Colorado Springs, Colorado
That drink is mead, made from fermented honey and dating as far back as 9,000 years ago, according to some reports. But many people today aren't familiar with mead. Dobbins, a Colorado native who returned to the Centennial State after a decade in the wine business in California, decided it was time for mead to regain the spotlight.
"Stylistically, I'm a palate guy," Dobbins says. "I think mead offers a great opportunity to really explore flavors."
But he wanted to go a different direction than most of today's mead makers. "Most mead now is made like a traditional sweet wine, a semi-sweet or dessert-style wine," he says. Annapurna is creating drier, lower-alcohol meads.
"As you increase your palate knowledge, you become more refined and tend to go to a drier palate," Dobbins notes. And drier also dovetails with food-friendly, he says.
"People are wanting something that goes well with food. Our high acid content makes us pretty unique. . . . It goes well with food, but it also cleanses your palate."
Dobbins started Annapurna in his garage. The name of the company was inspired by Dobbins and his wife's fond memories of trekking the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. "Annapurna Mead is our homage to the highest peaks we have climbed both internally and externally," the company's website says.
With a few local restaurants adding the mead and "a decent amount of interest," the company moved to its current production facility in an industrial park on the west side of Colorado Springs in 2017. The meads can now be found in bars and liquor stores on the Front Range.
The meadery produces two flagship meads, Cherry Bee Dazzled and For the Love of Ginger, plus a rotating third variety and various seasonals. The meads are sold in cans. Dobbins initially looked at bottles; the Cherry Bee Dazzles, he notes, "is a beautiful color" and would have looked great in bottles. But there was a lack of mobile bottlers, particularly ones that could have handled his meads, which are slightly carbonated. So he turned to cans with the help of Craft Canning, a mobile canner.
There are benefits to cans, Dobbins says. "They're more easy to chill, and then it just matches the Colorado market. The Colorado market is going cans, and actually a lot of the wineries are going to cans across the country."
The honey comes from a supplier in Northern Colorado. "Bees are a pretty amazing species to me, one of the most net-positive species on the planet," Dobbins says. He's keenly aware of reports of major die-offs among honeybees and is looking at ways to support Colorado beekeepers. He has given away thousands of packets of wildflower seeds. "Bees visit over 2.5 million flowers to make one pound of honey," the packet notes.
Challenges: Craft brewers, Dobbins says, wrestle with a phenomenon known as "rotation nation." A consumer walking into a bar or brewery, instead of ordering an old favorite, now wants to try the latest and greatest.
"This has caused the industry to do this real flip on its head. . . . You always have to catch the tail of the tiger," Dobbins says. With Annapurna being so new, he didn't think he'd be subject to that. But those drinking Annapurna's meads in bars are, indeed, asking what's new. "So we've had to light up our test tap" -- consistently looking at new flavor profiles. He doesn't have a tasting room himself, so the bars serve as the test market.
The biggest challenge, though, is education. For many, "mead is an unknown," Dobbins says. So he's had to educate people ranging from consumers to retailers to investors.
Opportunities: Dobbins is looking at the possibility of direct-to-consumer sales -- perhaps a mead subscription service similar to the Dollar Shave Club model. With the meads being gluten-free, low alcohol and based on a natural substance, honey, they answer a lot of consumer demands, he says.
As for retail, Dobbins is looking at markets beyond Colorado. "California is a huge market and I think we could do very well there," he says. Texas and Florida are also on his radar. And then there's Nevada. A search-term analysis shows more online searchers for mead in Nevada than any other state, Dobbins says.
Needs: "Eventually we'll need a major distribution partner," Dobbins says. He's had talks with some larger distributors, but "nobody is ready to pull the trigger on us." As a result, he's had to cobble together his own distribution system. "Having a couple of major distributors," he says, "is really the key to long-term growth."