One of the great unsung stories in local food and beverage is how much downtown Phoenix drink culture has grown in just the past few years.
Giant leaps forward have been made with openings like Sauvage (natural-leaning wines), Little Rituals (erudite, imaginative cocktails), The Theodore (tightly curated craft beer bar), and Arizona Wilderness DTPHX (brewing mastery from staple styles to experimental beers). Next month, the scene is set to spring ahead even further, and with a drink that might set Phoenix apart: mead.
Yes, mead. The “honey wine.” The boozy fluid straight out of Beowulf and King Midas and Viking longships. Mead has a bad rap in U.S. drinking circles, one that in many ways has been earned. Most mead is cloying and greets your tongue with all the tenderness of a sledgehammer made of sugar cubes. But wide-ranging Arizona craft drinkers know that mead can be restrained and eye-widening, just like beer or wine or sake.
Superstition Meadery — based in Prescott and a local craft favorite — is soon to debut a large indoor-outdoor restaurant and mead destination. Jeff and Jen Herbert, co-owners, are slated to open in the lavishly restored Jim Ong’s Market building at 11th and Washington streets, or specifically 1110 East Washington Street, next month.
“Our mission statement is to reintroduce the world’s oldest beverage to mankind,” Jeff says.
Since opening in 2012, when they rented 18 square feet from a Skull Valley winery in central Arizona, the Herberts have been doing just that, having crafted more than 300 meads. Some highlight the soul of the ancient beverage, honey, including wildflower, mesquite, ironwood, and other honeys, all sourced from Arizona until this year (as newly released canned “session meads” use Brazilian honey). Other Superstition meads sculpt and bend honey’s flavors via techniques like adding fruits and spices, or barrel aging. Just this fall, Superstition won six medals at the Mazer Cup, an international mead competition — the most of any meadery.
In a way, Superstition Downtown will shift the Arizona meadery’s public-facing locus to metro Phoenix, where the Herberts went to grad school (at ASU), and where Jeff worked as a firefighter, commuting from Prescott in recent years until retiring in December 2019.
“We have more customers in Phoenix than anywhere else in the world,” Jeff says. “Even though we have distribution in 26 states and to dozens of countries, almost everyone that knows about our company lives in Phoenix. And not just the Valley, but Phoenix specifically.”
Superstition Downtown will seat some 120 people, feature a wide-ranging mead-and-food pairing program, and have some 35 Superstition beverages when the doors open. Some of these will run through the 24 taps of the long, polished, L-shaped bar topped with wood salvaged from the splintery wake of a west-of-Flagstaff tornado. Most of the 24 taps will dispense meads, but some will pour ciders. (One Superstition cider, Blueberry Spaceship Box, is the world’s top-rated flavored cider on RateBeer.)
The new downtown drinkery has a pitched ceiling of exposed wood and rafters and, over an open kitchen, a lower overhang of ancient-looking-but-new tin. There is a lounge area of upholstered chairs and an ample patio outside. The wide-open kitchen will turn out a full restaurant menu, much from a wood-fired grill.
This food, eclectic and geographically varied, pulls from the Heberts’ world travels. Superstition has taken them all over. Their meads have been poured in places like Spain, Thailand, Japan, and a Michelin-starred restaurant in Norway.
Superstition Downtown will be, Jeff claims, the “only mead-and-food-pairing concept in the world.” Adolfo Heredia, best known for a long run as head chef at Tuck Shop, will captain the kitchen. The menu will come with many suggested mead pairings. Food-wise, there will be a tapas menu and a fuller menu. Starter boards laden with many small bites will come with, if you want, many mead pairings.
Superstition’s mead will still be crafted in Prescott, at a site removed from the Courthouse Square tasting room. The exception: a few potion-looking demijohns on shelves along one exposed brick wall, honey-light or darkly opaque meads-in-progress of absorbing flavors from oak spirals and chile peppers, fruits and coconut chips.
“We use whole fruit,” Jeff says. “We freeze fruit with liquid nitrogen. We use fruit juice. We use all different kinds of barrels, all different kinds of yeast. We don’t limit ourselves to any particular types of ingredients or process. We'll use anything available to make the best possible mead.”
That has meant spending $500 per pound on Tahitian vanilla or procuring small-batch bursage honey. It has
resulted in meads like Peanut Butter Jelly Crime, which takes the sandwich’s exact flavors, or Berry White, a raspberry-and-white-chocolate mead that has scored a Mazer Cup gold medal, a mead considered one of the best anywhere.
Upon opening, many Superstition beverages will be available for takeout and limited delivery. Superstition will also be releasing its first wine, an orange wine of orange muscat and sauvignon blanc grapes.
Whatever mead's perceptions, the downtown Phoenix drink scene is about to get a honey-flavored jolt when Superstition Downtown opens. Recently, this scene has evolved in so many directions. The next rung should bring Phoenix into truly new territory.