Updated: Jul 8, 2021
Jeff Murray, co-owner of WildFlyer Mead in Sarasota TX, graciously answered my questions about Mead to help me understand the topic more fully and appreciate it in the context of the surge in artisanal alcoholic beverages not fermented from grape.
photo credit: Chelsea Murray
Can you tell our readers about WildFlyer Mead and how you started it? Did you want to fill a niche in the Texas mead-making ecosystem?
The idea behind WildFlyer existed long before the name or company. Chelsea (my wife) and I moved back to the Houston area back in 2011. We had lived briefly in Fairbanks, AK, and I decided that I wanted to start home-brewing beer. It wasn't feasible to do up there, so my goal was to start when we relocated back to Texas. If you're a craft beer fan in Houston, and you remember back in 2011...there wasn't a whole lot going on then. We had St. Arnold's, and I believe Karbach and maybe Buffalo Bayou Brewery had just opened. That was pretty much it. So if you wanted a craft beer, you pretty much had to make it on your own. Fast forward to 2014, I convinced Chelsea to let us start beekeeping. We kept a couple of bee colonies in our backyard in Missouri City, and with the honey crops, I decided to try my hand in mead-making. It was definitely not an initial success. Looking back, I realized it was a challenge that brewing beer did not have. There were not nearly the resources available to help learn how to make mead. The good thing, though, was that I got to develop my own style without much influence. I think that's probably why what we make is so different than what can generally be found commercially. I was forced to develop my own style of meads.
photo credit: Chelsea Murray Fast forward again to Fall 2018. We had been trying to find a location to start our meadery. We are beekeepers and scaled up our operation, but it was nowhere near large enough to supply our own raw ingredient. I had always been concerned about how I would manage to both be a beekeeper and mead maker. I never wanted to just be the guy who randomly decided to open a meadery without any connection to the bees or honey. Sure, I could just buy drums of honey from somewhere, but what's the appeal in that? We had known about BeeWeaver Apiaries for a long time. We had bought our initial bee colony from them and found out that they wanted to start selling mead in their retail store on the honey farm. Chelsea reached out to the Weavers about opening a meadery on the farm, and here we are! We opened WildFlyer Mead Company in May 2019.
photo credit: Shutterstock
We want BeeWeaver and WildFlyer to be a destination for all things honeybees and honey. We want people to be able to get out of the city, come out to the farm, taste honey, see the bees, and relax on the farm with a glass of mead. Where else can you have an experience like that?
I recognize that we are bit of a hike from the city, but I'm confident that people will enjoy their time on the farm and at the meadery. I hope that we can change the expectations that people have for mead. We use a premium honey, most of which is produced right here on the honey farm. Like any agricultural crop, we have good and bad honey production years. So, this year we had to buy honey from another honey producer. The good thing about being affiliated with BeeWeaver is that when you've been keeping bees for over a hundred years, you know other reputable beekeepers in Texas. And we are now currently in the process of scaling up our honey production. Hopefully we can be fully self-producing in the next few years. I also made the decision to use entirely fresh fruit for our fruited meads (a fruit mead is called a melomel -- mead has all kinds of ridiculous names....we don't have room for that in this blog post). Another goal of mine is to source as much of our fruit from Texas farms as possible. That's not always possible, but that's why it's a goal. For example, our blueberries are sourced from a farm up in the Tyler area, and our peaches come from a farm in Fredericksburg. We want to support and promote Texas farmers as much as possible. I say all that because I want to position ourselves as a premium mead producer. I'm proud of all the ingredients that we use.
photo credit: Jeff Murray
I came up with the name WildFlyer for a variety of reasons. Obviously, it's a nod to honeybees. They are definitely wild flyers. But not only that, but the mead that we make is not traditional. Generally people expect mead to be super sweet, syrupy, and boozy. That's not what we do. Our meads tend to be lighter and more approachable. I want people to be able to hang out on our screened porch, relax, and enjoy what they are drinking. And want to take a few bottles to go, too...
photo credit: Chelsea Murray
How do meaderies source their honey? are they usually located near a honey farm, as in your case?
