Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey. In Norse mythology, it’s the drink of the gods. In modern fantasy, it’s the drink of choice for men from Middle Earth to Westeros. It’s more likely for an American to have a golden, hazy idea of what mead is than to actually have tried it.
But in Ethiopia, a version of mead called te’j is a familiar household drink, consumed out of long-necked vessels called bereles. David Woods is bringing te’j to Tucson.
“A couple years ago, in 2021, I missed home. My friends and I were talking about it, let’s make talla, a beverage like beer (made with teff or sorghum). You can’t find it anywhere — it’s expensive. People don’t make it,” David said. He bought a small kit to brew te’j at home and started bringing it to share with coworkers and friends. He shared it while watching football and hanging out by the pool. “People liked it,” he said.
“I wanted to share the culture,” David said.
That impetus brought David to breweries across town, looking for a partner and a sublease. A friend referred him to a colleague who had given entrepreneurial speeches at the University of Arizona: Eric Sipe, the owner of Dillinger Brewing Company.
“Eric has been to Ethiopia, he said, ‘I love mead.’ He said, ‘This is awesome,’” David said. The two went into business together.
After two years of figuring out the logistics of sharing a space, confronting obstacles like not being able to share equipment, Brillé Mead Company opened in the Dillinger taproom, at 3895 N. Oracle Road, last week. The name is a spin on berele, as the mead is David’s local rendition of te’j.
“There are some things you can’t replicate,” David said. The two key ingredients in mead are honey and water: neither Ethiopian water nor honey is economical to import yet. “Ethiopian honey is one of the best honeys in the world,” David said.
Instead, David is using ingredients familiar to Tucson: local honey and flavors like hibiscus and prickly pear. Brillé’s debut featured two flavors of mead: a strawberry-hibiscus blend called rosé and a more traditional brew called Addis Ababá.
“Addis ababa means new flower,” David said. “It’s (also) the capital of Ethiopia.” Some customers, David said, don’t know where that is, and he’s happy to help educate them. He also keeps 10 bereles at the taproom. One day, they might be a perk for an inner circle of supporters, but for now they’re to educate customers, to show them how mead is drunk in Ethiopia.
David is looking to incorporate other iconically Ethiopian flavors into future batches of mead. “I’ve been trying to use Ethiopian coffee,” David said. “Coffee, the little twist, trying to get Ethiopian spices in there. (I’m thinking) of chili, something like that, to make it unique to the region so it can be authentic.”
With an ABV ranging between 6-11%, David’s mead is meant to be potent enough to have its distinct flavor without being too strong to be a practical substitute for beer.
David has hopes to distribute te’j to local Ethiopian restaurants, to build partnerships with breweries and wineries in Tucson and across the state. He’s scheming with Dillinger to potentially brew braggot, which is a hybrid of beer and mead. But for now, in these early days, David is working at Brillé during his three-day weekends off from his full-time job as an engineer.
“I’m content, but that’s not enough,” David said. “You get to a point where you wake up, go to work, go to sleep. It gets old. There’s a lot of pride that comes into contributing. People taking a chance on you, so, there’s gotta be some sort of return that makes people proud. That’s more of the long game ... I’m trying to share the culture.”
Brillé Mead Company
Location: Dillinger Brewing Company, 3895 N. Oracle Road
Hours: 3-8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 12-8 p.m. Saturday, 12-5 Sunday
For more information, follow them on Instagram.
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