It’s not uncommon for actors to have side hustles—Gwyneth Paltrow and goop, 50 Cent and Vitamin Water, Jessica Alba and the Honest Company. But how about a former-child-star-turned-master-mead-maker attempting to revive a thousands-of-years-old drink in a Williamsburg hotel?
The actor in question is Dylan Sprouse. You may have seen him as Ross’ son Ben on Friends; alongside his twin brother, Cole, on the Disney Channel show, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody; or, if you’re me, as Adam Sandler’s adopted son in the underappreciated film Big Daddy. He’s taking his side passion for brewing mead and turning it into a veritable enterprise, with a 2,300-square-foot space in the trendy William Vale hotel that’ll soon house New York’s first full production meadery, All-Wise Meadery. The goal of which being to lend the oft-forgotten-about fermented honey drink the same kind of cachet that has come to craft beer.
Sprouse’s obsession with mead started as an interest in brewing in general. His dad—who, in Sprouse’s words, “has more of an Italian mindset on alcohol”—bought him a brewing kit when he was a teenager, and Sprouse starting experimenting. He made his own pilsners, stouts, and eventually braggots (a beer and mead hybrid).
Slowly, he started becoming more singularly interested in mead. “On top of really liking the taste, I loved the historical background,” he says. Mead is known to have been an ancient drink in China, India and much of Europe, and makes frequent appearances in classic myths and epics. “My mother’s side of the family being Danish and Welsh, they talked about it quite a bit.” As a college student at New York University, he started going around to local wine stores and tasting meads, brewing in his dorm room and traveling up and down the east and west coasts during breaks to explore the American mead market.
What he found was that, while he loved mead as a drink, he didn’t like a lot of the offerings of these other meaderies. “I am very minimalist and bare bones in approaching mead,” Sprouse says. “But the tradition that has been sweeping the mead community for the last 30 to 40 years is the opposite,” with meads that are overly sweet, one-dimensional and over-complicated in their ingredient lists.
The other challenge he observed that was preventing mead from going mainstream was perception. “There are two categories of mead loyalists,” he explains. “People who go to Renaissance Fairs and people who are metalheads and bikers. They are both fantastic, passionate groups, but from the outset, they can make mead seem standoffish.”
Seeing a clear opportunity for mead that was traditional in style, yet modern and accessible in its presentation, he called up his brewing buddies—and now partners—Doug Brochu and Matt Kwan.
“I said, fuck it, let’s make a meadery. It’s now or never,” Sprouse recalls.
He knew he wanted to open up in Brooklyn, and specifically Williamsburg, as the neighborhood is a hotspot for the craft brewing movement, so he partnered up with the William Vale and set about building All-Wise. The goal being, “to revitalize the mead community, while not straying away from tradition, and to make mead stand on its own two legs as a drink you can casually enjoy, and to not have it be a hokey Renaissance Fair object,” Sprouse says. “I want the narrative to shift in such a way that people from all walks of life are drinking mead,” not unlike what has happened with craft beer.
Sprouse's first batch of oak-aged Show Mead is available for pre-order now, and the space itself will tentatively open this Fall. Though, like any new business in New York, there have been countless delays since the announcement of the project at the beginning of last year.
Still, he talks excitedly about his vision, with construction about to begin on the multi-level space with a big bar, plus a vault of aging meads. He describes the overall look as “Coney Island-esque” and “surrealist.”
He’s equally thrilled about All-Wise’s debut mead varieties, which adhere to his more minimalist, reductive approach to making the drink, with just a couple of elements and classic techniques. “I tried to cut as many ingredients as possible and brew down to the very base level,” he says. “I’m not trying for a quadruple hop IPA coffee bean scenario.”
The first is a house mead, which Sprouse describes as “dry, floral, a little bready, with some citrus at the very end.” The second will incorporate Oolong tea leaves from In Pursuit of Tea, a tea distributor based in Manhattan, to make a mead that’s slightly more astringent. Sprouse says it will be “similar to a sweet tea that your Alabama grandma might make.”
For his honey source, Sprouse is working with the upstate New York-based Tremblay Apiaries, which he discovered several years back at the Union Square Greenmarket. But he’s also hoping to bring in other artisanal honey makers, like Red Bee Honey, specializing in rare, single-origin honeys, to do events and collaborations. Sprouse says that educating people about how, exactly, mead gets made, as well as how it pairs with food, will make up a big part of All-Wise’s programming.
There may also be rotating meads from some of Sprouse’s favorite meaderies across the country, such as Mysto Meads in the Hudson Valley, which flavors its meads with herbs and spices, or Golden Coast Mead in Oceanside, California, which uses ale yeast to brew beer-style meads.
Sprouse still plans to keep up his acting work—he’s currently in China shooting a movie—but once All-Wise opens, he wants to focus on connecting with the local community through in-house taste tests, “where people come in on a bi-monthly basis and we taste a lot of varieties and just talk about the state of mead in general.”
He’s also starting to think about craft beer companies he could work with on braggots—that same beer/mead hybrid that drew Sprouse into the mead world. “Nothing is set in stone,” he says, but he’s eyeing brands like Brooklyn Brewery, located just across the street from the William Vale, as well as Montauk Brewing Company and Evil Twin Brewing.
“I want mead to have the cultural support system that beer has,” he says, firmly. “I want to expand in a way that we can experiment with more bizarre and interesting ingredients and create a loyal drinking base. This is how we are going to move this drink forward, and in a way that is meaningful on a nationwide scale.”