According to Norse mythology, if you drink one sip of the Mead of Poetry, you will transform into a poet and a scholar. Unfortunately, before you go searching for it on your supermarket shelves, you should know that it was created the way things tend to be created in Norse mythology: murder, magic, and vengeance of the gods.
However, if your search is simply for some delicious mead, and you’re indifferent as to whether it should turn you into a poet and a scholar, then you simply need to head to 4th Avenue, near the intersection of 4th and Huron. There you’ll find Bløm Meadworks, downtown Ann Arbor’s first meadery. The mead at Bløm may not have the same dramatic backstory as the Norse Mead of Poetry, but it has a story to tell all the same. Rather than the vengeance of the gods, mead in Ann Arbor was born of the modern-day equivalent: a gluten allergy.
“Seven or eight years ago, Matt opened a brewery in Chicago with two business partners who were friends of his,” Lauren Bloom explains. Matt Ritchey, Bloom’s husband, co-owns Bløm Meadworks with her. “Matt was the head brewer for probably four or five years before he found out he had a gluten allergy. So that was kind of his trigger for realizing he couldn’t stay on as head brewer at the brewery anymore. He couldn’t drink beer.”
At the same time, Bloom was working in the nonprofit sector, but she had a growing interest in local food advocacy. “I was trying to figure out a way to build more time in my life for working on local food production, local food advocacy, and helping to develop those relationships between farmers and consumers,” she recalls. “Matt really wanted to stay in fermentation, brewing of sorts. But he wanted to focus on something that was naturally gluten-free, and we wanted something that would stand on its own. So if someone needed a gluten-free option, this was safe for them. If they didn’t need a gluten-free option, they might not ever know it’s gluten-free.”
Bloom and Ritchey eventually decided to focus on meads and ciders, which are two naturally gluten-free drinks. The meads and ciders that Bloom and Ritchey create, however, are significantly different from the sweet, highly alcoholic meads that the Vikings might have drank.
“We wanted to tweak both meads and ciders in a way that they were versions that we really loved, something that to us felt casual, something that people would come together around, something that felt accessible both in a style and a price range for people who might be new to mead,” Bloom explains. “So we kept honing our recipes until we found something that we really loved. We call that session mead, but it just means it’s a style that’s lower in alcohol than traditional meads, it’s quite dry, and it’s carbonated. So you’d drink maybe a pint of it at a time. It drinks almost like a dry cider or a beer.”
The physical space of Bløm Meadworks encapsulates the hip, trendy aesthetic of the Main Street district in downtown Ann Arbor. The space is bright and open with white walls, wooden accents, and green plants adding a pop of color. A card on the bar reads “Hell Yes!” Adjacent to the tap room is Bløm community room, which is used for yoga classes, a bike co-op, and a private event rental space. This community aspect is what makes Bløm Meadworks a perfect fit for Ann Arbor; or, rather, it is what makes Ann Arbor a perfect fit for Bløm Meadworks.
“We knew we wanted to be in a walking or biking location for people, or be in a city with public transportation, since it is an alcohol-based business and we wanted to keep people safe,” Bloom explains. “And we really wanted to be downtown, because mead is something that’s new to a lot of people. It needed to be something that people could just kind of stumble across and try.”
Bloom and Ritchey both grew up in Michigan (Fenton and Holly), so they have long been familiar with the qualities of the state that draw people back in and make them decide to put down their roots here. Those of us who grew up in Michigan can list off these qualities like we can list off our multiplication tables: weekend trips up north, cider and donuts in the cool of October, grilling hotdogs in a parking lot before a football game. These memories are ingrained in the back of every native Michigander’s mind, and they’re enough to make you forget about the dead, grey winters that drove you away in the first place.
Bloom and Ritchey moved from Chicago to Ann Arbor in the thick sunshine of early summer, when not only is the entire state of Michigan giddy with the promise of Tigers games and road trips to Lake Michigan, but Ann Arbor itself is the most Ann Arbor it will be all year.
“There were so many events going on, and it was just like, all these people together in one place,” Bloom recalls. “It had this mix of some of the pieces of a big city, with the events that were going on, but the neighborhoodiness of a small town, all in one place. And seeing that people were willing to donate to it to keep it going and appreciated the fact that it takes a lot to put on.”
The beauty of Ann Arbor is indeed most prominent in the summer, when the sun comes out after long months of hiding, and everyone emerges from their homes to celebrate in the streets with events like Summerfest and Art Fair. But perhaps what makes Ann Arbor unique is that it doesn’t lose its flavor in the winter, even when restaurants on Main Street bring their beloved patio furniture inside to hibernate, even when every step you take is padded with a thick layer of snow. No matter when you visit Ann Arbor, it’s still Ann Arbor, still vibrant and lively and full of culture. That’s exactly the home Bloom and Ritchey needed for their meadery.
“We were coming from Chicago, so we wanted to be in a place that had and appreciated diversity and culture,” Bloom explains. “We wanted to be in a place where people are curious eaters and curious drinkers, and we really wanted and needed to be in a place where residents are supportive of local businesses and a place where people want their downtown to be filled with independent businesses. We kind of need that loyalty: people who want to come out of their homes and support a small business.”
That’s Ann Arbor, Bloom and Ritchey soon came to realize. That’s Ann Arbor to a tee. But the unique culture wasn’t the only thing to lure Bloom and Ritchey to Ann Arbor. They were also lured by the local produce.
“Something that’s been important to us is sourcing all of our ingredients from Michigan. Mead and cider are things where we can source all of the ingredients from Michigan. With beer, it’s a little more challenging because most of the grains are grown in Canada. Not all of them, but most of them,” Bloom explains. “So, with honey and pressed apples, those are obviously two big agricultural products here in Michigan.”
Bloom and Ritchey choose to source their ingredients locally for a number of reasons. “The more obvious answer is that it keeps that money in the Michigan economy and it supports Michigan farmers and producers,” she says. But Bloom and Ritchey’s jobs are more than just jobs, and, to them, the ingredients for their drinks are more than goods in the economy.
“Our job every day is better and happier when we’re calling up people who we’ve met, we know what their farm looks like, we know who their partners are and who their kids are,” she says with a smile. “We’re calling and talking to them instead of just getting online and placing an order and, you know, choosing our delivery option. We’re working long hours, we’re putting a lot of time into this, and those interactions and those relationships make everyday happier. It doesn’t feel like you’re gonna burn out if you have those relationships.”
Bløm Meadworks is, in every sense, a place that builds relationships. Bloom and Ritchey have ensured that from the very beginning: from implementing game nights, to creating a designated community space, to building their business in a community-oriented town like Ann Arbor, Michigan. After all, when you wish to create a business that will bring people together over good drinks, where else would you put it?