Boneflower's award-winning Cherry Apple Inception Credit: courtesy Boneflower Mead

Boneflower Mead, located in northwest Indiana, has a rating of 4.7 out of a possible 5 on Untappd, a social networking app for beer aficionados that allows them to rate what they’re drinking. The rating is impressive for a fledgling meadery—but so is the fact that Boneflower, which has yet to sell a single bottle of mead, has more than 150 reviews.

Aaron Schavey, who cofounded the meadery with Geoff Resney, a friend and former colleague in the air pollution testing business, has been making mead for about two years and giving it away for almost as long. After being introduced to what he calls “the first mead that really blew me away” a couple years ago he started looking for quality mead to buy and, finding limited options, decided to make his own. For guidance he bought a book on mead-making by Ken Schramm, whose eponymous Michigan meadery had made that first fermented honey beverage that impressed Schavey, a boysenberry mead called Madeline. Online forums for mead-makers and talking to meadery owners also helped him learn.

Production was limited to five-gallon batches Schavey made in his basement, but that didn’t stop him from getting as much mead as possible out into the world. He went to craft beer festivals to pour samples and started a Facebook group where he’d do bottle giveaways and raffles where the proceeds went to charity. “My intention from day one in giving out the samples was to get honest feedback on it,” Schavey says. He and Resney had already registered Boneflower as an LLC, but hadn’t decided yet whether to actually apply for licensing and start a company. If they did, they wanted to know what kind of mead people liked to drink.

Credit: courtesy Boneflower Mead

In the meantime, they were making mead in the style of that first Schramm mead that Schavey fell in love with; these are the meads Boneflower has become known for. Schavey describes them as “heavy fruited meads—lots of fruit, higher gravity, they’re a little thicker, definitely sweet.” That style, he says, is why pouring samples at beer festivals made more sense than going to wine festivals. While the process of making mead is similar to winemaking (wine is fermented from grapes, while mead is fermented from honey, sometimes with fruit added), Boneflower’s sweet, high-alcohol meads don’t taste much like wine. They have more in common with beers like imperial stout or barleywine, which are often syrupy and boozy. “I think that’s why it caught on, because [craft beer drinkers] were chasing a very high alcohol, sweet, thick dessertlike beverage, and [our] mead is of that style,” Schavey says.

Schavey himself cut his teeth on craft beer well before he knew anything about mead. “I think we all owe a lot to Three Floyds,” he says. Now 32, he grew up in northwest Indiana and recalls throwing parties as a 21-year-old with kegs of locally brewed Three Floyds Gumballhead. “If you traveled anywhere outside of here, 21-year-olds were drinking Keystone Light kegs,” he says. “As I was discovering beer, it was craft beer.”

And craft beer drinkers have embraced Boneflower enthusiastically. “It really just started to take off; people were reaching out to me nonstop asking for mead,” Schavey says. “I was probably getting between ten and 20 messages a day from complete strangers.” That enthusiasm helped convince Schavey and Resney that this was a concept worth pursuing, and in March they applied for their federal and state licenses. That same month Boneflower entered the Mazer Cup International Mead Competition, the largest mead competition in the world, where their Cherry Apple Inception mead won second place in its category (mixed fruit sweet mead). A couple of months later they were granted their licenses—a lucky break since the process can take a year or more.

“To celebrate getting our licensing we started an Indiegogo,” Schavey says. They had a space, at least for the moment—Resney owns a manufacturing site in St. John, Indiana, where Boneflower was able to set up shop, though Schavey says that won’t be their permanent home (they eventually want to move to a space where they can set up a tasting room). But they needed to buy equipment and ingredients for producing mead on a larger scale, and honey isn’t cheap. Schavey set an ambitious goal of $100,000 for Boneflower’s crowdfunding campaign, not expecting to reach it.

Rewards for the lower levels of donations ($5-$55) range from a thank-you on social media to the usual swag: t-shirts, corkscrews, stickers. $250, though, gets you a “standard membership:” a couple bottles of mead and the right to first dibs on future releases of Boneflower mead for two years. $475 is the same deal but gets you twice the allotment of regular backers, and the $750 level, known as the “adviser’s club,” is a standard membership that also includes bottles of experimental mead that members can provide feedback on. Just four contributors get the opportunity to create their “dream mead” for $5,000 a pop (all the membership award levels are limited in quantity).

The Indiegogo campaign went live May 17 and within 13 hours had surpassed its goal, selling out of all membership-level rewards and exceeding $109,000. The campaign is set for 60 days, but it’s been stalled at that (admittedly impressive) number ever since. Boneflower’s backers don’t seem particularly interested in swag; while all 270 memberships were claimed in the first day, just six people have contributed $55 or less.

“I had no idea we were going to just absolutely blow the goal out of the water,” Schavey says. “Giving away as much mead as I could in the early stages is really what got people’s interest. We gave away thousands and thousands of dollars of mead just to get feedback.” In the process, as it turns out, he also built a loyal following.

Next, Schavey and Resney will be buying bigger equipment for their meadery, along with thousands of pounds of honey (most of what they’ve been using so far comes from Michigan). Along with their Cherry Apple Inception, they make a raspberry creme brulee mead with caramelized honey; Slow Heavy Jam, which is made from Concord grapes; and a blackberry and blackcurrant mead called Black Number One. They’re excited to start working on some drier styles, though, Schavey says. He wants to do some barrel aging and make seasonal mead, like a fruity, light, carbonated style for summer. In the midwest, Schavey says, it’s mostly craft beer fans who are gravitating towards mead, but in other parts of the country where drier styles of mead are more common, it’s popular among wine drinkers—and he wants to attract wine drinkers too.  “Our ultimate goal,” he says, “is to make mead for everybody.”