Published February 11th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
As a child, it wasn’t Christmas until Eric Depradine’s grandmother uncorked her home-brewed hibiscus drink. Made from the vibrant magenta-colored tropical bloom, the drink had a tart cranberry-like flavor.
An immigrant from the village of Manzanilla on the island of Trinidad, Ena Depradine (pronounced deh-PRAH-deen) settled in Boston in the 1970s, and she brought with her knowledge of how to make a variety of fermented beverages using honey, fruits, flowers, herbs and spices.
“That lady taught me a lot about these beverages … and how essential these drinks are for folks in the Caribbean for celebrations,” says Eric Depradine, the owner of Zydeco Meadery. “African Americans have the same traditions, using strawberry soda for their Juneteenth. (Hibiscus) serves the same purpose as cola — to color the drinks.”
It wasn’t a huge leap to figure out how to make mead, an ancient beverage that has regained modern cult status thanks to the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
Mead is often referred to as honey wine. Instead of grapes, the majority of fermentable sugar comes from honey, which is mixed with water and yeast, and possibly other flavorings. Alcohol by volume for meads range from 3% to 20%.
“My grandma is a very straight-laced Catholic lady. Her grandson is the deviant,” Depradine says with a laugh. “I was the one who took it from non-alcoholic to alcoholic because I just wanted to see how it would taste.”
Zydeco Meadery is based out of Highland Community College in Wamego, Kansas. Depradine’s first three commercial meads (ABV 12%) are dry rather than overly sweet and pay homage to American regional honey: Sunflower Delight (Kansas), Creole Queen (Louisiana) and Ozark Beauty (Arkansas).
Consumers can sample the meads at 456 Wineries, an incubator and tasting room at the college. Bottles also are available at a handful of liquor stores in Douglas, Riley and Sedgwick counties, as well as Beer Cave Wine & Spirits in Overland Park.
Depradine, who came to Kansas City in 2015 from Louisiana to work as a senior environmental officer for the Kansas City Water Services Department, plans to incorporate his 94-year-old grandmother’s recipes into the lineup.
The hibiscus formula has been approved, but he’s waiting on federal regulators to give the thumbs up on several others, including one flavored with mauby (colubrina elliptica).
“Mauby is an all-around drink. It’s bitter, back sweetened with honey to balance it out. If you’re a beer drinker, you’ll like it. But it’s not for everybody,” says Depradine, who initially taste-tested the beverage at the Raytown Festival of the Lost Township in 2017.
“I threw people for a loop because it was a flavor they’d never had, with undertones of licorice. It looks like bark in a Mason jar … (but) I had people coming up to me all day asking to taste ‘grandma’s drink’ and they’d taste it and say, ‘Damn, your grandmother is cool!’”
Depradine grew up in a segregated housing project. He was smart but underachieved at Boston Latin Academy, a public exam school with a college prep curriculum for grades 7-12.
When Depardine didn’t get along with his chemistry teacher his senior year, he skipped class for four months, attending a second study hall instead. He wound up graduating with a 1.7 GPA.
A year earlier, Depradine had received above average grades for a chemistry class as he tried his hand at fermenting sugarcane. “It really makes me smile that my efforts (and risks) had such positive ripple effects,” his teacher Paul Eaton writes via email.
Eaton, of course, recognized allowing a minor to potentially produce alcohol was a huge professional risk. He filed the proper paperwork and alerted higher administration.
“As I remember, I don’t think he was quite successful with the first endeavor,” Eaton recalls. “The important thing is that it was a spark that lit a passion.”
Depradine went on to earn multiple bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, history and Francophile studies from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He met his wife, DeAundra, when he became her chemistry tutor.
According to Depradine, his shrimp Florentine was the dish that won DeAundra over. But not long after they were married, he paired a pecan pie with a German Riesling. She was smitten. Since they were on a tight budget, Depradine began winemaking at home.
Visiting wineries across southern Louisiana became a way for Depradine to taste and learn about the diversity of beverage traditions brought to the United States by immigrants, such as the strawberry wines made by Italians who settled throughout the state.
