Brian Koch is the owner of North Portland’s Lombard House pub, and like many others he is grappling with a pandemic, a pivot to delivery, and worldwide protests of an unjust system that have implications far more important than beer and bars.
Nectar Creek Mead was the first of its kind: a meadery without wine bottles. The Corvallis startup began selling its session-strength meads (which hovered around 7% abv) in October of 2012. After seven years and a big expansion to a purpose-built facility in nearby Philomath, Nectar Creek will be closed as of Saturday, October 5. Since its announcement on Facebook this past Tuesday, the local support at its taproom and pub has been tremendous.
Co-founder and head meadmaker Phil Lorenz says he’s sad about the closure, but is keeping his mindset focused on what matters and the positive aspects as much as possible. “I’m really focused on being present and supporting our staff. The taproom has been insane since the announcement, a line 15 people deep the last two days. Once we’re closed I’ll get into all the loose ends. I’m focused on doing right by all the stakeholders and trying to close this chapter as gracefully and professionally as I can.”
Lorenz says they considered switching to other sales models, such as scaling back to the taproom or switching to self-distribution, before deciding to close the business, but the production model, with most of the mead being packaged and sent out for distribution to a handful of states, made the most sense. “As much as this is a passion project, at the end of the day it’s a business and you have to make business decisions, which sucks,” he says.
Passion was what drove Nectar Creek from its original 7-barrel warehouse in the Eastgate Business Center, about a mile east of downtown Corvallis on Highway 34. Phil and his brother, Nick, started slinging their meads with a fresh, strong message that mead could be enjoyed like cider or beer. They essentially created their own beverage sector, as there were no other session meaderies around. The meads, which came in several flavors, were bright and crisp with moderate honey flavor and a low dose of sweetness. Educating prospective consumers proved to be a big challenge, as many people did not really know what mead was, or how versatile it is.
The most exciting time came in January 2018, when Nectar Creek moved into a brand new building at the west end of Philomath where Routes 20 and 34 merge on their way to the coast. The taproom included a restaurant that served fresh, really tasty food, a wide variety of Nectar Creek’s meads, and guest cider, beer, and wine taps. They also increased production from 7-barrel to 30-barrel fermentors. As always, Lorenz sought out honey from local hives.
The reasons for closing Nectar Creek, as with many businesses, are complex. “If it was an easy question to answer it might not have happened,” says Lorenz. “It’s really a business decision. At the end of the day it was costing us more money than we were making, and we made the decision to stop it. We couldn’t reach a sustainable financial position for the business.”
When asked if there was direct competition from beverages like hard seltzers, Lorenz demurred. “It would be too short sighted to blame White Claw. The beverage industry is so damn competitive right now, and the barrier of entry for us in wholesale seemed to be a bigger pill than we could swallow. You can only grow so fast. The marketing and sales side takes a massive effort to be successful, and that takes a shitload of money as far as I can tell.
“I still really believe in the products that our team created over the years, and the brand. The biggest hurdle is that nobody knows what the hell it is, but I believe that there is an opportunity for the products and brand that we created.”
Several years ago, Nectar Creek released its flagship brands Waggle (Wildflower), Sting (Ginger), and Cluster (Cranberry & Strawberry) in 12oz. cans, which were received well. Over the years, Lorenz also experimented with barrel-aged meads. Though some were of higher strength, others remained in the sessionable range. Projects like Triple Brett, a blend of three barrels with three different Brettanomyces yeasts, were fantastic and a real eye-opener to the potential of fermented honey. One particular barrel-aged mead, made with carrot blossom honey, was like walking through a copse of jasmine and honeysuckle.
And then there was Top Bar. Originally introduced as a bourbon barrel-aged mead with coffee, this particular mead made drinkers do a double take (and was a personal favorite). Similarly, the sprite-ly Nectarade hooked fans with lemon-lime zestiness. The brothers, though, stuck to their guns when it came to taking the mead beyond its borders; using it as a mixer was never really in their purview, or part of the marketing. It was mead for mead’s sake.
Nectar Creek will host a blowout party on Saturday, October 5 at its taproom at 500 Main St. in Philomath. Stocking up on mead to drink now and save for later is advised.
Aaron Brussat is a complex living organism with an interest in all things fermented. He started writing about and working in the beer industry in 2010. His experience stems primarily from spending six years at The Bier Stein as a beer steward, homebrewing since 2005, and passing the BJCP and Certified Cicerone exams. Highlights along the way include numerous collaborations with local brewers, curating beer dinners at The Bier Stein, and traveling to Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Peru, and New Zealand (as well as many parts of the U.S.) for a chance to drink beer at the source.