In which Ricky the Meadmaker talks about things he's glad he didn't know before going pro. If you really want to go pro, you might want to skip this episode!
Ricky talks about going years without a proper paycheck, the stress the whole family has had to deal with, trolls on the internet, watching amazing people come and go from the company, not having a rule book, and more.
I warned you in the last episode, and I'm going to warn you one more time: If you really want to go pro you probably shouldn't watch this episode.
Welcome to Ask the Meadmaker, where I, Ricky the Meadmaker, answer your questions about meadmaking, mead drinking, mead brewing, and really any question you're willing to send to me.
So, in this episode, we're going to be talking about things I'm glad I didn't know before going pro. As one of the scions of business in this state one said, when she was asked "If you could go back, knowing everything you know now, what would you do differently?" She said, "Oh, I wouldn't start a business." She was dead serious.
If I knew going into this what I know now, I'm not sure I would have made the decision to be a professional brewer even with all the ups. There are lots of ups. It's amazing. I'm drinking out of a horn tankard. This is like a horn highball glass custom made for me that I can make mead cocktails in. I am living the life.
But, If I knew everything that I was going to go through, I don't think I'd wish that on 25 year old Ricky. So let's get started.
Going WIthout Pay
The first one is obvious if you've ever talked to someone who started a small business, especially with their spouse, (unless it was like a venture capital sponsored biotech firm) is the years and years and years we have gone without a proper paycheck. Kelly and I between us took home an income, roughly half of the livable wage in Vermont and we've made it work, had a wonderful time of it all, but it's been very stressful. And there have been really, really, really bad nights.
Stress On THe Family
And this leads me into the thing that I was going to end with, but I should just get it out of the way: I don't know that I would have made the choice to start a business with my wife If I had known the effects that it would have on my family on a day-to-day basis. The level of stress, the late night crying (me, not her. I'm the crier.) It's horrible. It's horrible. The entire world seems out to get you and you can remind yourself that you don't make n95 masks. You're not a surgeon saving lives, not on the front lines. You're not out there working for radical social justice change. We do our best. Our Drink Your Values Project is like the littlest we can do the change of this world.
When you're wondering how you're going to feed your family. You ask yourself over and over and over again, did I make the right light choices?
Dealing WIth Trolls
The next one is a big one. Now that we're selling online, and this has always been an issue, but It's one thing when it happens in person, because trolls can be defeated with wit. But online, I had no sense of what trolls were going to be like. We had someone say that he "canccelled" his order, when he found out that we were a proudly woman-owned business. And the fact that he wrote "canccelled" should help and it definitely does, but I had no idea that being a woman was a political statement. I should have known better. But if I had known that, working for a company that my wife owns would induce such rancor and hate in people... And that's the tip of the iceberg.
When people find out that we're a queer-friendly company... It's just the amount of hate that you can generate that can exist on the internet. I know I should have known that, but I really didn't.
Dangers of Success
In the first episode of this series, where I talked about the things that I wanted to know that I wished I had known was how wonderful other people in the industry would be, how supportive the other mead makers would be. The flip side of that is how a few companies and I'm gonna name names here: Budweiser, Anheuser Busch InBev, as they're now called. Or Sam Adams, is a constant terror.
Angry Orchard is just Sam Adams. They just made a cider one day and overtook the largest cider makers on earth! On a regular basis we have to sit down as a team and say, "What if a multinational corporation decides to make a mead?" And the answer is usually "We'll all go look for new jobs. And if I had known that that would be a day in, day out fear for me, and that my own success, if we were really successful as a meadmaker, it would be more likely that someone would make one to compete with us. If I had known that, I don't know that I would have started a business.
Losing Great People
The next one is short and brief. And I hope you are watching this; you know who you are: The number of incredible co-workers and employees we have had, that have moved on to other things, that did sales, or brewing, or just ran the taps on a weekend. They come into your life, and they go, and we're so close to a lot of you. But if I had known how many people I really cared about would come into my life, and then go off to bigger and better things... it's tough.
I knew that I was signing up for a lot of long hours. My record is 89 hours in a week, I have gone above 80 over eight times. But I did not know the number of really incredibly stupid things I would do because of the exhaustion I had induced in myself. From forgetting to turn a pump off and having the head on it melt on a $3,000 pump, to running water into a tank and forgetting to turn it off and finding 208 gallons (give or take) of mead on the floor... I cannot now enumerate all the idiotic things I have done, because I was so exhausted, but if I had known that they were in front of me, I would have been ashamed to know that guy.
Playing Without a Rulebook
Last thing I'm glad I didn't know is second only to the toll that it would have on my family and I didn't mention earlier like my inability to just pick up and go see Nora's grandparents. That's still tough. Coronavirus is part of it, but really being small business owners, regardless of what you choose to do, causes that and this one: How I was never going to be permanently correct about anything.
When we launched, we had invested in a bottling line and labeler, and we were going to sell four packs of bottles, because a few breweries were successfully moving higher-end product in that packaging type. We nearly went bankrupt, and on the edge of bankruptcy, we had the guts just once to make the transition to cans and octupled our sales. We had to sell off our bottling line, sell off our labeler and go with our contract canning company (They were wonderful. Ironheart is amazing. If you're trying to get started, please, please, please work with Ironheart. Love those guys.) But it hurt, it hurt, it hurt, it hurt to be that wrong about bottles. And it wasn't that it was wrong when we started. It was that the world changed.
