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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Leaky Roof Meadery: Bringing the Railroad to Buffalo, Missouri!

What comes to mind when you think of mead? A syrupy, cloyingly sweet beverage drank from a wooden mug, or drinking horn, at a Renaissance Faire? Often, that is exactly what pops into one's head.
The kind of mead consumption you may find
at your local Renaissance Festival!

Well, Todd Rock and Leaky Roof Meadery are on a mission to break that misrepresentation!

Todd Rock started homebrewing about 10 years ago, after discovering craft beer at Flat Branch Pub & Brewing in Columbia, Missouri. While living in Alaska in 2007 and 2008, Todd got involved in a local homebrew club, The Great Northern Brewers, and actually began participating in homebrew competitions. One such competition victory resulted in Todd being able to commercially produce his winning beer, a Roggenbier (an old German rye beer that predates the German purity law, Reinheitsgebot)  at the local brewpub called The Snow Goose. Todd trained for the Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP), and took the exam through The Great Northern Brewers. Eventually, he made the decision to pursue brewing as a career, and enrolled in brewing school. Todd's impressive credentials include completion of the Master Brewers Program at University of California - Davis, holds a General Brewing Diploma issued by the London Institute of Brewing and Distilling, and is a BJCP National Judge.

Todd's passion for mead started as a fan of the fermented honey beverage. In Alaska, Todd was fortunate to live down the street from one of the most award-winning meaderies in North America, Celestial Meads. Todd was so in love with the meadmaker's creations that they couldn't get rid of him, so they decided if they couldn't beat him, they'd make him join them! He went to work for Celestial around the meadery for store credit. For two years, Todd was a sponge at Celestial, soaking up all the information he could learn about making quality mead. His passion was further fueled by several members of The Great Northern Brewers, who were incredibly talented meadmakers, to whom he feels greatly indebted. In 2010, as a BJCP judge, Todd answered a call to judge mead at the Mazer Cup International Mead Competition and Tasting Event, the world's largest and premier mead competition held annually in Boulder, Colorado. Ever since answering that call, he judges the Mazer Cup each year, and has remained closely tied to the meadmaking industry.

Todd and Leaky Roof General Manager, Andrew "Skippy" Steiger, were working some projects together in Springfield, Missouri, when Todd was recruited away to become the Head Meadmaker for an upstart meadery in Rogersville, MO. Public Relations and Marketing guru, Jhett Collins, was responsible for bringing Todd on board for the project. Unfortunately, in November of 2012, the meadery project came to a screeching halt. Todd, Andrew, and Jhett found themselves out of a job after working diligently to work up marketable recipes and meadery, complete with canning capabilities. The three had to idea what was going to come next. Mainly as a distraction and keep their minds occupied, they sat down together and loosely started sketching out a business plan, making sure to address any hindrance or issue they encountered on the previous project. They found themselves still out of work, and Todd began working the sketches down to a workable business plan, and starting to show their plan to family, friends, and some potential investors.

Skippy, Todd, and Jhett
In a surprise twist, this began to lead to several breakthroughs that started to funnel the trio to Buffalo, Missouri. Several of the tradesmen from the previous meadery project continually urged them to bring the business to their hometown of Buffalo. One even went as far as to lead their attention to a piece of property that just happened to meet Todd's meticulous list of requirements that he had set up in the business plan. Todd kept his options open, but was unable to find another property that meet his criteria as well. The final piece fell into place when Todd's parents offered to back the project financially. He was as surprised as anyone at this final step to making it all a reality. Todd's parents own Leaky Roof, with Andrew as General Manger, Jhett in Public Relations and Marketing, and Todd as Head Meadmaker. Todd wants to point out that several individuals have been incredibly supportive, and taken very small shares of ownership for key services and equipment, along the way.

Where did they get that name, though?

Let's start with just a little bit of railroad history... 

Leaky Roof Railroad was the nickname for the Kansas City, Clinton and Springfield Railroad (KCC&S). It ran northwest out of Springfield to Ash Grove and then North to Osceola, Clinton, Garden City and on into Kansas before it reached Kansas City. The railroad was built to haul coal and building materials out of Henry County Missouri to the major commercial hubs of Springfield and Kansas City. However, over the years, it became very important in connecting the region, hauling agricultural products. The Leaky Roof Meadery crew feels the Leaky Roof Railroad represents a golden age of Southwest Missouri and an extinct way of life. Todd and the rest of the crew strive to revive a little of that industry and agriculture.

