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Mead in Alberta

How the traditional practice of turning honey into wine is finding new life

Jun 16, 2014

by Max Fawcett

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In Alberta, what’s old – really, really old – is suddenly new again. And while the revival of mead may have all the trappings of a trend, what’s really ­driving it is something more enduring: economics. Fallentimber Meadery’s Nathan Ryan says his family’s decision to get into mead was all about trying to squeeze more money out of the honey produced at their farm. “We were trying to find a way to add value, because when you sell honey you’re making maybe $1.40 to $1.60 a pound,” he says. “Turning it into mead makes it a lot more valuable.” How much more valuable? Ryan estimates more than 10 times. “It requires a lot of work and a lot of investment to get to that point, but it goes up substantially.”

Getting into the mead business wasn’t always the plan. “My dad’s been a beekeeper his whole life, and he always ran bees and cattle at the same time. But there wasn’t really much room in it for my brothers and me, so we had all left the farm to do other things. I actually went back to build a house for them, and in the process of doing that got into the hobby of mead making, and I got a little carried away, I guess.” Fallentimber opened in October 2010, and today it produces approximately 20,000 litres of mead a year.

Fallentimber produces a variety of more traditional meads, but its biggest hit is the hopped mead that it released last fall, and which has started showing up in coolers and on taps across the province. “We’ve been watching what gets popular in the U.S. throughout this, which is what led us to our hopped mead, which has definitely become our fastest-growing product by quite a bit,” Ryan says. “I think people’s perception of mead is still really vague and foggy. Some people think about it as a beer and some people think about it as a wine. And we were trying bridge that gap.”

A couple of hours south down Highway 2 is another unintentional mead maker, Chinook Arch Meadery’s Art Andrews. “I made beer for 40 years – homemade beer, and I was getting to the point where it was pretty good,” he says. “But there wasn’t a lot of things you could buy to make beer when I started in 1975 or so. So I’d go to California on a trip and bring two cases back full of beer-making equipment, because you couldn’t find it.” Eventually, he realized that he could apply his beer-making talents to the honey his farm was producing. “We’re selling honey and honey products, and the mead just sounded like a very logical step.”

Between 2004 and 2008, he learned how to produce mead by making 49 experimental batches, making his first commercial batch in 2008. He and his wife Cherie have grown the business to a capacity of 25,000 litres per year. And it’s not just volume, either, as Chinook Arch’s Fire ’n Spice took home a silver medal at the 2014 Mazer Cup International Mead Competition in Denver. What’s his secret? “You’re always tweaking. You’re always trying to do better. If you figure you make the best mead in the world, you’ll never get any better.”

Then there’s Spirit Hills Winery, the black sheep of Alberta’s fledgling mead industry. It’s run by Ilse and Hugo Bonjean on their farm a few minutes south of Millarville, and it’s different by design. Hugo, a former business executive and author, and his wife were homesteading when they realized there was a way to get more money out of their honey. “The margins on honey are small,” he says. “Commercial honey operations have to be a minimum of 2,000 hives these days to make it. And so, to make money with honey, you have to look at either going big or adding value.”

They too went the mead route, starting production in October of 2012 and releasing their first batch two months later. But unlike their counterparts, they did so with a much > ­different goal in mind. “The other two meaderies are doing a really nice job of making traditional mead. We had absolutely no intention of competing with that. Also, the mead market as such is really niche, and I wasn’t interested in that market. We’re interested in stealing market share from the traditional red and white wine markets with a local product. That required an entirely different approach.”

Ilse, who does the marketing and branding for Spirit Hills, says that approach was informed by the fact that meads don’t tend to pair well with food. “Typically, meads are very sweet, and have quite an overtone of honey flavours and very low acidity. So they’re not very good to have with a meal,” she says. “Ours are quite the opposite: right from the beginning, our goal was to make food-friendly wines. That means they have to be dryer, they have to have good acidity.” So far the feedback from buyers has exceeded their expectations. “When I first started going to the sommeliers in the big liquor stores, my knees were a bit shaky because I didn’t know what the response was going to be,” she says. “But the response has been just unbelievable.”

One of those buyers is Calgary’s Willow Park Wines & Spirits, which has been stocking international mead for more than a decade. David Gingrich, the in-house “beer guy,” says interest in mead has really picked up of late, mostly because of the Alberta-made stuff. “It’s really exciting for people to see the diversity between the local meaderies,” he says. “And I think it’s brilliant because then they each have a spot to be in.” He’s personally pleased to see them succeed, too, given that he’s had to fight in the past to keep shelf space available for mead. “I’ve had to battle from within here a little bit. They said, ‘Well, the margins aren’t there, and you’re not selling very much,’ and I said, ‘Hey, just give me a chance.’ And over the last couple of years it’s blown up.”