I certainly can't speak for everyone, but my expectation is that most meaderies buy their honey from big honey suppliers. That's not necessarily a bad thing. They have the ability to order different varietals of honey: orange blossom, tupelo, buckwheat, etc, that all have different flavor profiles and colors. That's just not the decision that we made. The draw of BeeWeaver is the location and destination that we could become. We offer tours where I can walk our guests from a live honeybee colony, to our honey house where the honey is extracted, to our mead production facility where we turn honey in to mead, and then in to our tasting room where they can taste it. I think that's a pretty amazing thing for people to experience. In fact, hopefully this summer we can offer a hive to glass experience where people will be able to participate in honey extraction and then take that honey immediately over to the meadery to make a mead. Where else can you do something like that??!?!! How sustainable is mead production considering the global decline in honeybee population?
Is there a problem? Yes, however, in my opinion, it's for different reasons. I prefer to think of honeybees as livestock. That may not be a popular opinion, but honeybees are not native to the United States. Bees are farmed like any other livestock, albeit tiny livestock. For example, BeeWeaver is a bee producer. They raise bees and queens to sell bees and queens. You see in the news that commercial beekeepers have losses up for ~40% every year. There are a number of reasons for that. But it also comes down to opportunity cost of preventing some of those losses. Without getting into an economics lesson that I'm not qualified to give, beekeepers have to build in losses to their business. To me, the problem is more about illegal importation of honey from countries like China. Not only is the honey commonly faked (cut with corn syrup, etc) and full of heavy metals and antibiotics, but it also drives the price of honey in the US way down. Flooding our market with cheap foreign honey is a huge problem for American producers. Other problems are urban sprawl and giant monocultures (huge swaths of single-product farms). Both come down to losing habitat and diversity in food sources for bees. Imagine eating the same thing day in and day out. You probably won't feel very healthy after a while. That's what bees are doing when they are stuck foraging in monocultures. As far as urban sprawl, it is just harder to find productive bee yards to keep bees for honey production. So, in summary, I don't think the problem with honey production is the loss of honeybees themselves. It's the challenge of finding appropriate places for them to produce honey while competing with a terrible market price. Honey-producing beekeepers can't make any money, so why even be a commercial beekeeper at all? Fortunately for us, we can take a low priced product and make a profitable value-added product. So even though producing honey is very labor intensive and therefore fairly expensive to produce, we can make it worthwhile...and hopefully sustainable.
Can you describe a typical harvest?
photo credit: Shutterstock
BeeWeaver keeps thousands of colonies of bees throughout the Brazos Valley. Honey extraction usually starts around early June and often goes into August. It really just depends on how much honey needs to be harvested. It's a labor-intensive process to pull honey supers and run it through the extraction equipment. A honey super is the box that is used by bees to store their excess honey.
It starts with beekeepers going to a bee yard and pulling honey supers that are full and capped, meaning that the honey is fully ready to be extracted. There are a few techniques for getting bees out of honey supers. They are protecting their food source, so they don't give it up willingly. There is a harmless chemical that can be used that has a bad smell to bees. It drives them out of the supers down in to the brood boxes. My preferred method is a bit more crude. I use a leaf blower. The bees don't love it, but it gets them out quickly and I can keep moving. After honey supers are brought back to the honey house, the first step is uncapping, or removing the wax layer that protects the honey. Once the honey is exposed, each frame is placed into the extractor, which is a big centrifuge. Centrifugal force pulls the honey out of the honeycomb, and then it is pumped or gravity-flowed into drums or buckets. Remember, this is happening in summertime, so the viscosity of the honey is fortunately pretty low. Generally, the only "filtration" that we put the honey through is just a coarse sieve. We just want to catch wax and bee parts before it goes in to drums.
What conditions affect the production of mead?
My mead making process is unique to me. I expect that you'll find very different mead making processes depending on who you talk to. In my opinion, the most important factor in the quality of mead is the health of the fermentation itself. Honey is antimicrobial, so it resists fermentation. It's also nutrient deficient in regards to what it takes for a healthy fermentation. So, convincing honey to have a quick, healthy fermentation is very important to quality mead making. Next , the quality of ingredients makes a huge difference to the quality of the end product. We made the choice to use premium honey, and fresh, whole fruit. I think it shows. Also, temperature control. Regulating temperature both during fermentation and after is important to me. Remember the old Coors beer commercials? Coors is stored cold throughout its whole life cycle. Without getting in to the minutiae, I use a similar process.
