Thursday, July 16, 2015

Working for Myself: Matt Trahan and Sap House Meadery, Part I


I’d been told by friends who had visited Sap House, and my brothers as well, that the meadery was in an unmarked building in the middle of nothing commercial. I wondered how I would recognize it. When I hit the road, it was with flashbacks of my first trip to Tandem Coffee (back when they were only on Anderson Street, hidden in a tiny building behind stacks of warehouses), and a little anxiety in my belly. 

Once I hit Route 16, though, and saw my first “Brake for Moose: It Could Save Your Life” sign, I felt the anxiety melt off my body. Most of my travels these days take me to the city; Cambridge, Portland, Manchester. I spend the drive hunched over the steering wheel, my glasses angled up at road signs, locals who are wondering what the hell's taking me so long on my back bumper. When I found myself on the one road that could take me from Maine to Ossipee, there was no counting the miles to my next turn. I actually got to enjoy the sights. It reminded me of why I love New England—campgrounds every few miles, old diners, hand-painted signs over all the businesses, farm stands and sugar shacks with their best products pushed right up against the road. Everything is named for trees or wild animals out here: Black Bear Cafe. Knotty Pine Grill. Beaver Hollow Campground. Deer Cap Ski.

By the time I reached Ossipee, I think I was grinning ear to ear. If I’d never found the meadery, I might have just stopped at every business on the way back to Maine, sampling maple syrup and taking photographs. As it happened I found the meadery with ease. I turned down a road I was sure must be wrong, and then suddenly, there it was.

There was no sign that read “Sap House Meadery” perpendicular to the road, but there was a sandwich board that read “Free Tastings, Sat & Sun, 1-5.” With nowhere to park, I left the meadery, found a diner (in my city mindset looking for a “Restaurant Parking Only” sign but finding none), and walked back to my destination.

I had originally intended a reconnaissance trip. I was pretty sure I wanted to cover the story of the owners, Matt Trahan and Ash Fischbein, whom I estimated from the website to be my age or slightly older and whose product has been satisfactory enough to find its way into my family Christmases three or four years running, but protocol dictates that I have as complete an experience as possible before I write about a company. Plans be dashed—when I walked into Sap House and saw two customers chatting familiarly with Matt Trahan at the bar, I had a feeling I’d get all the information I needed in one day.

As it turns out, I timed my visit both opportunely and awkwardly. Had I made the trip two weeks ago, as I had intended, I would have arrived two weeks shy of a new renovation. Trahan greeted me with a swift sample of Hopped Blueberry Maple, and between chatting with his guests at the bar, informed me that a wall had just been knocked down in the middle of the room where I now stood, and that all the barrels containing the aging mead had been moved to a larger, side building to make room for a Sap House restaurant. 

The restaurant wasn’t open yet, he added. Everything was up to code and in place, but the licensing guy was on vacation. Come back in August, he told me. Everything is sure to be up and running smoothly then.

I fully intend to do so.

Eventually his other patrons left, and Trahan asked where I was from and what had brought me in. I debated about glossing over the matter that I write a blog, keeping the option to come back later for a more formal interview, but then I figured: When in Ossipee, do as the Ossipee people do. I threw formality to the wind, and the interview began.

Sap House Meadery: Then, Now, and to Come

Matt Trahan and Ash Fischbein have been in the mead business for four years, but they’ve been in mead longer. They were both home-brewers before they decided to attempt every home brewer’s secret dream of opening a brewery—specializing in mead, a honey wine that is gaining traction in the U.S. but still has a lot of opportunity to grow. Offering mead would allow the duo to source their ingredients locally, something they would not be able to do if they were to make beer, or wine from grapes. Trahan wasn’t a fan of mead until he had his cousin’s home-brewed version, which was not sticky sweet, but dry. This was the place where the two entered the market: offering a quality experience for a type of wine no one else was selling.