Interestingly, the railroad never ran to Dallas County or Buffalo, MO. In fact Buffalo, MO remains one of the largest land locked communities in the country that never benefited from the presence of a railroad.

Leaky Roof Meadery's website explains...

"The reasons behind this are both interesting and 100% pure Missouri. In the 1870’s Dallas County did partner with the Laclede and Fort Scott Railroad in order to run a line from Fort Scott Kansas through Dallas and Laclede County and into Lebanon, Missouri. Interestingly enough this railroad would have intersected the Leaky Roof outside of Walnut Grove, MO.  The county issued railroad bonds to shareholders and built its share of the rail bed along Route 32 between Bolivar and Buffalo. Unfortunately the Railroad went bankrupt before it reached Buffalo and the track was never laid. The county, having never received a railroad, refused to repay their bonds when they came due. This situation deteriorated over the years as county officials found themselves wanted and on the run from Federal Marshals. The case of the unpaid bonds eventually went before the Supreme Court and the County was forced into a repayment plan. The last of the repayment was made in 1940."

Sooooo... Buffalo never had a railroad, let alone The Leaky Roof Railroad. Um, why the name for a Buffalo-based meadery?

"For our part our connection to the Leaky Roof Railroad begins with our early days of planning. While looking for suitable locations for the meadery we examined several commercial properties for rent. Most of these places were along the railroad tracks running into Springfield from the Northwest. While looking for a name we began to read about the history of the railroad in Springfield and in the area in general. Finally we stumbled on the nickname for an old railroad running out of Springfield and up through Ash Grove. This was the Leaky Roof. What is more, it had a vibrant history linked to the area. At the time the properties we were looking at also looked like they probably had leaky roofs. Many did. While we fell in love with the name and the idea of working with a railroad theme, our dream property became available in Buffalo, a town, which not only wasn’t on the Leaky Roof line, but had never had a railroad at all. Instead of changing the name we decided that this was perfect. Ultimately our company hopes to work with the local community in order to source more and more of our raw materials such as honey, berries and apples from local sources. Much like the Leaky Roof we want to be an outlet for local agriculture to once again thrive in the area. In the days of the Frisco and the Leaky Roof Southwest Missouri small agriculture thrived. The area was once famous for its strawberries, blackberries, apples and grapes, all of which are essential to our products. In pre-prohibition days these crops were brought to the railway depots, loaded into cars full of ice and hauled to the large cities. It is this type of community interlinking we would like to promote as we grow with the community. As such we decided our train image was perfect as we truly wish to bring the railroad to Buffalo, MO and indeed the Missouri Southwest."

As Leaky Roof will love to promote local honey and agriculture in their production, it can be prohibited by supply. The amount of honey it will take for full batches outweighs the local supply. One goal will have Leaky Roof using localized, specialty honeys in small, limited runs of their meads. Their commitment to supporting local farmers and beekeepers is a refreshing trait of a company.

"We were entirely dismayed at the availability of Missouri produce and honey to complete our project," says Todd. "We would love to use Missouri honey and produce for our meads but quantities and prices in the ranges we need don't exist in the area the way they would have around the turn of the century. Our eventual goal is to encourage and contract with local agriculture to encourage a return to the small scale agricultural industry that used to dominate the area. This is maybe a pipe dream, but it would be nice to at least be able to work up enough materials to do more to support local agriculture and produce local products. Either way we felt the railroad and the Leaky Roof perfectly represented this goal."

Weather has been a major player in the construction of the meadery. The estimated time frame for production and grand opening is incredibly difficult to pinpoint.With that said, they would like to be open and producing by Labor Day, give or take a month. In the legal aspect of the alcohol manufacturing world, construction had to be underway in order to file for a federal license. Construction appears to be clicking along, pretty well. Leaky Roof keeps everyone in the loop through their Facebook page.

Also in the realm of construction of the meadery, another issue needs to be brought to your attention. The Leaky Roof crew has been overwhelmed by the response to their meads, and realize demand will be high very quickly after they begin production. They are going to need to upgrade the original canning line they were planning. In order to achieve this goal, the guys have started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to obtain the upgrade. Here is the video that you will find on their Kickstarter page:

Now, what exactly ARE they making at Leaky Roof Meadery?