But while Alberta’s mead makers are carving out their own part of the market, they all agree that the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission has been instrumental in helping it get off the ground in the first place. “The AGLC is making great efforts and taking great steps to allow more micro-distilleries and microbreweries and cottage wineries to really sprout up in Alberta,” Hugo says. “And I think it’s very important – within Alberta we have a pretty high level of consumption of alcohol per capita, and that’s currently all money that’s flowing out of the province. It’s really nice to see that money stay in the province – or some of it, anyways.”

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Chinook Arch’s Art Andrews, who was one of the driving forces behind the push to have mead included under the province’s cottage wine industry legislation, says the government has been open-minded and supportive throughout. In the beginning, he says, they weren’t allowed to sell it anywhere except on the premises where it was made. Then they lobbied for the ability to sell it at farmers’ markets, and got that. Then, they asked to be able to sell it in liquor stores. “It was less than a month. They said, ‘Go for it.’ ”

Hugo says the local nature of their product is one of its strongest selling features. “I’ve travelled half the globe in my career, and everywhere you travel people offer you their local fermented beverage. Whether that’s pisco sour in Peru or wine in Argentina or beer in Germany, there’s a lot of pride in it, and each region has its own little specialty. We don’t really have anything like that in ­Alberta.” Mead, he says, can fill that gap. “Let’s start making wines that are made with Alberta ingredients and somehow connect them to the local culture so Albertans have something to be proud of.”

So, how big can Alberta’s mead industry get? Could it one day rival B.C.’s booming wine region, with all the jobs, profits and taxes it generates each year? Andrews isn’t suggesting it’ll happen overnight, but he says there’s no reason why it can’t get there one day. “We were the first one to start this in Alberta, but there will be more. There should be more. How many wineries are there in the Okanagan? A thousand? And they all seem to be able to sell their wine.” Hugo says his experience suggests there’s room – and opportunity – for others. “We had a very good first year – there aren’t a lot of businesses where you can get into black numbers in your first year. So it’s a good market; there’s no question about it. And it’s a fairly recession-proof business. In good times people drink, and in bad times the saying goes that they drink more.”

And while the collapse of bee colonies is an obvious concern for mead makers, Andrews says that a shortage of honey is not a near-term constraint on his industry’s growth. “Some of these guys are running twelve, thirteen thousand hives,” he says. “They’re not making mead, but they could – easily.”

Mead 101

“It’s simple,” says Art Andrews the resident mead master at Chinook Arch Meadery. “Honey, water, yeast – how could you go wrong?” Actually, for a less experienced mead maker, there are plenty of ways to do that. But Andrews’s five-point formula can get you started down the road towards drinkability.

The amount of honey
This might sound self-evident, but it bears mentioning. “Number one is how much honey you use will change the sweetness level,” Andrews says, “because you can’t ferment it all out.”

The kind of honey
The flavour of honey depends on the nectar the bees collect to make it, and in Alberta it all tends to be the same. “It’s a little bit of canola, alfalfa and some wildflower,” Andrews says. “One-third of the honey in Canada is produced in Alberta, but it’s all one kind.” But here’s the good news: if you’re making mead at home, you don’t have to worry about excise taxes and quotas. So feel free to experiment with other honeys – Andrews suggests B.C’s sweet stuff, which is created from things like blackberry and blueberry nectar, is worth trying.

How long to ferment
“That’s the hardest one,” Andrews says. “You want to be able to control your alcohol content, and if you let that stuff go until it’s finished, it’ll blow your head off – you’ll get 18 per cent.” So start with smaller batches until you get the recipe fully dialed in.

The water
At Chinook Arch they use tap water because they have to get it tested every month anyways. You can do the same, provided you’re not drawing it from a particularly dubious well. But Andrews has a secret: adding a bit of air to the water helps get oxygen into yeast, which allows it to thrive.

The yeast
This is where you make or break a fermented product. “We use five or six different yeasts right now,” Andrews says. “Every one is different – if you made four batches of mead in four different bottles and put a different yeast in every one, they’d all taste a little different.” He has another secret here, too – make sure to feed your yeast. Adding nutrients, he says, “makes all the difference. Those complex sugars [in honey] are hard to break down into alcohol for any yeast.”

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