Moutela was granted a special permit and Melovino Meadery was born.
It soon became evident that Moutela wasn’t the only one electrified by the creative possibilities of mead making — his modest meadery, tucked behind a strip mall in Vauxhall, soon became the fastest-growing meadery in the nation and pulled in 200 visitors a weekend to the 4,400-square-foot space. Now in need of more space, Moutela is negotiating leases to move Melovino Meadery to a new and bigger location.
“We have educated New Jersey in what mead is and we have been building an army of ‘mead heads,’” he said. “During every tour and tasting, I ask for a show of hands as to who has tasted mead before, and little by little, more hands have gone up.”
Moutela said that mead has gained so much popularity since it tastes more like a wine, so it appeals to wine drinkers, but the craft side and creativity appeals to craft beer drinkers. Meads can also taste more like a beer, as well — Melovino Meadery is currently working on a mead with a low alcohol content, similar to beer, which will be carbonated and will be bottled and kegged for restaurants and bars.
At the hour-and-a-half $10 tour offered at Melovino Meadery every weekend, visitors will sample a lineup of six meads representing the wide range of mead, which taste from dry to off-dry to semi-sweet to sweet. They’ll also learn about the history of mead, the history of Melovino Meadery, get a tour of the production facility, learn about the mead-making process and have the opportunity to ask questions.
Melovino Meadery currently produces about 40 meads, with about 20 more on the way for 2017, ranging from $17 to $20 per bottle. They are also offered at various bars and liquor stores in the area, a full list of which can be found here.
“If I wouldn’t drink an entire bottle in one sitting, I wouldn’t sell it,” said Moutela.
Clearly, he’s not the only one. Melovino Meadery has won 34 international awards, with five gold medals from the Mazer Cup International in 2016. Next year, Moutela hopes to bring home six — which would make his the first meadery to ever bring home more than five in one year.
To open the door for even more meaderies and home brewers making mead, Moutela has been pushing for a bill in New Jersey to license meaderies. The bill has passed through the Assembly and now has the chance to go up for a vote in the Senate this month.
“I still feel like a home brewer,” he said. “Now, I just make a lot more mead.”
Where: 2933 Vauxhall Road, Vauxhall section of Union
Hours: Tastings are every weekend by reservation only, click here to sign up
Cost: $10 for an hour-and-a-half tour and tasting of six meads
Contact: 855-635-6846 or melovino.com
Where to buy: Click here for a full list