When an ocean engineer and his science teacher wife take on a project, some type of new instrument for marine biologists might be the presumed result. For Dan and Deb Clapp, however, the outcome isn’t something Edmund Scientific will ever feature in its catalog.
After moving to New England from Oregon for graduate school, the Clapps ultimately chose to settle in Ipswich. Dan discovered extensive familial ties to the area while inspecting an aunt’s family wheel, including kinship with Col. John Choate, whose name adorns the historic bridge in town. That spawned deeper interest in genealogy and eventually led to a trip to Denmark to uncover additional lineage. A fateful choice of a souvenir for Deb would eventually change the course of their lives — a bottle of Klapostjer Mjod (mead in Danish), a beverage consisting of fermented honey, hops and schnapps made by the Dansk Mjod in Billund.
Dan knew nothing about mead at the time, buying it because of its “cool ceramic bottle” and the label’s Viking mascot. Although she appreciated her husband’s thoughtfulness, the bottle sat on the bottom shelf of the liquor cabinet for two years. One evening at a dinner party they were hosting, they broke it out on a whim, and all who tasted it were pleasantly surprised. Knowing Dan was experienced at brewing his own beer, his guests encouraged him to try to make this “new” libation.
First he needed to gain a deeper understanding of the product itself, so he began doing research that befit his engineering background. He discovered that mead is the oldest referenced fermented beverage in history. Its earliest known mention was in the ancient Indian Vedas.
Mead is sometimes called “honey wine,” the foundational ingredients being honey, water and yeast. There are many varieties, but the most popular are metheglins, brewed with herbs and/or spices; melomels, which contain fruit additives; and cysers, which are apple cider/mead hybrids.
Mead production flourished with the science of apiculture’s spread to northern Europe in the Middle Ages; it became equated with Viking culture, getting regular mentions in the sagas, Eddas and other sources as the preferred drink of the Norse gods.
As Dan experimented with recipes, friends and neighbors recommended that he begin commercial sales of his concoctions. Their advice piqued his interest, so he started researching artisanal meaderies and “noticed a huge uptick of interest on the internet.” It was an emboldening revelation, before which he’d been concerned that American familiarity with mead was too limited to make a business viable.
According to the American Mead Makers Association, “The world’s most popular beverage throughout most of recorded history nearly died out [but is now the] fastest growing segment of the American alcohol beverage industry.”
The final motive to go professional came when the Clapps noticed a “for rent” sign on a Short Street storefront while driving in downtown Ipswich. They had reached a crossroads both literally and figuratively, supposing such a perfect opportunity may not occur again.
After a year of wading through state, federal and local permitting bureaucracy, 1634 Meadery opened its doors to the public in April of 2015.
The business’ name is an acknowledgment of the year Ipswich was incorporated into the commonwealth, important because the community is a big part of 1634’s business plan. “When we held our grand opening,” Dan says, “they really rose to the occasion.” Using all local ingredients is his way of returning the favor.
Currently, 1634 is working toward doubling production capacity. There are also hopes of expanding the tasting room because, as Dan explains, “it’s integral for education and events, both still necessary in the mead market despite the huge market growth.”
Though it’s not at all evident while sipping his meads, such as Orange Elation, Citrus Breeze, and Blueberry Dream, Dan says humbly: “I’m still learning as I go.”
[Update may 5, 2020: 1634 Meadery is offering special takeout services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their website for updates.]