Matt Trahan and Ash Fischbein opened Sap House Meadery in Center Ossipee in 2011. Since then, their business has grown and so has their interest in supporting a sustainable future for a community they care about.
Sap House Meadery currently consists of a production facility adjacent to a tasting room and pub. Locals and tourists alike can enjoy flights of mead, creative cocktails designed to feature the honey-based libation, craft beer and small plates and snacks. Their mead lineup consists of standard flavors and styles that are offered year-round (like sugar maple and vanilla bean) as well as limited releases and seasonal specialties. Between the taproom traffic, events, distribution accounts and special event contracts they have found themselves thriving - and wanting to give back.
A few weeks ago, we sat down with Trahan at the taproom- a welcoming and warm space with wood trimmings and creative bottle displays. We learned about why he and his business partner chose Center Ossipee as headquarters for their operation, the work they are doing in their community in partnership with UNH Extension and the impression of Ossipee they hope tourists take away from their foliage finding adventures.
How are you preparing the business for a busy tourist season?
We are so busy with production right now. July and August were huge for tourism. September is a little slower and then we get slammed in October for foliage. We do a lot of sales through the holidays, so we are trying to keep up and prepare for that. We did get a contract to provide all the mead to the New York Renaissance Fair, so that has been a huge commitment. It has pushed our production and staff to the limit, which is crazy but great. We have distribution down into New York City and the distributor reached out to them sharing that he had some good mead. They had previously had a more generic mead. They tasted ours and were blown away. We did a traditional mead for them and a raspberry, and they have been happy with the product.
So, for the foliage season we are on our heels a bit, but we are ready with a ton of great fall-flavored mead—apple pie, chocolate-covered raisin, elderberry, a barrel-aged mead with star thistle and honey aged in a port barrel, and cranberry sage. Every year we say we are going to release the cranberry sage earlier, and this year we finally got ahead of it for October. We have a ton of great stuff to share with the crowds.
What's your favorite fall beverage?
The vanilla bean mead we produce mixed in with fresh-pressed, hot, apple cider is delicious. Other than that, anything hot—coffee, tea, hot toddys – whatever.
Why did you choose to open a meadery in Center Ossipee?
Center Ossipee is a great little downtown, but it has a lot of buildings that have been here for 45 years. It's a little grumpy and somber and old. We grew up here. The whole point of this [gestures to the Meadery] is to try to be an attraction to bring people to town and make business viable. We're working on it. Ash and I started a little economic development group two or three years ago. This year feels like a turning point. There's a new restaurant, a new barbecue place, and a new tailor shop going in. Things are starting to percolate.
That’s great. Can you tell us more about the focus of the Economic Development Group?
We are focused on Center Ossipee, but it is kind of Ossipee as a whole. One of the big pieces is that there is not enough workforce. How do we get people to move here? There are no amenities, like sidewalks or playgrounds. We don't have stuff for a young family to go, "Oh, that would be a nice place to live." The climate has been historically very anti-spending, so some of the infrastructure is in disrepair.
Was the state of the infrastructure a concern when you opened Sap House Meadery?
Not really. Route 16 is an enormous artery and we are right there. The geography is gorgeous. We have the lakes and mountains and streams—people are coming here. We can make something here and we can sell it elsewhere through distribution. A big goal of ours was to change the outlook for the town. We started trying to on small projects to make the town feel nicer and get some psychological wins, like sidewalks and playgrounds. [a playground was recently installed, and as we were speaking his business partner shared that he had just finished installing a new swing].
We built some momentum in the community around the idea of, "It's OK to have nice things" and we did some research on what is available for grants and investigated what was available through UNH Cooperative Extension. We were interested in the research around why these things were good. We then put together warrant articles and lobbied the town to spend some money on playgrounds. We shared that it was important to draw young families to town and help alleviate a labor shortage, as well as broaden the tax base.
The Downtown and Trails project is kind of an extension of that effort. We have an unused railway going throw the middle of Ossipee and its villages. It hasn't run in 50 years. It's used in the winter for snow machine recreational use, which generates a ton of traffic for us. Its state owned and managed by the DOT.
The Downtown and Trails program is a great first step in exploring the potential there. It's not a lot of money and we are harnessing excitement and interest. Geoffrey Sewake [Extension field specialist] has been great in helping us move into community engagement and visioning. It's what we need to do to start moving on this project, which is huge and has a 10-15-year implementation timeline. We must make sure we have our ducks in a row and that it is something that the community wants and is done in a way the community wants.
Tonight, we have a meeting about doing key-informant interviews. Volunteers will go out and talk to people to help us understand what people think about turning the railway into something. We've gone out with phone apps to document aspects on and around the trails that could be opportunities and obstacles. All the people who are doing that bring a different perspective. It's not just five people in a room deciding what this trail will look like some day. It's a 360-degree assessment. It's helpful in a grassroots sense and it is also helpful in applying for grants to steer us in the direction we need to go as far as obtaining permission and easements with the state.
What do you see as challenges to the future of a rail trail in Ossipee?
I think a challenge is going to be the legality of classification of the rail at the state level. There are three levels of classification—active, inactive and abandoned. Abandoned has the least restrictions for use; active obviously means trains are running on it, so, not good for trails. Inactive means that there aren't trains running on it but the State wants to reserve the right to keeps it so that maybe someday they could. You can build a trail, but it is a little bit more restrictive. The trail in Ossipee is classified as inactive. What we have learned is that this section is so old they would have to rip up the tracks and rebuild if they wanted to ever run trains on it again. They likely won't classify it as abandoned because of funding based on active and inactive miles of rail vs. abandoned rail.
Currently, there are a few communities in the same position with proximity to inactive rail. They are trying to assess whether restrictions can be adjusted to allow folks to do things on them without losing access to funding. That would be an ideal scenario. If it remains inactive in the traditional sense, the trail would be subject to a lot of restrictions and regulations, like fencing and distance from the rail. It's a ton of work and there are geographical points where that just wouldn't work because of drop-offs and bridges.
The trail doesn't have to stay on the rail corridor the entire time, so we can investigate conservation land and existing trail networks if that is the case.
This will be something, someday. There is a spectrum of what it will be and how hard it will be to get there.
Has the sentiment in the community been positive?
The enthusiasm has been so high that it has been hard to reel people in! People want to join the steering committee for the Downtowns and Trails program not realizing that this committee has a very specific kind of work that is preliminary. The town seems to be ecstatic about it. Geoffrey Sewake has been impressive in how he has been able to field ideas and bring folks back to the task at hand. He's great.
The North Country is a huge destination for tourism in October for foliage. Hearing you discuss developing the community for workforce-age families, do you see visitors in that demographic visit and how do you prepare for them?
Totally. A lot of the people that vacation up here are professionals from Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. To them, living up here is the ultimate dream. They comment that they would love to live here and escape the grind. The lifestyle piece is here. Everyone recognizes that this is a beautiful place to live and it's got great quality of life, but...You've got to be able to make money. That's the catch. So, if we can prove that there is a growing and viable economy up here, it's a good sales pitch to the guy who's commuting from Newton to Boston and spending hours in the car every day.
Do those conversations about relocating happen frequently in the taproom?
Yeah. A lot. The first step is they get up here for a weekend of camping or stay at a bed and breakfast and are blown away. They do that for a few years. Then they investigate buying a vacation home for 10-15 years. Then they think about purchasing a home and making the transition. It's a staged transition.
Have you noticed a trend of younger families moving in?
Yeah. In fact, it's been kind of cool to see a handful of regulars in the pub who have moved up here from Boston and are telecommuting. They have well-paying jobs with benefits and flexibility.