June 18 2013 06:20 PM

San Diego County company seeks converts to its fermented honey wine

Frank Golbeck of Golden Coast Mead
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

To Frank Golbeck, mead isn't just some beverage-of-yore that a bunch of nerdy ren-fair addicts brews up for a special viewing of Game of Thrones. The guy enthusiastically thinks the drink, known as honey wine in some circles, is akin to thousands of flowers twirling across your tongue.

Golbeck was a mead enthusiast long before his lips ever touched the sweet fermented nectar. He encountered the beverage in stories like Beowulf and Living on the Earth and fell hard for the history, craft, science and bees behind every bottle.

"In Fellowship of the Rings, the hobbits drink some mead after first meeting with the elves," Golbeck explains, acknowledging that the beverage is still more commonly found in fantasy novels and the Bible than in real life. "Tolkien describes it as having the aroma of many flowers and feeling like sunshine of a warm summer day—something to that affect—and that was my first taste of mead: flowers and sunshine and goodness, and I was, like, 'I have to make this stuff.'"

And make that stuff Golbeck did, first for family and friends while living in a co-op in Berkeley, Calif., and eventually as the head mead-maker and CEO of Golden Coast Mead, a small startup he founded in 2010 with his buddies Joe Colangelo, the sales and marketing man, and Praveen Ramineni, the finance and accounting guy.

When sharing his startup story, Golbeck likes to tell people about his grandpa, an apple farmer who did some homebrewing on the side. One day, while cleaning out his grandpa's garage, Golbeck found a few homemade bottles of fruit wine and one bottle of mead. His grandpa let him keep the mead and Golbeck shared the decade-old bottle with his then-girlfriend. That lucky gal eventually became his wife, and Golbeck partially gives credit to the delicious mead for the relationship's success.

Fast-forward to now: Golbeck and the Golden Coast Mead crew are still buzzing from the success of their 2012 Kickstarter campaign, which earned them enough money to buy a production facility in Oceanside (they've been contract brewing at a winery for the past few years). The guys are remodeling the place and getting ready to work even harder at expanding the mead market, bringing their semi-sweet orange-blossom honey mead to the masses through a business model that includes donating 1 percent of profits to a good cause (they're not sure which one just yet, but ultimately they want the funds to go toward helping further research or solve bee colony collapse disorder).

By the end of the month, Golden Coast Mead will be up and producing in its new home. In the meantime, the company has picked up 50 new accounts. Now, in addition to specialty shops and restaurants like Bottlecraft and Sea Rocket Bistro, you can find the product at several Whole Foods markets. Wider distribution is part of the plan, which involves converting wine and craft-brew fans into hardcore mead lovers. Golbeck says that in the few short years they've been around, they've seen demand increase dramatically, but they still have a long way to go before the historical libation is considered hip and mainstream again.

"One of the challenges is that it's still pigeonholed as a Renaissance, fantasy kind of drink," Golbeck says. "We think there's so much more to it, and we really want to appreciate its roots but modernize the craft for modern times, modern palates and modern cuisine."

Part of their marketing tactic is to tout mead's ties to small-scale beekeepers and the local land. Golbeck explains that there's about a half a pound of honey in every full-size bottle, which means the bees visited thousands of area flowers to make the honey for each bottle of mead. They think the emerging class of buy-local types will appreciate the drink's link to the region.

"There's a lot of opportunity to be the first mead people try," Golbeck says. "And that's pretty cool."

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