WATERFORD — Jason and Lindsey Shaw ply an ancient craft, using flasks and jugs and a 600-pound vat of honey.
They produce mead, a sweet wine made by fermenting honey rather than grapes. They do it in their garage for now, but hope to someday have a bigger plant and tasting room in Waterford.
"A hobby became a passion," Lindsey Shaw said during a tour of the meadery last week. "We made it so well that people said, 'Why don't you turn this into a business?' "
The couple started selling under the Bjorn Mead label in April, after three years of tinkering. It's made with organic honey, which comes from Brazil because the U.S. supply is small.
The mead sells online for $12.95 per 375-milliliter bottle and also is on tap at Hero's Sports Lounge in downtown Modesto. Retail sales could come later.
The product comes in three flavors traditional, coffee and margarita and a strawberry-hibiscus version is in the works. The alcohol content is 10 percent to 12 percent, a little less than the grape wines made in much greater volume in and near Stanislaus County.
The American Mead Makers Association lists 165 producers across the nation. Among them is Beekman & Beekman of Hughson, which added the wine to its honey and pollination business in 2001.
"It continues to be a niche thing for us, something that adds value to what we produce," said Matt Beekman, who makes the mead and is mayor of Hughson.
Mead is believed to be the world's oldest alcoholic beverage, dating to at least 7000 B.C., when it was made in China. People have sipped it in the ancient Middle East, in Europe of medieval and Renaissance times, and at fairs today where costumed people celebrate the latter two eras.
"They have found honey dried out in pots that clearly was fermented," Jason Shaw said of mead traces from Mesopotamia.
He and Lindsey, both 28, were high school sweethearts in Manteca and earned business degrees from California State University, Stanislaus.
Lindsey works full time as a manufacturer's representative for Dart Container Corp. in Manteca, helping with the meadery in her spare time. Jason makes the product, relying on general fermentation skills he and his wife learned as home beermakers.
They have help from Cameron Sherman, who is Lindsey's brother, and Mike Clevenger.
They start the process by mixing honey, water, yeast and nutrients that help the yeast do its job of turning sugar into alcohol. The concoction ferments for about a month, then ages for about two more months.
The Shaws make 30 gallons in each batch and hope to produce about 300 gallons a year. It's done under permits from state and federal agencies that regulate alcoholic beverages.
The company is in the midst of raising $10,000 for new equipment through Kickstarter, an online service where supporters can contribute to startup ventures.
The Shaws are using the mead to draw attention to colony collapse disorder, a mysterious condition that has led to major losses for many beekeepers. They believe they can promote bee health by buying honey from bees that feed on wildflowers and organic crops, rather than on crops that are sprayed.
They would like to get their honey from a U.S. producer if an organic market develops here.
The tasting room they hope to open would be the second in the county, after Beekman & Beekman's.
"The more meaderies, the better," Lindsey Shaw said, "because if there are more meaderies, more people would know what mead is."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.