Friday, April 16, 2010

Mead-Making

After digging around in the Left Hand Valley Courier archives for more of my food-related writing, I ran across this one from way back in 2003.

Since then, Medovina has grown quite a bit, and has won some notable national awards. Yet it remains a family operation, and still produces mead on a very small scale.

The lastest news from the meadery was the opening of a tasting room in 2009, where guests can sample meads and get a tour of the operation.

What’s the Buzz in Niwot?
The buzz could be the half-million or so bees tended by Mark Beren of Niwot. Over the winter, that number drops dramatically, but in the height of the season, each of Beren’s nine hives is home to anywhere from 50-80,000 little honey-producing striped “pets.” And according to Beren, bees are fun.

Despite the roughly 150-300 pounds of honey that Beren harvests annually from each hive, he’s not in the business of selling honey. And he certainly isn’t eating it all himself. Instead, he turns that sticky sweetness into alcohol in the form of mead, a honey-based wine.

In a 300 square foot room in Beren’s house sits the cooking and fermentation and bottling part of the business. A root cellar next to the house has been converted to a wine cellar. And a few plants here and there contribute flavorings. All of it together gives Beren his "perfect blend of art and engineering and science," as he described the business and the process.Because Beren’s winemaking business is “too big to use a home process and too small to use a commercial process,” he uses custom equipment. He currently has two 2 1/2 barrel fermentation tanks, with plans to increase to 6 tanks in the future. The nine hives may grow to as many as 20, with friends offering to become foster bee-parents. All that adds up to a yield of 3000-6000 bottles per year.

Unlike larger producers who buy honey and produce mead year-round, Beren harvests his own honey once a year, and within a week, that honey is on its way to becoming mead. And unlike larger producers, Beren has the time to use slow-acting yeasts, allowing the mead plenty of time to mature before it’s bottled.

The process doesn’t stop there, though. Because Beren uses raw honey and doesn’t filter the end product before bottling, a bit of yeast remains and the mead continues to mature in the bottle. Many people think mead, like fruit wine, has to be consumed “young,” but Beren said that "time is a great thing for mead." He has bottles that are as much as 8 years old and have only gotten better with age.

Despite the fact that the chief ingredient in mead is honey (about 1/2 pound per bottle!), it doesn’t have to be a sweet wine. As a matter of fact, meads using the same recipe can give different results, depending on factors as far-ranging as the type of yeast and where the bees have been gathering pollen.

While certain aspects of the process, like the cleanliness of the work area, are strictly controlled, there are still "a lot of little unexpected results," according to Beren. Some wines will end up “flat” while others will have just a bit of carbonation, and there will be variations in the sweetness, which makes it as much art as it is science. “It’s very much a custom craft,” Beren said.

A sampling of a previous year’s bottling proved that mead may not be what you expect, even after it’s been explained. The flavor was very much like a chardonnay, “without the oak” Beren noted. This particular bottle had a slight carbonation; not bubbly, but a fine fizzing that tickled the tongue. And with an alcohol content a bit higher than many wines, one could anticipate a certain “buzz” as well.

To make it easy for the consumer to choose a mead of their liking, Beren’s Medovina labels have a chart that shows whether the wine is a dry, off-dry, sweet, or dessert wine. As an added bonus, the Medovina meads have been tested to contain no sulfites, a boon to wine-lovers with allergies.

The current batch of mead is the first that will be available commercially, with the bottling completed in June, followed by a resting period, and sales beginning in September. Plans include sales at the Longmont and Boulder farmer’s markets, Niwot Liquors, and several Boulder and Lafayette liquor stores. Treppeda’s is planning on having a mead tasting, and several local restaurants will serve Medovina mead as well.

Initially three types of mead will be offered: Classic, which is a dry to off-dry mead; Sweet Melissa, which is sweeter; and Harvest Cyser, a blend of mead and apple cider. Anticipated prices are $20 for a 750 ml bottle and $12 for a 375 ml split.

Next year, Beren plans on offering rosewater-flavored mead, and experiments for future bottlings include interesting flavorings such as lavendar, sage, and several fruits.

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