The venerable Polish bar in Pittsburgh will close for good after Saturday night after nearly 32 years.
There’s a meadery in Carnegie that is holding its grand opening Friday night.
If you just thought or said, “A what?” you are not the first.
Proprietor Dave Cerminara isn’t offended if you don‘t know what a meadery is. He is, in fact, looking forward to schooling Western Pennsylvanians and others there.
The official name of the place is Apis Mead & Winery. It’s just that the wine he makes there is made from honey -- an alcoholic beverage called mead.
Mead dates back thousands of years -- you may have at least read about it or seen it in the Harry Potter movies -- and is having a bit of a resurgence in these craft-this, artisan-that times. But it‘s still not nearly as prevalent as grape and other fruit wines, beer and spirits.
Mr. Cerminara is hoping to put mead on many more people’s lips, at his new place and at other watering holes and restaurants around Western Pennsylvania and beyond.
“In Pittsburgh, people don’t know what it is. That’s why I started brewing it,” he said the other night, sitting on a stool in the storefront -- in the heart of Carnegie‘s Main Street -- that he spent the past year renovating with his father and his friend and helper, Joe Deck.
Mr. Deck is the artist who did the paintings that ring the walls, including the one of the giant honey bee. The fetching, fanciful art also graces the labels of Apis meads, which they dispense by the glass and by the bottles and, starting this weekend, from kegs that they will sell to other establishments. More than 40 business had contacted him by the time he soft-opened Apis earlier this month.
Plenty of bars and restaurants are thirsty for local mead, he says, mostly because it’s different and new to so many people. Mead also happens to be gluten-free, which makes this ancient drink au courant.
Mr. Cerminara says his goal is to make and market mead for today, rather than the backward-looking stuff of Norse legends and renaissance faires. “We’re trying to do a modern meadery.”
The 32-year-old comes to this from a modern brewery, the North Side‘s Penn Brewery, which hired him after it reopened after a short hiatus in late 2010. He literally started at the bottom -- as its cellarman -- scrubbing floors and doing whatever else he was told to do. What he loved to do was create and perfect recipes, and in the four years he worked there, Penn brewed 14 of his, including his favorite, kolsch.
He traveled to Cologne, Germany, to research that one (with Mr. Deck, no less), and has visited dozens of other breweries around the world, and so many think of him as a beer guy.
But the first thing he ever brewed was mead, growing up in a family of wine-makers in the nearby southern edge of the city of Pittsburgh. (He remembers coming to this storefront once when it was a record store and buying a record.) After graduating from Bishop Canevin High School, and a stint as an undercover retail-theft detective, he landed a job at South Hills Brewing Supply. It was while working for its various outlets, including Country Wines, that he became educated in winemaking and brewing. It’s from there that he lucked into the job at Penn.
But as he told home-brewing-store co-workers and customers, his goal was to open his own meadery. “Everyone says that,” he acknowledges. It‘s just that for him, “Everything fell into place.”
He gave Penn Brewery a year’s notice that he was leaving to open Apis, which got a lot of attention as he built it over the past year, especially this summer. It was too much work to do as a side gig as he’d once planned. He didn’t have far to travel to work on the building, because he still lives in the adjacent city neighborhood of East Carnegie. Now he does his mead-making and sales work early in the week and opens Apis on the weekends.
Like its decor, Apis has an aesthetic that is arty and simple. The stainless-steel vats in which they can make three barrels of mead at a time are out in the open, just to the left of the tasting bar towards the back of the space that also features several round tables with stools and some square tables. There are no TVs, but there are chess boards and other games. “We just wanted good conversation and good wine,” Mr. Cerminara says.
The product itself couldn’t be more simple -- made with honey, water and yeast, plus whatever herbs or fruit are added. It’s certainly simpler to make than beer, he points out. “We don’t boil. We don’t filter. We don‘t do much. We just let the yeast do the work.”
And the bees. Apis sources all of its various honeys, as well as fruit, from Bedillion Honey Farm near Hickory, Washington County.
The mead styles are given bee-related names. They started out serving Florea, a “session mead” that is about 7 percent alcohol by volume; Mellifera, the house mead that is 10 percent alcohol; and Dorsata, a heavy (14-percent alcohol) “sack mead.” On a recent Friday, the range went from the sweet peach-apricot-flavored Florea to the fruity blackberry-raspberry Mellifera to the dry Sangiovese-grape Dorsata, but the styles and flavors are going to be constantly changing, depending on the season and Mr. Cerminara’s whim.
As for taste (and Apis is liberal with free tastes), he describes them as like white wines of various bodies, though the Sangiovese tastes like a red wine. Meads don’t taste like honey, as the honey ferments into alcohol, and they can be made quite dry. Apis mead sells for $5.75 to $7 for a 6-ounce glass and $18 to $22.50 for a bottle, which you may open and drink on the premises. Besides a few small plates, Apis doesn’t do food, but it can show you menus of nearby restaurants and you’re welcome to BYOF.
Mr. Cerminara isn’t hung up on making sure everyone knows the traditional names for different concoctions such “melomel“ for a mead made with fruit, “cyzer” for one made with cider or apples, “pyment” for mead made with grapes, and “hippocrass” for a pyment made with herbs and spices.
But he’ll make mead with just about anything. For the grand opening, he’ll debut a tangerine-ginger one, a spiced one that tastes a little like chai tea, and a bourbon-barreled-age one with lemons that tastes “kind of like a whiskey sour.”
His license won’t allow him to brew with any grain, so he won‘t be able to make a braggot, or a mead made with malted barley and sometimes hops. But he could do that at a brewery in one of the collaborations he’s planning to regularly do. Already in the works, as a fundraiser for Children’s Hospital, is a cyser with Lawrenceville’s Arsenal Cider Works & Winery, a business not unlike his that now has taps dispensing its hard cider all over the region.
A few places already sell bottles of mead from another meadery in this region, the Laurel Highlands Meadery near Greensburg that started in 2010 (but it does not have its own tasting room). And more meads are available in the state store system, which Mr. Cerminara wants to use to distribute his meads at least as far as Ohio, where it could be sold at Boardman‘s Vintage Estate Wine and Beer store, which holds regular mead tastings. In fact, on Aug. 10, the store is hosting a mead-education event (see accompanying box). “Meads are a growing segment of the market,” says owner Phill Reda, who says the store now carries more than 50 from all over the world. “I would love to have a Pennsylvania meadery on my shelves.”
Mr. Cerminara is looking forward to being part of mead’s next chapter. “I‘’m not sure if we’re breaking the boundaries, but we’re changing what people think of when it comes to traditional mead.”
And getting more people to think about mead at all.
Apis, at 212 E. Main St., is open 4 to 10 p.m. Thurs. and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fri. and Sat. (412-478-9172 and apismead.com). For the Friday, Aug. 1, grand opening, there will be music around 6 p.m. from Jim Mullett of the Bandits. Apis also will participate in the next Carnegie Crawl on Aug. 8 (see carnegiepa.net).
Bob Batz Jr.: email@example.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.