The Master of Mead

Bill Ristow’s home brewing has led him to an ancient drink

By Ryan Gooding

“It’s really just a storage unit,” begins Bill Ristow.

He walks down a narrow, brightly lit, but sparsely decorated hallway beneath the Haverford Gable Apartments, just across the train tracks from Haverford College, the school he currently attends.  His stride is long, relaxed, almost bouncy – just what you’d expect from the lanky collegiate cross country and track runner – yet he moves forward with an authoritative presence.

Dangling precariously from his right hand, swaying back and forth as he walks, is a wine tasting glass.

ill Ristow samples some of his mead

Bill Ristow samples some of his mead.

At the far end of the hallway, Ristow pauses in front of a stark-white door, save for a black number “7” neatly painted at eye level.  He asks me to hold the tasting glass as he rifles through his pockets, presumably looking for the key.

“This is part of what I like so much about home brewing,” Ristow continues, finally producing the key from his back pocket.  “At least when it comes to wines and mead, you don’t need crazy infrastructure.”

He pauses again, this time as he struggles to force the key into the lock.  “I mean, you can do it in a kitchen, or a living room, or in our case, a tiny storage unit,” he concludes.

The deadbolt clicks back and the door swings open, revealing a drab, sparsely cluttered storage space that can’t measure much more than five feet across by 12 feet deep.  The right half of the unit is almost completely unoccupied, save for the half-dozen jugs and bottles containing his most recent experiments.  Dominating most of the left half is a stack of white boxes.

“Sorry it’s not visually stunning.”

Ristow steps inside and gestures silently to the boxes.  He approaches the stack; reaches into a box labeled “Orange Clove Mead” in beautiful, handwritten cursive; and from it, produces an unlabeled wine bottle. For a moment he stands motionless, staring proudly down at the bottle in his hands.  Several long seconds pass before Ristow looks up again, smiling.

“Want to try some?”

Ristow is, by his own description, a consummate hobbyist.

“Running and school are the biggest things that I do now,” says Ristow, laughing at himself as he lounges in the common room of his on-campus apartment at Haverford College. “But I feel like I’ve got a lot of whatever lies between interests and hobbies.”

You name it, and there’s a chance Bill has tried it.  For a time in middle school, he built dioramas and experimented with gardening.  In high school he dabbled in calligraphy – which helps to explain the loopy cursive with which his boxes of wine and mead are labeled.  He speaks anxiously about wanting to try making his own maple syrup, binding his own books, and, yes, brewing his own beer.

“I’m a renaissance man,” quips Ristow ironically, given his academic fascination with medieval history.

“Average at everything, interested in everything.”

When the summer of 2015 arrived, with the nearly unceasing pressure from school and competitive running momentarily absent, Bill needed a new hobby.

“Home brewing is very much one of these things that I got interested in, and decided to try,” he explains.

Only now do the empty beer and wine bottles scattered across tables and counters in his apartment pull into focus.  Everything from cheap Pinot Noirs, to hoppy IPAs and mass-produced lagers are represented.  All evidence to the contrary, Ristow insists he isn’t much of a drinker – he prefers sipping to chugging – but, he explains, this doesn’t stop him from wanting to understand and experiment with the process of making alcohol.

After teaming up with local Haverford alumnus Eric “Jiggy” Arnold, the two embarked on their own home-brewing venture which they and their friends affectionately and comically refer to as “Chateau Jiggy”.

The project had modest beginnings, starting with a practically ancient, now nearly-defunct drink called mead.

“Really, really old drink,” explains Ristow, “Records of it date back at least 4,000 years.  So [mead] seemed kind of cool because it’s something you practically can’t find anymore.”

Ostensibly wine minus the grapes, mead results from the fermentation of honey.  As the production process requires only honey, water, store-bought minerals, and a five-gallon container in lieu of, well, a vineyard, it seemed a logical first step.

“I picked mead because it was the easiest thing to make, materials-wise,” comments Ristow.  “That, and because it seemed to fulfill the hipster aesthetic, and who doesn’t want to be a hipster?”

With a dozen bottles of home-brewed mead on hand and aging nicely by the end of the summer, it was time to branch out.

And branch out they did.

In a visit to “Chateau Jiggy” one can taste not only the duo’s frankly delicious orange clove mead, but also a raspberry wine, and before too long, a cherry wine.  Meanwhile, upstairs in Arnold’s actual apartment, the future of their home-brewing project is already underway.  In one corner, fermenting in what is easily mistakable as a run-of-the-mill five-gallon bucket, is apple wine, and in the opposite corner are the beginnings of a batch of hard cider.

“You can ferment pretty much anything that’s got natural sugars in it,” says Ristow, when asked about the unorthodox origins of his beverages.  “In fact that’s part of what makes home brewing so much fun: it’s really a creative process.”