The idea was a good one. It only took two years for Trahan to know he could leave his day job and work fully committed at Sap House. All the mead is made right on the premises, as well as bottled, corked, labeled, and sealed with wax—one at a time, all by hand. Like much of what you see in Ossipee, the process is informal and not at all secret; tours of the meadery are offered every Saturday and Sunday, and include a full viewing of all the equipment used to make the mead from start to finish. 

Not that these young entrepreneurs need worry about anyone stealing their ideas. They’ve made a mark in the wine industry already with a product that is distinctly their own. One of the shelves behind the bar is heavy with medals, including two placements in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition from the first two years Sap House was open, and placements at the Mazer Cup, the only international mead-only competition. On a shelf to the right is a granite trophy in the shape of NH, acknowledging Trahan and Fischbein as Young Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2014 by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

And business is good. While currently the meadery is only open for tours and tasting on weekend afternoons, the owners spend the rest of the week making deliveries and doing the other labor-intensive parts of running their successful business. They sell to 120 locations just in NH, and ship to seven states. The two men run the operation almost exclusively by themselves, but never want for work to do, and have confidence to plan months in advance for their products. As the honey and water need to ferment before they age, and aging requires a minimum of six months, flavors for seasonal beverages—say, blackberry in the fall—need to be planned up to a year before sale, so that the mead is perfectly aged for the time customers expect to see special flavors on the shelves. While some younger ventures might be afraid to bet on success so far in advance, Sap House has gained the reputation and following to be able to make that bet.

Trahan takes pride in the fact that he and his cousin are able to offer such a well-received product from such a far corner of the U.S. As he says, when other business people hear of two “young people doing something successful in Ossipee, it kind-of breaks their heads.” He looks at the pictures on old postcards of Ossipee and sees a town that used to have a thriving business community, and envisions revitalizing the town by sparking the match with Sap House. By his estimation, many of the small towns of the U.S. that fell into disrepair were reborn when a "swanky, hipster bar” moved in, and other businesses followed. 

With the restaurant so close to open, Trahan sees more employees and a bigger future than ever for Sap House Meadery. The menu, which has launched with mead cocktails (Trahan mixed me a Bluebonic Tonic to sample—Hopped Blueberry Maple mead, real blueberries, tonic water, simple syrup, and citrus bitters), will place an emphasis on cheese and charcuterie, the types of foods typically associated with wine pairing. Although Trahan has developed some sense on his own for how cheeses pair with Sap House meads, he says he’s also relying on the expertise of others (citing the specialty shops on the Sap House delivery roster “where they have someone who really knows their cheese”) to help with the initial product stock. He does not seem to shy from the live-and-learn method of doing; with his twenty-eighth birthday on the horizon, he says he’s young enough that it won’t matter to him if it takes ten years to get the business exactly right. 

I doubt he has to worry about that, though. Sap House's primary regular weekend traffic comes from people passing through. In addition to those driving by who see the sign and, consumed with the air of Ossipeean freedom, pull right over to find out more, Sap House gains attention from such events as the Barrel Tasting Weekend, when small wineries offer wines (and meads) right from the barrel in a tour to get wine-lovers acquainted with their local brewers. “We’re usually the least-attended because we’re the farthest away,” Trahan says, “but we get good word-of-mouth. ‘We ran into these people who came here and they just would not shut up about it!’ Then they have a taste, and they love it.”

It seems that Sap House has only a brilliant future in its sights. It's hard not to catch Trahan's enthusiasm and passion for his product. I can only assume I would experience a mirrored effect from Fischbein, the original brewer. Perhaps this will be confirmed when I make another visit in August to see the restaurant.

To learn more about Sap House, visit Trahan and Fischbein's website at For a special history of mead, visit Matt Trahan's blog post on the honeymoon. And stay tuned for Working for Myself: Matt Trahan and Sap House Meadery, Part II, after I visit the (what I'm sure will be absolutely successful) restaurant!

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