UNION, NJ — No other meadery in New Jersey feels quite like the 14-month-old Melovino Meadery, which has successfully made its home in Union at the Millburn Mall under the guidance of founder Sergio Moutela.
Scratch that: There are no other meaderies in New Jersey. Before Melovino Meadery’s grand opening in September 2014, the state needed to grant Moutela a special, first-of-its-kind meadery permit.
The novel, fresh nature of mead, an alcoholic drink made from honey, is what brings people through the door — about “75 percent to 85 percent” of customers who come in for tastings and tours have never heard about mead before, said Moutela — while inspired drinks, like an espresso-infused bestseller, keep them coming back.
“It’s something different that catches their interest,” said Moutela. “They come in and, luckily, we make some really good mead. They’re very pleasantly surprised to fall in love with something they’ve never heard of.”
On paper, said Moutela, a meadery is essentially “a winery that makes mead,” a drink with origins dating back thousands of years. Instead of grapes, mead makers use honey as a sugar source, an important distinction from wine which enables one-of-a-kind creations.
Melovino Meadery’s “Nice As Pie,” for example, is an apple pie-inspired drink that “really smells and tastes like an apple pie in a glass,” said Moutela. On its debut weekend “All Night Long,” a popular coffee mead, outsold the three next most popular drinks combined.
“Wine is pretty straightforward. There’s really no creativity allowed, beyond the occasional blend,” said Moutela. “But with mead, there’s no holds barred. You can get as creative as you want with flavor combinations, different honey varietals, blends of different honey varietals.”
That kind of creative license has been a nice change of pace for Moutela, who grew up in nearby Elizabeth as part of a Portuguese household which made its own wine. Before opening Melovino Meadery, he’d spent the last 15 years specializing in food and wines imports.
“I started making my own wine as an adult, and got into brewing beer in the craft-beer scene,” said Moutela, who began making mead several years ago. “Through the beermaking, that’s how I discovered mead for the first time. I started dabbling in it, and before I knew it started winning a ton of awards.”
Even though he was lousy at making beer, Moutela wound up winning 19 awards at amateur-level mead competitions. At one point, he was approached by a judge, who asked if Moutela would share one of his gold-medal recipes.
That’s when Moutela knew he had something. It “sparked my curiosity as to ‘hey, maybe I can do this,’” said Moutela.
Early success with Melovino Meadery shows that maybe he can. Over the past 14 months, regular milestones and achievements have outlined just how well mead has been received in its Millburn Mall location.
The one-year anniversary party in September allowed customers to enjoy a taste of any and every mead in the store. In early November, Melovino Meadery hired its first full-time employee, a longtime volunteer. Shortly afterward, Moutela and his business were profiled in a Sunday edition of The New York Times.
“I’m always trying to learn,” said Moutela. “In the end, we’re the only meadery that does things the way we do things. We ended up creating our own type of process, as far as mead-making, how we conduct our interactions with people — we’re the only meadery I know of that does tours and tastings — we really give an in-depth tour. You really get to learn and know what mead is, the whole story about how we came to be as a meadery and how we became the first in the state. It’s a whole experience.”
Along the way, Moutela has read books on mead for ideas — “not that there’s many,” he says — and he tries to learn from other members of the industry through mead-related podcasts. Not that there are many of those, either.
What there has been plenty of, said Moutela, is people who quickly gain an interest in mead when they find out about Melovino Meadery. And that includes many Union residents, who visited the 4,200 square foot building en masse for a special get-together, the kind that only Melovino Meadery offers.
“We get a ton of local people from Union and Maplewood coming in. We even had a private party for them,” said Moutela. “There’s that Union residents Facebook group, that’s a pretty active group, and most of those people know each other through that group. When they found out about us, they said ‘we’ve never met each other, this would be a cool way to finally meet face-to-face. It was really cool.”