Leaky Roof will, at first, concentrate on their draft, session mead. These meads will be carbonated, served on draft and in 16 oz. cans, will be 6.5% ABV and come in several flavors. The flagships will be ginger, honey, super berry, and apple (or cyser) meads. Within the first year, they will begin to produce full strength traditional meads. These will be full 12% ABV honey wines, including a bourbon barrel aged buckwheat honey cyser that they have been developing. Unfortunately, it will probably be Holiday Season 2014 before anyone sees that particular slice of heaven.

I have been fortunate enough to sample some of Todd's incredible creations. Todd, Skippy, and Jhett have come to a couple homebrew club meetings to talk mead, and share some samples of what they have been developing. Here are a few of my tasting notes and information about some of the samples from their visit to the May meeting of the Joplin Homebrew Club:

Skippy, Jhett, and Todd discussing the next mead for tasting, at the May
meeting of the Joplin Homebrew Club, at Blackthorn Pizza & Pub

  • Green Tea & Mint
    • batch was approximately 6-9 months old
    • exhibits the incredible shelf life of mead
    • a kind of anise note, refreshing
  • Mixed Berry
    • delicious, slightly tart
    • will run some more batches with more strawberry to balance some of the tartness
  • Ginger
    • a 2 week old batch
    • floral and ginger on the nose
    • a little spice character
  • Cyser
    • with Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples
    • sharp, acidic, crisp
    • will be looking to add more apple character to future batches
  • Citrus
    • with red grapefruit, lemon, oranges
    • dry, crisp
    • said it was hard to control the acidic effect on the fermentation
    • reminded me of a citrus soda, a la Squirt
  • Sour Cherry and Buckwheat
    • WOW! Fantastic mead!
    • approximately 12 months old
    • 8-9% ABV
    • tart, sour cherries and East Buckwheat Honey
    • the buckwheat added a funky, "horsey" character
  • Strawberry and Wildflower
    • full strength: 12%
    • floral notes, the wonderful strawberry character

A few geeky notes on making mead, the Leaky Roof way...
Mead starts with honey and water mixed, and fermented. The honey-water mixture is heated just enough to dilute the mixture, approximately 120-140°F.  A "killer yeast" is used in a very quick primary fermentation, about 6-8 days, at 55-65°F. The fermentation will actually take the gravity all the way to zero, which means all the sugars are consumed. Then, the mead must be back sweetened to add the sweet character to the final product. Any flavorings added to the mead base (such as the strawberries, apples, berries) will be introduced in secondary fermentation. Leaky Roof mead will be a carbonated mead; most meads are "still" beverages, which are non-carbonated, more wine-like products. This will make their meads more refreshing, especially with the lower alcohol varieties. Due to the complete fermentation characteristic of honey, the finished product has to be stored cold. If left any warmer, it will continue to ferment in the bottle, keg, or can, to the point of possible exploding of the vessel.

Wait! Did I just say "can"? Yes, I did. Leaky Roof Meadery will be canning their product! Very innovative in the mead industry, canning serves several purposes. Firstly, since Leaky Roof Meadery is located in the heart of the Ozarks, a region well known for outdoor recreation such as hiking and floating, cans open up the possibilities to take their refreshing product along on these excursions. Secondly, the cans are going to help make Leaky Roof Meads more recognizable. Since most meads are considered wines, and in 750mL bottles, they get tucked away in the wine section of the liquor store. With these meads going into cans, and the flagships hanging closer to beer ABV percentages, they are almost certainly going to end up in the cooler on the beer side of your local store. This will really boost Leaky Roof's presence in the market. Thirdly, the cans will provide an assurance of freshness.

In closing, I really want to point something out to all my Frank About Foodies: Think for a moment about what I just told you... These three men went from being suddenly out of work in November to developing and having a meadery in production, from scratch, from the ground up... by Labor Day, or thereabout. That's approximately 9 months from jobless and no clue where they were going, to a meadery that is destined for success! The demand and desire for these new styles of meads have just exponentially grown over the past couple of years. Having this product available, in cans, locally from the Ozarks, can do nothing but succeed. This is an inspiring story; I hope you all can take that away from the Leaky Roof tale.

Please head over to Facebook and give Leaky Roof Meadery a "Like" to keep up on their progress!

You can also keep up with them on Twitter, here.

And certainly don't forget to head straight to their homepage, here.

And lastly, Leaky Roof Meadery can really use your help. Donate just $10, or more, or whatever you feel led to give, over on their Kickstarter Campaign Page.


  1. First mead I ever drank was in Madrdid at a 4 star hotel restaurant banquet served with caviar and clamari. It was served exactly like champagne. I was 16 at the time and fell in love!