Bees to Mead
There’s a former church in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that stands tall and white at the edge of town. The church’s owners, beekeepers Melissa Hronkin and John Hersman have repurposed the building toward the careful brewing of handcrafted mead, or honey wine, an ancient drink of fermented honey and water.
“The relationship between our honeybees and this building have, in a sense, come full circle,” says Hronkin. “Monks were the first beekeepers, who produced wax for the church’s candles and used the surplus honey from their colonies to make mead.”
The couple raises bees on 38 acres in Ontonagon County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Their bees pollinate fields of pumpkins, sunflowers, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, and clover.They started with two hives their first year, sold out of honey, and expanded to 70 hives the next year. Then the question became, what do we do with all the honey? “Those bees worked so very hard to make it,” says Hronkin. “We wanted to present it to our customers as a precious commodity.”
Hersman attended culinary school and worked in the grocery business. Hronkin’s art background gave her marketing insight. They researched the processing business. “We learned that if we wanted to retail honey, we had to process it in a certified kitchen and bottle it there,” says Hronkin. They rented an old school’s kitchen for a weekend, did all the work by hand, and were in business, but they needed a permanent place.
A friend told them of a Catholic church that had closed in 1995. They bought it. The old church houses the meadery, as well as displays of artists’ work, and tables of honey, mead, wax candles, soaps, and other products for sale. Colored light from the big stained glass windows casts shadows on groups of artists and history buffs that meet in the old structure. It is a beehive of activity.
How to Make Mead
The ancient process of making mead, considered by some historians as the ancestor of all fermented drinks, is quite simple. “You start with honey, water, and yeast to make the traditional true mead,” says Hersman. “Lots of meads are sweet, depending on the level of honey used. We specialize in dry mead. Think of it like making a dry wine vs. a sweet wine. Some people taste ours, expecting a syrupy sweet drink, and they are amazed that ours is so dry.”
The mead is processed in the basement. “Sanitation is key, because foreign bacteria can ruin the batch,” he says.
Mead has to be aerated at first. Then it’s locked up and oxygen becomes the enemy. The mead is racked until the liquid is clear and sediment-free, and then it is bottled. The couple makes it year round.
“Honey lasts all year,” says Hronkin. “We stockpile fruit in our freezer, and when one fermentation is done, we make another batch.”
They spent the first winter finding bottles, working on licensing, and “jumping through state and federal regulatory hoops,” she says. “Now the work is in the record keeping.”
Their bottles sport a spring-loaded cork and a hand-fashioned label made by Hronkin from a linoleum cut, another ancient fine art process she’s mastered.
“John’s culinary skills pay off in making mead,” says Hronkin. “We work on our packaging, use great bottles, and have no problem selling it. We host tastings, and the mystery about drinking mead is dispelled.”
You can come at mead from a culinary, technical, and scientific side, says Hersman. “The first batch I made, I was very scientific, but it got easier and I started tweaking the recipe.”
Next, the couple plans to expand the meadery and continue to experiment with new recipes such as pyments (mead fermented with grape juice) and cysers (mead fermented with apples).