It used to be that throwback drinking meant quaffing Prohibition-era cocktails and Hemingway sippers. But these days, we’re seeing an emphasis on even older traditions, and a resurgence of traditional techniques that have long fallen out of use. Mead, the fermented honey drink that was made as early as 7000 BC in China and was drunk in North Europe during the Bronze Age, is making a comeback that started in the homebrew community and grew outward. And in just a few short months, Williamsburg will be home to one of the largest mead brewing operations in the country.
Truly, mead couldn’t have a better spokesperson than Dylan Sprouse, along with his business partners Doug Brochu and Matt Kwan. Their All-Wise Meadery is set to open in a brand new, sprawling glass-and-concrete retail space attached to the William Vale hotel. (Yeah, that’s the ginormous one that makes the Wythe look like an inconsequential little baby ant.) “We want to bring mead to people as this new alcohol with an old history,” explained Dylan, who told me that, at 24, he is the youngest brewmaster in the country.
“Unfiltered beers are big right now, but they’ve been big in Germany for centuries,” Dylan explained. “People are approaching things differently, just like they are with their acai bowls.” (For the record, he pronounced it “ah-sigh-ee.”) He maintains that his approach to mead-making is somewhat outside the norm, since he uses “better, more organic, more nutrients, and less chemically added properties.” His technique, too, is about getting back to the basics, which he describes as “more just putting it inside the tank and letting it sit.”
Mead is an exceptional bevy to begin with, and only recently have micro-brewing operations picked up in the U.S., but Dylan places himself within an even smaller circle of mead masters. If you can even find it on the shelves, or on the menu at a bar, mead is almost certainly going to be a sweet drink, he pointed out. “So in my quest to make mead, it was also a quest to make mead the way I liked it,” he said. “That was more in line with a dry wine taste.” (I’ll admit, I had no clue that mead could even be dry. )
The All-Wise Meadery also represents something of a resurgence for Dylan, the one-time child actor best known for his starring role alongside his twin brother Cody in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. After a three year run with Disney from 2005 to 2008, the twins did was child actors do and fell from sparkly grace when they came down with a wicked case of puberty. Dylan stopped pursuing acting for a time to attend NYU where he earned his B.A. in video game design. But he’s probably the first person ever who decided to become a mead maker because it was the more practical thing to do.
Now, Dylan has picked up acting once again. He and his two business partners at All-Wise have plans for a reality show called Mead in America, which will be filmed at the William Vale location, where Dylan said they are cordoning off some extra room for the film crew. “We just finished the sizzle reel and we’ll be pitching it out very soon,” he said. “I don’t want to sound cocky, but 90 percent of the time brewery shows get bought out. There’s an oddly large market for it on TV.” Who knew?
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, Dylan is kind of a nerd. He speaks like an aristocrat, without a trace of his LA upbringing, and would fit right in to a reading circle for fantasy fiction, but his Viking-like looks make it easier to imagine him LARPing with his college pals, his shimmering shoulder-length blonde hair billowing in the breeze as he jabs a saber at his sworn enemy named Magnus Inge. Or something. Dylan also has a streak of snobbery (you kinda have to in this biz). But it seems like he’s earned it and, with it, experimentation comes naturally. His most recent franken-mead was a “smoker’s” concoction. “We made it with Hawaiian honey, and tea we made from smoking tobacco,” he explained. “I think it’s one of the tastiest meads we’ve ever made, weirdly. The tobacco tastes rather fruity and delicious, but it also gives you a nicotine buzz.”
Obviously, mead is his thing, but Dylan also likes to point out that it was a way for him to drink while he was still under 21. “I got into it because I was particularly interested in drinking in college,” he explained. But brewing the stuff is actually second to another passionate pursuit.
There’s something else that informs Dylan’s mead obsession, and what has already had an impact on All-Wise, which is marketed on Instagram as “An all American, locally sourced Micro-Meadery and bar run by heathens.”
Before I had a chance to meet Dylan, I checked out All-Wise on social media. What I found were images of blonde women running through idyllic wheat fields as the sun sets overhead, and bucolic, wooded Northern European scenery. I even joked to a friend that the brewery must be owned by the Prussian Blue twins. Not exactly.