After his son Zacherie was born, Depradine strapped him into an infant carrying pouch. Disarmed by an attentive dad caring for a “cute” baby, the conversation with winemakers would begin to flow. When daughter Valentina came along and was less content sitting in the pouch, dad perched her on his broad shoulders bracing her with one hand while balancing a wine glass in the other.
“They were my ticket into these spaces where you don’t normally find Black folks,” Depradine says.
Eager to buy land to grow fruit on, Depradine started writing a short wine history to submit with his loan applications, but the research project grew into a 200-page manuscript.
Despite his efforts, Depradine was refused for every loan he has applied for. To start Zydeco Meadery, the couple scrimped and saved, pulling together about $30,000, including a loan from his mother for bottles and supplies.
“I really hope more people of color actually go into alcohol manufacturing, but it takes a lot of money to get into grapes,” says Depardine, who still relies on his kids, promoting them to “assistant winemakers” at age 10 and 8.
The Highland Community College Viticulture and Enology Program started in 2010 as a way to help Kansas farmers used to growing commodity wheat, soybeans and corn supplement their farm income with value-added wine grapes.
Highland currently has six acres of vines and a commercial winery. In 2019, the college opened 456 Wineries, the first wine incubator east of the Rocky Mountains. Students typically range in age from 45 to 60, and most students plan to open their winery on a few acres of farmland that has been passed down through family.
Depradine, 37, is the program’s first black winemaker. Less than 1% of wineries in the United States are black-owned, according to Wine & Spirits Magazine.
“We hope we get more students like Eric,” says program director Scott Kohl. “Person of color or otherwise, there are not a lot of excellent mead making wineries around. That he’s making mead just adds to the uniqueness that is Eric. He’s not afraid to be different from the rest of the crowd.”
The incubator has provided Depradine access to winemaking equipment, a shared tasting room and mentoring to help him learn winemaking, permitting processes and marketing. The wineries at the incubator are charged an increasing amount of rent and may use the facilities for up to five years.
Depradine took some classes online, but he also drove three hours roundtrip to attend in-person classes and work on his recipes. His last hurdle to get his first bottle of mead to market was the state line.
To sell wine in Kansas you must be a resident. Kohl reached out to Gary Clift, an English teacher at Kansas State University and the owner of Louis Vieux Winery. Clift partnered with Depradine, allowing Zydeco Meadery to become a contractor for the winery.
Clift was impressed with Depradine’s knowledge and intrigued by his grandmother’s story.
“Eric’s not making mead as if it’s a reference to Anglo-Saxon warriors,” Clift says. “We had to tell him about renaissance festivals.”
Native Caribs and Arawak have been using the bark of the mauby tree to flavor beverages for centuries.
“The recipe has been passed down for the last 500 years,” Depradine says. “I submitted the recipe and (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates alcohol and tobacco) … said I had to go do research in order to prove that the bark can be used for alcohol manufacturing.”
Although frustrating, his mentor Kohl sees such speed bumps as minor.
“Eric has a lot of ingredients no one has asked to put in a (commercial) beverage before. But he’s such a smart guy, he’ll be able to answer their questions.”
Depradine has received approval for three more meads scheduled for release in June: Lavender Love (Kansas honey and dried lavender), Mass Memories (Massachusetts cranberry honey and maple syrup), and Spicy Kanza Apple (an adaptation of his grandmother’s recipe for ginger beer, with Kansas honey and apple juice).
Further expansion plans include adding cysers, a mead fermented with apple juice rather than water, and fortified wine known as Angelica, which were originally made by Franciscan missionaries when California was still a Mexican possession.
But for Zydeco Meadery and other wineries, breweries and distilleries owned by people of color to become more than a mere drop in the nation’s wine bottles, more financial institutions will need to be willing to make an investment in an industry where the cost of entry is high.
“People have been making alcohol since we’ve been walking upright,” Depradine says. “But in this country, for some reason, you don’t think of Black folks doing it.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.