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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Story of an old mead

By Chris Siciliano

When I met Matt Steigenga, my grandparents' next door neighbor, he immediately offered to crack open and share a bottle of mead almost fifteen years old. That's the way it is with some people, generous through and through.

While the homemade mead was surprisingly good—rich and big-bodied up front, dissipating eventually with distinct and delicate notes of apple—the story of how it came into Matt's possession is even better. Though he didn't make it and he doesn't know the man who did, he counts the man who gave it to him among his greatest friends.

Only a small part of the mead's long history could be inferred from the old contest ID tag taped to the bottle. The remaining story—more to do with friendship than with mead—came out in a series of emails like this one (below), which Matt sent me just today.
"My wife and I met Jim and Wendy Suchy while we were camping many years ago. We saw them walking around with beer steins and thought, 'Those are people we have to meet.' After trying Jim's hefeweizen (Jim is an exceptional brewer) and Wendy’s cornbread I was hooked. We all became great friends and my wife and I visited them in Westland (over by Ann Arbor) many times. 
Jim taught me more about homebrew than any book could, and it was during our visits that Jim introduced me to the beer and mead library in his basement. Being the registrar for the Mazer Cup and I believe for the Michigan State Fair as well, Jim had access to an extensive collection of beer and mead from brewers all over the state/country—rather than tossing anything out, Jim kept the entries that didn't make the final rounds of judging. I would guess he had 20 cases in his cellar. Each bottle had a slip of paper wrapped around it, some on which the brewer's name was written, some with only a number that Jim would have to look up. 
Over the years it became my tradition to venture into Jim's beer library and pull out a few for the weekend while we stayed with them. Some were good and some were not so good. Some didn’t keep their seal and went bad after awhile. The ones that weren’t so great we put into a sauce pan and reduced to make a marinade or sauce. 
With the exceptional meads we went so far as to make contact with the original brewer/meadster just to let them know we appreciated their craft. The one that stands out in my mind is the one where the meadster wrote back. If I remember right it started as follows: 'I write you this almost with tears in my eyes.' The meadster then went on to tell the story of how the mead we tried was laughed at by his local homebrew club and he hadn’t brewed anything since. 
Jim and Wendy ended up moving to Florence, South Carolina and more recently to Bend, Oregon. My wife and I still visit them almost every year over Christmas and New Year’s, each time continuing our mead tradition. On our trip to SC two years ago Jim gave me an entire case to take back to Michigan in order to have a small library of my own. Since then I have taken three or four out and shared them with various people, the 14-year-old mead being the most recent.
Honda used to have a tag line: 'You meet the nicest people on a Honda'. My experience has led me to believe that it should be changed to 'You meet the nicest people over homebrew.'
Strange to think how long and how far that 14-year-old mead traveled before it ended up the focal point in and catalyst for a story on The Buzz. It makes you wonder if one of your own beers, unbeknownst to you, passed from friend to friend to friend, is sitting in some complete stranger's cellar, maybe in Oregon, maybe in South Carolina, waiting for its own story to play out. Cheers to that.

"What? No mead for me?"

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