What determines good mead from bad mead?
photo credit: Jeff Murray
Unfortunately, the barrier to entry for commercial mead-making is very low. The only real requirement is for the government to approve your facility. Once you have that, you can ferment your honey whichever way you want. With beer-brewing, there is a heat component. You have to have equipment to boil your wort before fermentation. Cooking equipment is very expensive, so it takes a lot of money to start a brewery, regardless of the scale. With mead-making, everything can be done at ambient temperature. You don't have to control temperature. Also, because it's just such a small industry and not a lot of resources for learning the process, there just isn't much experience in it. Making mead requires a lot of attention to detail. And it also comes down to quality of ingredients, which I mentioned before. If you want to keep cost down, that's likely to be the first thing that goes. Be wary of inexpensive mead. Honey and fruit are not cheap. Economy of scale does not exist for the vast majority of our industry. Hopefully as the industry matures, the quality will continue to improve. A rising tide raises all ships. At what temperature should mead be served?
I prefer mead to be chilled. We make our meads with a light carbonation, so chilling is important to preserve carbonation. However, as our mead warms, flavor and aroma will open up and develop. Our session meads (lower ABV-alcohol by volume -) should definitely be chilled. Style-wise, they are similar to a craft beer or cider, so it makes sense to chill. Our Imperial meads (higher ABV) could be served warmer if that's the consumer's preference. I wouldn't serve warmer than cellar temperatures (50s F). We include serving suggestions on all our bottle labels. They will vary slightly depending on the product.
Is there an aging process and are barrels used? oak? stainless steel? Are there any similarities with the aging process of wine?
Our session meads are designed to be consumed fresh. They can be aged for a bit, but the style lends themselves to be ready when they are released. Our imperial meads can benefit from aging. We are still a young business, so we are only now getting starting with our barrel program. All our meads are fermented in stainless, and I expect that we will continue with that process. I plan to start aging more of our meads in oak barrels, but I first wanted to get a better grasp on how a range of our meads would respond to barrels. We released our first whisky barrel aged mead back in December. I think it turned out pretty great. Response has been very positive so far. What countries outside the US are pioneers in mead-making and do they have different standards of production than in America? Do you recommend any?
Ireland is the traditional mead-making country. In fact, the term "honeymoon" got its name from the Irish tradition of newlyweds spending a month drinking mead because it was thought to improve fertility. I'm not advocating that... However, Irish mead is generally traditional (only honey, not fruited) and super syrupy sweet. Not very similar in style to what we do. There is also an Ethiopian version of mead, called Tej. I've actually never had it. If someone wants to bring me a bottle, I'd be happy to try it with you! There are a few Ethiopian restaurants in Houston, and I'm pretty sure they serve Tej. Try it and let me know what you think. What else would you like our readers to know about Mead and WildFlyer Mead?
photo credit: Chelsea Murray
My biggest challenges to grow our brand and business is that people either: have never heard of mead; or they have a negative opinion of it. I have to overcome those two things. I'm confident that we have a mead that will appeal to anyone. I try to make our meads very approachable to people. My goal is not to convert the Cabernet drinker or the Michelob Ultra drinker to a mead drinker. My goal is for our customers to have a positive experience trying something unique that is locally sourced and produced. Maybe I can create some WildFlyer Mead fans who then want to share that experience with their friends and family. I didn't mention that mead is naturally gluten free. It's a great alternative to traditional grape wine or cider for people who can't tolerate gluten. The common perception of mead is that it is very sweet and you have to be reading Beowulf or going to the Renaissance Festival. We aren't any of those things. Now don't get me wrong, I love the Texas Renaissance Festival. You just don't have to be wearing a chainmail suit to hang out at WildFlyer. Can you recommend any books or online sources for those interested to learn more?
I generally recommend to not read anything about mead making that's over 5-6 years old. A lot has changed when it comes to mead fermentation in the past few years. I would start with Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm. I recognize that the book is older than 5 years old, but options are limited. And I'll give a shout out to gotmead.com. It is a good resource and has a recipe calculator that is very helpful.
If anyone has any questions about getting started with mead making, give me a shout.