And the world changed again. We have discontinued five products. And every time you discontinue a product, especially if you're a core product-based company, it can cost you 10s of thousands of dollars in cans that are sitting around and other things.
So, knowing that no matter how smart I am, how much I think about something, how many amazing people I have around me. Nobody can hand me a rule book and every week (and don't even get me started on the impact of Coronavirus on having a team that has a minimum number People and a maximum number of people working in a space at a time, right?) every week. I have to sit down with my team or just think on my own,and figure out what has changed since Monday. It's exhausting. It's exciting. It's, it's wonderful, really. But when you're up with your toddler at three, when you're looking at the books, and all the numbers are red, and you can only think about the fact that you have, in a sense, been wrong about every decision you made, and every right decision you made, you're going to be wrong about soon. It can get really tough.
So, that's the end of my list! I'm glad I did it. I don't know that I do it over. But I am so glad I did it and it's you, and all your nice comments, and your messages you write to Nora when you order your mead online. So thank you, thank you, thank you.
If you're thinking of going pro, I will do everything in my power to help you, but I will, as always, start by saying, "Don't do it. It sucks."
Thank you for all your questions, and I will get to them as soon as possible. Cheers.
In which Ricky the Meadmaker talks about what else he wishes he'd known before going pro, including large-scale brewing equipment, HVAC systems, when to hire a professional, how to package large quantities, understanding the three-tier distribution model, and more!
You can get your own drinking horn (plus some mead to put in it) here!
In which Ricky the Meadmaker talks about what he wishes he knew before going pro, including: How to source large quantities of ingredients, who to reach out to when questions arise, state and federal regulations, how nice everyone in the industry is, and more!
So You Want My Job: Janitor
In honor National Mead Day, we felt it was appropriate to highlight the importance of both home brewing and commercial meadmaking to American mead culture. Speaking as both a homebrewer and the new marketing person for Groennfell and Havoc Meaderies, I'm here to tell you that yes, you can have it all!
By Jess Trebing, Marketing Director of Groennfell & Havoc Meaderies
The best way to grow America's burgeoning mead scene is for commercial meaderies to share what they know with the homebrewing community, and for homebrewers in turn to support commercial mead.
Why don't homebrewers just sell their own mead?
A lot of homebrewers think they need to choose sides: either make their mead or buy it. But in my experience, you can do both, and everyone will be better for it.
While speaking with a customer on Groennfell's Facebook Messenger chat about Groennfell's use of wild fermentation, I mentioned that I'm also a homebrewer who collects and brews with wild yeast. The customer asked the next natural question: "Why don't I go commercial with my own mead?"
Of course I love my homebrews and feel a huge sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when I'm drinking them. But there are a ton of things that I can't do (or don't want to do) that a commercial meadery can.
In my case, I have trouble with carbonating, but there can be any number of challenges a homebrewer may run into: the retail cost of honey, the mess, and for anyone thinking about transitioning to commercial meadmaking, the licensing (to name a few).
Why commercial meaderies should support grassroots homebrewing
From a traditional business perspective, it seems like a given that a company like Groennfell would feel threatened by people making something very similar to their product at home. At the very least, it seems wise to hide recipes à la KFC and their vaulted chicken recipe. But instead, Groennfell makes their recipes public, urging homebrewers to try them and share them.
In addition to publishing what others might squirrel away, every few weeks Ricky (Groennfell's co-owner and head meadmaker) puts out an episode of his Youtube show, "Ask the Meadmaker," in which he discusses crowdsourced homebrew-centric mead questions.
In any other industry, this approach may have backfired. But the brewing industry, as I've learned, isn't like any other industry.
If there's anything to take away from how Groennfell and Havoc have done things, it's that sharing is caring - about the industry as a whole, the mead culture on a state and national level, and, by the collective gains made in those two areas, about one's own company.
Make our classic mead: Valkyrie's Choice
Valkyrie's Choice is just about the easiest Craft Mead to brew.
Essentially, you're simply mixing honey, water, and yeast in the right proportions.
Valkyrie’s Choice Clone Recipe
OG = 1.062
FG = .998
ABV = 8.5% abv.
Step by Step
Combine the first four ingredients at 104°F (40°C) stirring vigorously to aerate.
Wait 24 hours for the sulfites to do their thing, then sprinkle the dry yeast over the top of the must.
Maintain the fermentation at about 86°F (30°C).
Bottle (with priming sugar) or keg when bubbling has completely stopped (should be 8-10 days).
Enjoy in a week or two!
Jess Trebing is the marketing director for Groennfell and Havoc Meaderies, as well as an amateur homebrewer. Her favorite Netflix and mead combo is Schitt's Creek and Valkyrie's Choice.
Groennfell Meadery is Vermont’s premier craft meadery. Inspired by Old Norse legends, brewed with extraordinary ingredients, Groennfell’s meads are unlike anything you’ve had before. Crisp, clean, and astoundingly drinkable, the only way to explain any one of Groennfell’s meads is to try one yourself.