I originally wrote this article for the magazine I write for, NRV Magazine. Laura does the majority of their photography and I write the “Made in the NRV” column. Which is a lot of fun. I get to talk with lots of people, scribble in my notebook, eat lots of good food and on some occasions, drink some really interesting stuff. Like cider, beer, wine and on this trip, mead! In this case, my fascination with the honeybees prompted Laura to buy me the best birthday present ever, a honeybee hive kit (minus the bees). So here goes the article….
Cicadas drone hypnotically in the background. A fat honeybee inspects the rim of my glass almost lazily. I am soothed by the sound of birds, the shade of the open porch, the rustle of trees swaying gently in the wind and the smooth, calm voices of my hosts as they explain the nuances in tasting Mead. I am at Blacksnake Meadery in Dugspur, Virginia near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Steve and Joanne Villers are hosting my wife and me for a private Mead tasting. The peace and calm are quite the opposite of my imagination’s view of Mead consumption.
I’m imagining a group of Vikings, armed to the teeth with swords and medieval gear, thumping huge wooden tables while draining great goblets of Mead. Maybe a group of Roman gladiators, being awarded for their bloody conquests in the arena, gathered around a single, giant vat of Mead before being thrust into harm’s way on the bloody sands again. I think my imagination may be influenced by too many books and movies, for this Mead was nothing like I expected. I expected a powerful taste, only slightly nuanced by the honey from which it is made. These actual tastes were complicated, light, comforting and truly delicious, a perfect complement to the bright and sunny day.
Steve explains to me that Mead is one of the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages, tracing its roots all the way back to the Babylonians, who were some of the world’s first recorded beekeepers. The term “Honeymoon” can also be traced back to that mighty civilization, as it was customary for a newlywed couple to receive enough Mead to last them for a month, or one moon. The majority of the recipes for making Mead have been lost over time, with only the sweetest recipes surviving to present day. Steve explains that the reason for this is that only the rich could afford the sweetest of the Meads, as they have the largest ratio of honey to water. This explains why only those recipes would have survived as only the rich would have access to paper and education to pass these recipes down to subsequent generations.
Steve and Jo were attracted to making Mead after experimenting with wine and beer, especially beer. They are both Science teachers, so the chemistry and beekeeping was very fascinating for them. Steve says, “We love the bees!” The hives are busy with the drone of worker bees in the early morning sunshine. All bees in North America are originally from Europe and most are Italian variants. They tend to be gentler than other bees. Russian bees are more resistant to the mites that have been giving bees problems over the last few years; Hygienic bees have been bred to identify sick or infected larvae to limit hive contamination and as a by-product of their selective breeding are also cleaner than other bees.
As we move through the Mead tasting, from dry to sweet (if this were a thousand years ago I would only be able to afford the dry!), Steve and Jo explain the Mead making process. “The honey is gathered and spun to isolate the free honey from the comb. Yeast nutrient is added and the honey then ferments for two months. It is then aged for approximately eight months to allow the complexity of the Mead to develop.” They also explain that the only ingredients in the dry Meads are wildflower honey (which also adds to the complexity as the bees are allowed to forage for wild pollen), spring water and yeast. The “Hoppy Bee Brew” contains hops that they grow on premise which adds a note of bitterness reminiscence of a good pale ale. They also have two seasonal Meads, one made with butternut squash (also grown on premise or purchased nearby) and one made with fresh pressed Virginia apple cider.
Steve and Jo process, ferment, age and bottle everything on site by hand. Steve is strict on sanitization during the bottling process as it is the only place where outside contaminates can enter the brew. Business has grown for them in the five years since they started. Their original dream was to purchase a country property and develop a way to fund the purchase. They now supply to a long list of retailers, including the Oasis, Vintage Cellar and several others. Steve and Jo are cautious with the amounts of Mead they brew, choosing to avoid market saturation and keep their costs low. They are currently growing test plots of raspberries with the intention of developing a raspberry Mead. The building in which the Meadery is housed is a log structure built in the 1980’s utilizing 19th century tobacco barn logs. The total effect is one of charm, peace and solitude.
Beekeeping isn’t quite as straightforward as I imagined. Steve explained to me that honeybee stings hurt far worse than wasps and hornets, which is what most people are stung by. They have also been hit by the mysterious colony collapse that other beekeepers have been plagued with. Oh, and the Winnie the Pooh stereotype is true: Bears LOVE honey! An electric fence baited with peanut butter helps keep them out.
Take some time, take a drive, and go see Steve and Jo. Their address is 605 Buffalo Road, Dugspur, Virginia, or visit them at their web site, www.blacksnakemead.com. Tell them Ron sent you.