Bumbling Fools Mead in Minneapolis

People have been drinking mead nearly as long as they’ve been harvesting honey. While mead has a storied history, it’s not nearly as popular as beer and wine, despite some similarities. But that hasn’t stopped mead makers from pursuing their passions in a competitive beverage marketplace. The wine-like drink has always had an appeal to those who want something a little bit different, and that whimsical spirit drives Noah Stein and Skot Rieffer, who cofounded and opened Bumbling Fools meadery in the Como neighborhood of Minneapolis, beginning manufacturing in late 2021 and slowly expanding their taproom since. They take their mead making seriously, of course, but their mead names often poke fun at themselves and there is a playful spirit throughout, from the cartoony bees everywhere to the life size cutout of their first customer.

The meadery and taproom are something of a hidden gem, located at the corner of East Hennepin and 21st Avenue SE but lacking true signage on the busy Hennepin Avenue. The complex of formerly industrial buildings are primarily artist studios. This makes a trip to Bumbling Fools an adventure itself. There are two entrances to the building, both with wandering hallways that are colorfully adorned with pointing bee signs to get you to your destination. Once there, you’ll find a large Mead Hall event room and a small bar around the corner that fits the artist studio vibe. Reclaimed furniture gives a cozy and one-of-a-kind atmosphere with ample room to sip your beverage as you socialize, read a book or, on Thursdays, play trivia. Art shows take place the last Friday of each month in the building.

HEAVY TABLE: What is your origin story?

NOAH STEIN: About 8 years ago Skot and I happened to be making mead for the first time, separately and independently. We exchanged notes and bottles. Many years later, we said, “We should do that again but bigger this time.” So we made a bigger batch and different flavors and had some fun. We made some more and made some more. We were starting to do tasting parties…

The Massachusetts Renaissance Festival was doing their first mail-in mead homebrewing event, bringing in wine and mead judges from Europe. “They don’t know us and they know the game: they’ll be able to tell us why our mead is so terrible and what we can do to fix it.” Then the pandemic happened. I left my job. Skot left his job. Later that week the results came in and we won. Our traditional mead won Best In Show and Best Traditional. Our Bee Sting (jalapeño lime) won Best Experimental and third place overall. We looked at each other: “Maybe we’re doing something right.”

I’m probably not giving myself enough credit. Homebrewing is an odd hobby because there is frequently nothing to do; you’re waiting for it to age, ferment or whatever. So I spent a lot of that time reading and researching the science behind yeast and the history of wine … Considering that we both had more free time on our hands, we found the [small bar room] space across the hall. We moved in and started brewing. We got our license about two and a half years ago. We opened the bar about a year ago.

We started there. The landlords were very good to us. Due to the nature of the product, we cannot make a dollar off this for at least nine months.

Originally we were all distribution. We could sell bottles ourselves but we couldn’t pour drinks and we weren’t set up to do tastings. But after the first year we noticed this building does 4-5 art shows a year and is involved with Art A Whirl. On those days the building was getting great traffic. We set up a little table and did tastings in the hallway and it was very popular. Last year, in February, we decided, “Let’s get in on this.” 

The front room was storage and office and we shoved everything into the back, gave it a facelift, and turned it into a tasting bar and we were open for one of the art shows. It was massively popular and it was great. Shortly thereafter we realized that, because the majority of the honey we use comes from local Minnesota growers, we count as a farm winery, which means we can serve in the space where we manufacture. So we leaned into it and opened as a proper bar.

HT: How big a change has the taproom been for the business plan? You’re now a bartender?

STEIN: Right. It changed pretty quickly, going from all distribution to doing it as retail, essentially. Once we saw the potential we jumped right in. The profit is much larger. You are essentially giving up your Thursday and Friday and Saturday nights for the rest of time. [Laughs.] But eventually we’ll have an actual staff and can take the occasional weekend off.

Right away we started getting regulars. Trivia has been a big deal. We see people coming back every week and we see new people that haven’t been here before. And people see our sign and wander in and stay for trivia for a couple hours. It’s baby steps, but they’re all forward. It’s a comfortable place right now.

HT: It’s a bit of a stereotype, but I associate mead with Renaissance fairs. Do you have a background in that scene or do you play off that association?

STEIN: It’s an odd but significant section of the market… I do work at the Ren Fair. My sister owns a sewing shop so I’m there several weekends out of the year, but the mead at the Renaissance Festival is through J. Bird Wines and it always has been. White Bear Meadery are the Viking bar with wolf pelts and Viking memorabilia and their mead is named after Norse stuff.

