All about Cyser: An Interview with Oddball Fermentables
By Poppy Milliken
Posted in The Field Guide to Drinking in America, on June 20, 2015
Because our publisher Pat is the kind of guy who knows everyone, we often get the chance to talk with some folks doing some pretty fantastic stuff. We were lucky enough to get a little time from James Robinson of Oddball Fermentables and ask him to give us a crash course on starting a cysery.
Oddball Cyser looking super drinkable
OP: I imagine you do a lot of explaining about what exactly cyser is and how you came to start making it. We can’t really not ask you this in a Q&A, so what is cyser and what brought you to pursue producing it?
JR: Cyser is a form of mead, which, of course, is honey wine (and one of the oldest fermented drinks in the world). "Mead" is the parent category that encompasses a range of styles, depending on what else is added. A mead with herbs and spices is called "metheglin." Mead with grain is called "braggot." Mead with fruit is called "melomel," which breaks down into things like "pyment"—mead with grapes—or “cyser”—our specialty, which is mead with apple juice. Of course, we add lots of other things (hops, berries, ginger, etc.) so nomenclature gets tricky.
We started making cyser in 2006. Two of us had been teaching high school together and chatted a lot about home brewing beer. Neither of us had done any beer in a number of years and we were looking to get back into it. Another friend shared his mead and cyser with me, and I was excited to try something different. On one hand, it’s so easy—the bees do all the work of getting fermentable sugars ready to go—but there’s just so much room to explore. I mean, it’s not like there’s a lack of new IPAs out there, and I certainly never made any beer at home that was as good as most store-bought. But mead and cyser offered an unexplored landscape to play in. And it tastes so damn good.
OP: Cyser is pretty uncommon in the marketplace today, but it isn’t exactly new. What’s the history of the drink?
JR: As mentioned above, it’s an ancient drink. People have been fermenting honey for thousands of years. It’s mentioned in the Rig Veda. Grendel—the big bad in Beowulf—spent his evenings mauling knights at the local mead-hall. The term “honeymoon” comes from the medieval tradition of giving the couple a month’s worth of mead (a moon’s worth of honey wine). Its popularity waned as better agricultural processes made grain and grapes easier to produce. In recent years, though, mead has experienced a major renaissance. Meaderies are opening all over the country, and the industry has reported as much as 200% growth in the past two or three years.
OP: What compelled you to make the leap from being home cyser makers to going commercial?
JR: Mostly, idle talk turned into action. We liked our cysers from the get-go, and we were pleased that we never heard people say things like, “That’s pretty good… for a homebrew.” Sure, there is always some education and challenge when folks try it for the first time. When you drink a cabernet from a new winery or new brewpub’s stout, all you have to do is decide whether you think it’s a good version of that style. With cyser, there’s no reference point, for the most part. But even so, most folks who tried even our early, rougher batches gave us plenty of encouraging feedback. Then, we entered some contests and won a little hardware, which added to fuel to our entrepreneurial fire.
OP: What have been some of the legal hurdles you’ve had to jump in the process of going commercial and where did you turn to navigate the particularities of Indiana liquor laws? Is a cysery classified as a winery, a brewery, or something else entirely?
JR: In Indiana, we are classified as a “small farm winery.” That means we can produce and sell our product on site. If we want to sell elsewhere in the state, we have to go through a distributor, as Indiana has a three-tier system. It’s a little frustrating, as our facility is minutes away from groceries and restaurants that specialize in local products. It’d be great to just drive over and sell to them directly (and make more money per case/bottle), but we have to go through the middleman. However, a good distributor can do a lot in terms of marketing, etc., so we are trying to see this as a silver lining situation.
Also of interest in Indiana is our Sunday blue law. Basically, no one can sell alcohol for home consumption on Sundays (restaurants that serve food can sell on premises). However, wineries and breweries are exempt from the law which is a nice perk—especially in a college town where forgetful students might be happy to have another place to get a bottle of something on Sundays.
In terms of the federal regs, we operate as a winery. The main rules apply: We have to have our formulas and labels approved, we have to pay taxes, we have to have a bond on the winery. The main issue for mead makers lies in the outdated definitions for mead and its relatives. For us, this means that, while we can use the term “cyser” on our labels, we also have to include the phrase “honey wine”—and CANNOT say “mead.” It’s not a huge thing, but it’s a bit wonky. The American Mead Makers Association has had some success in lobbying for rules that better represent our work, but it’s a slow process.
OP: I hear you’re at a point where you’re finishing off a good portion of your build out and will be able to start production soon. What parts of the space are you most pleased with?
JR: We are getting there. The building is a cool one, in an area of Bloomington that’s experiencing a bit of growth and excitement. One of our partners owns it and runs a consulting firm there, as well, so we are converting part of it for our cysery. About half the basement will be our production area—it will be tight, but pretty cool, with a corrugated steel ceiling and brand-new walls. The first floor will feature a tasting room in a cozy space with a cool blend of old woodwork and modern lighting. The outdoor area is coming together with some landscaping that will lend itself to some (eventual) deck seating and opportunities for music and other events.
OP: What about plans to bottle and distribute? Any chance we will be able to find Oddball outside of Indiana in the future?
JR: It will probably be a while before we get out of Indiana. Our internal mantra is “no worries, no hurries.” All three of us still have day jobs, for starters. We also just want to keep pace with our own learning curve. It’s kind of like starting a new degree program, and we are nearing the end of our bachelor’s. There’s plenty more to master, for sure. Besides, cyser, like all meads, takes at least eight months to age, so we’re going to take a little time to get our stocks up.
In any event, the plan is to open our doors in the first months of 2016. We’ll balance our sales between the tasting room and Bloomington retail outlets at first, and see where it goes.
OP: If you could have anyone in the world be the brand ambassador for Oddball who would you choose and why?
JR: I don’t know, really. The recent Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel is pretty much a badass, and would probably like a cold glass of cyser after she gets done zapping the bad guys. But that’s pretty geeked out, isn’t it? And she’s not real.
Oddball Fermentables is very much being built from the ground up.