Locally sourced ingredients and a passion for the business keep the heart of this meadery beating.
Note to readers: This Q&A is part of a series of peer interviews from The Equipped Brewer. Installments will share the key experiences, lessons learned, and advice of owners, operators, and other key contacts at young craft beverage companies as they’ve tackled the challenges of growth.
With a limited number of meaderies available in the mid-90s, friends Aaron Ardle, brothers Eric and Woody Drake, and husband-and-wife team, Ben and Betty Fisher, gathered together on weekends to make mead. After attending the first International Mead Makers Conference in 2006 and meeting with nearly everyone in the industry who told them they had the right attitude to operate a meadery, the band of friends founded Brothers Drake Meadery and with a combination of brute force and hard work, opened its doors the following year in 2007.
As with most start-ups, the beginning was a rough road. Finances were tight. Everyone running the meadery had full-time jobs. The location didn't draw enough business. Then in 2010, a change in management breathed new life into the Meadery. The combination of a change in location backed with corporate know-how resulted in an increase in foot traffic and an upswing in business. Local musicians asked to play at their business and GM Eric Allen's wife, Miki, started a food truck, Toyko Go Go, to offer food pairings with the mead. Everything served at their bar is sourced locally, from cocktails using the mead, to spirits and beer. Brothers Drake Meadery has come full circle from its humble beginnings and is now regarded as one of the best places to see live music in Columbus, Ohio.
Of all the success that has come to Aaron though the years, his favorite part is leading Saturday tours. According to Ardle, "You don't have to be a Viking to drink mead. It's not a historical novelty. It's Here and Now. You can cook with it, make cocktails with it, and it has a place on the table every day."
I spoke with Aaron to learn more about how Brothers Drake Meadery developed and if he had advice for business owners getting started in the craft beverage industry.
Tell me about how you developed your business strategy. What about that strategy has helped you succeed so far?
We're a local company. The vast majority of our customers come through our front door. We have to look them in the eye. If we didn't serve something we were proud of it would be awkward. We use local honey and local ingredients. When we can't find something locally, we buy the best there is. We never skimp on ingredients because it's a small part of the equation that makes a big difference.
The people of Columbus know we're committed to them and they have responded with tons of enthusiasm. Focusing exclusively on our local market in the beginning was a great choice for us.
What challenges have you faced on the business side that you didn’t plan for?
We ran out of space fast. Demand quickly outstripped production and there were a few months where we were legitimately concerned that we weren't going to have anything to serve to people.
What advice would you have for brewers just getting started?
Get a good pump, a good filter, and a production space with high ceilings. You need someone with a business background and someone with a hospitality background. You want to look for your production people in the undergrad STEM departments of your nearest university. Engineering students are great.
What do you know now that you wish you would have known back when you first got started? Why?
I really can't emphasize the importance of starting in a large space with high ceilings enough. You want to have the space to scale quickly. Go for a low rent area where you can get a lot of space and set up your tasting room/create your scene in the trendy part of town.
What vendors/suppliers were critical in helping you get started?
Whole Foods was on board with us very early. Local grocery and gift stores (Celebrate Local, Raisin Rack, The Hills Market) in Columbus were also very helpful. They were all willing to let us host tastings and participate in their events.
How much capital did you start with? Was it enough? How have you been able to grow?
We started with $70,000. We invested another $60,000 in 2010. No outside investors. We get customer money. We reinvest everything we make after payroll back in the business.
In what ways have you been successful in marketing? Why do you think this has worked for you? What failed - and why?
We created a robust following through social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. We host tours on the weekends. We do tastings at local grocery stores. We've been able to sell mead at local music festivals in the summer. We don't spend money on advertising.
In what ways have you increased revenue that was not solely based on mead sales?
One of the most effective things to bring customers through the door is our live music. We never intended to be a live music venue. Musicians were drawn to the space and they would bring their instruments. It just evolved organically from there. We're in a high foot traffic neighborhood with a lot of nightlife. People wander in out of curiosity. We also do beer and cocktails. We only sell beer from Ohio breweries and all of our base spirits, whiskey, gin, and vodka, come from Ohio distilleries. We incorporate mead into most of our cocktails. We have a food truck, Tokyo Go Go, on site that has a passionate following of its own. People come to the Meadery just to eat.
What was your go to market strategy was for distribution? (Wholesaler or self) and what did you learn from that?
For a long time we distributed everything ourselves and we operated exclusively in Columbus and the surrounding area. This allowed us to develop a close personal relationship with our retailers and it ensured we had product available for our customer base. We are now partnering with Premium Beverage Supply to reach a wider audience. We're in 400 retailers around Ohio. We also ship directly through our website.
What do you see happening in the future for Brothers Drake Meadery?
We would like to move production out of its current location so we can devote more space to customers. In 2011, we opened our second Meadery in San Francisco. We're always looking at other markets to expand into.
A huge thank you to Aaron Ardle at Brothers Drake Meadery for taking the time to speak with The Equipped Brewer and sharing their success story with us. Visit their website to book a tour, buy mead, and view a schedule of events.
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