We weren’t interested in fighting over [branding]. Mead is heavily associated with Vikings. It features pretty heavily in their stories but literally everywhere in the world that had honeybees had mead – even if they called it different things in Greek, Danish and Swedish, in Africa – that’s one of the things we try to recognize and play to… We make the Egyptian mead. We’re working on something approximately Scottish. The Bee Sting with jalapeño and lime. We like to get weird and experimental.

HT: How do you pick what is on tap at a given moment?

STEIN: The Traditional, The Featherweight, and the Two Ravens are always available. The Featherweight is probably our most popular. The Traditional is our solid, classic mead that’s very popular. Two Ravens is my favorite. It was one of the first flavored meads we’d done, so we’d had a chance to really dial in the recipe. 

Aside from that, we did the Queen’s Kiss for the first time last year. When we ran out people were sad, so we made some more. The Caramel Apple is new. Froop? We did it on a whim and it was well received, so I had to turn around and make more. We have a board out there where we ask people for flavor suggestions. We just talk with people and come up with ideas. I have a book of old world mead ideas I flip through sometimes.

HT: You also do custom mead. Is that a sizable part of your business or more special events?

STEIN: [There is a cutout of Mark in the bar.] Mark doesn’t work here. He is one of our first patrons. We were at a party and he handed me a body of New Glarus raspberry sour and said, “I want this, but I want it to be mead and blackberries.” So I took the bottle home and did some actual research (not just drinking it). Then I asked him how sweet, how sour, things like that. A week or two later he shows up at my door with 30 pounds of frozen blackberries: “I want however much this will make,” which ended up being about 11 gallons.

I want to get into more commissioned meads for weddings or big events. A wedding is one of the few big parties you know enough in advance to start and finish a mead.

The unspoken thing is if you order 5-10 gallons for your wedding reception I’m going to throw in a case of bottles for the couple, each with a tag: 1 month, 6 months, 1 year. These are your anniversary meads. They will keep better than the frozen top of a cake which isn’t meant to be frozen. Plus, the etymology of honeymoon is giving a couple enough mead to last one month.

HT: Do you find that most people who come in understand what mead is?

STEIN: It’s about 50/50.

It’s usually 3 answers:

  1. I’ve never had mead.
  2. I had it at the Renaissance Festival.
  3. Or I homebrew mead.

Honestly, it’s one of our big hurdles: getting people to bite and walk in the door. Mead is coming back a little bit but it’s still unknown. And what people do know about it from past experiences have been some dusty bottles of Chaucer’s sitting on the liquor store shelf for who knows how long or at the Renaissance Festival, which is intensely sweet and very different from what we do here. Our mead is much more like a dry white wine.

When people that have done some homebrewing come in, it’s a lot of fun to talk shop. There’s a lot of people in the world who have a little carboy sitting in the back of their coat closet quietly aging.

HT: How do you guide those first-time visitors?

STEIN: We usually start with The Traditional as an introduction. Beyond that we ask, “Do you like dry or sweet?” We have a flight. But for the most part, if people walk in our door, they are at least a little interested.

HT: Do you get foot traffic versus people seeking you out?

STEIN: More than you would think. We relied on word of mouth and it took us 2-3 months to put a sign outside. When we put a sandwich board outside, number of people took a chance on the long, weird hallway. There is a lot of walking traffic in this neighborhood: people who live 2-3 blocks away and never knew this place was here.

HT: What is your elevator pitch on how you are different than other meaderies?

STEIN: There are like 3 other meaderies in town and a couple others in Minnesota. What makes us different is that ours is a dry wine. We’re a little more accessible in Minneapolis. (The next closest is White Bear Meadery.) If we have a thing, it’s that we love bees and sustainability. All the furniture in this room came from the ReStore. And as many of our ingredients as we can [source] come from local communities. The vast majority of our honey comes from Stillwater, Jim’s Bees and Honey.

We try to be your very local mead haunt. We’re pretty casual about everything.

HT: How do you weigh experimental versus traditional?

STEIN: That’s one of our taglines that we toss around. Bumbling Fools: traditional and clever. I feel like we would be doing a disservice to ourselves just to focus on the tradition. A lot of homebrewers like to do wild ferments, open tank stuff. When we’re doing it commercially, we need a certain reproducibility. We make traditional recipes with modern practices. There is a lot of niche science with fermentation between chemistry and biology. We can get weird and experiment.

HT: Do you have a timeline for building out the taproom?

STEIN: We don’t want to go for classy or too far out there, but not full-on Cottagecore. It will probably look similar to what it is now but with new stairs, a lift, a wall, a stage, a bigger bar…and this old, stained floor.

Bumbling Fools Mead, 2010 East Hennepin Avenue #11-106, Minneapolis, THU 4-10pm, SAT 2-8pm, MON-WED, FRI, SUN CLOSED