“I’m a Heathen,” Dylan explained. “It’s like a German pagan thing, I’ve been that since I was 15 years old.” It was one of the first things he told me, or rather blurted out. “The meadery at its very core was my brain child, so it has a lot to do with this Heathen stuff.”
A photo posted by All-Wise (@allwisemeadery) on
Heathenry, also known by its more specific sects–such as Odinism, and Ásatrú–is a polytheistic spiritual practice that occupies a curious space, at once defined as a New Religious Movement amongst academics and outside observers, and what some believe is an ancient religious tradition of Germanic and Nordic peoples and predates Christianity. There are some practitioners who say it’s simply a way to connect to their Northern European heritage, which is how Dylan describes his faith. “I was interested in the history of it, because I come from a Danish-German family,” he said. “It’s much more of a lifestyle than a dogmatic thing. I don’t go to church. I don’t go to mass. It’s more about the way you live your life.”
But Odinism and Wotanism in particular have drawn media attention in recent years for some of the racist and white supremacist ideology espoused by some (but not all) of the communities’ gatekeepers and individual practitioners. VICE points to a guy named Stephen McNallen, who runs the California-based heathen organization Asatru Folk Assembly, who pretty much summed it up: “I do not believe we are born tabula rasa, or ‘blank slate,'” McNallen’s writing is quoted. “We are the latest edition of our ancestors in this slice of space and time. Our native culture, or a logical permutation of it, is the one that suits us best because it arises from our very soul.”
There were moments when Dylan seemed to espouse similar ideas, particularly when he spoke of the “very, very rich history of mead” and how he felt particularly connected to mead because of his Germanic heritage. Even the All-Wise logo–three interlocking triangles, a symbol known as a “Valknot” that evokes the deity Odin–is often used by white supremacists. However, it’s important to point out that these hate groups are appropriating legit Old Norse imagery. As the Anti-Defamation League makes clear, “Nonracist pagans may also use this symbol, so one should carefully examine it in context rather than assume that a particular use of the symbol is racist.”
And for all the iffyness of heathenry, each and every red flag that went up was explained away by Dylan, who seems deeply, genuinely devoted to Heathenry. “I didn’t actually meet fellow Heathens until I was 18,” Dylan explained. “They’re a very mixed bag, to say the least, there are some great, amazing people within it, and also totally unsavory shitty people— like any faith.”
A photo posted by All-Wise (@allwisemeadery) on
In the same way that, from an outside perspective, Dungeons & Dragons players might seem suspiciously withdrawn from normal society, like robe-wearing misanthropes who suffer from malnutrition, once I asked started asking questions and listening, the Heathen thing seemed not so terrible after all. Just a little weird, that’s all. More importantly, Dylan seemed to accept the basic tenants of multiculturalism and, you know, not being an asshole– things that particular sects of heathenry don’t really get. “It seems in line with human nature that we originally proscribed to many gods, because there are so many different perspectives,” he said. If that doesn’t sound like a win for tolerance, I don’t know what is.
Another sign of Dylan’s good will is his mission to “change the way mead is perceived.” After a recent excursion to Radegast, the German-ish beer hall in Williamsburg, he was convinced that mead faces a crisis of identity. “I ordered a mead, and it came out and it was served in this very dainty martini glass,” he recalled. “The way I was raised, and the way I’ve know it through drinking it, this was kind of insulting.”
He pointed out that, historically mead was reserved for the “aristocracy,” and that tradition continues today– with two-serving bottles generally priced between $20 and $30, mead is still very much an “aristocratic drink.” With All-Wise, Dylan said he’s hoping to make mead more “accessible,” and just plain affordable, too. “There’s no way you’re going to get common people coming into your location because the price point’s all wrong,” Dylan noted. (Pro tip: using the term “common people” probably won’t help much either.) Somehow, All-Wise has found a way to make mead both “good and cheap”– and at an estimated $6 a glass, even us common people can agree that it qualifies as somewhat affordable. Better yet? “It’s still like 14 percent,” Dylan said. That’s an AVB that could officially push All-Wise’s mead into the most banger bang-for-your-buck in town.
But the reality is that Dylan and his crew still have to make rent at their fabulous William Vale hotel location. Here’s to hoping they can make good on their promise, and convince people to check out the place even if they’ve only got $7 in their pocket (tip your bartender, duh).
Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that the All-Wise reality show was in its second season and titled “Koozebane.” The show is still in production and is called “Mead in America.”