The mention of mead is likely to bring to mind Vikings and Renaissance fairs rather than sophisticated sipping and food pairings. But times and tastes are changing, and some locals have their sights set on modernizing perceptions and knocking the dust off the ancient drink’s faded appeal.
One of these mead mavens is Fairview resident Ivar Schloz. A former metallurgical engineer and longtime beer-brewing hobbyist, Schloz is the owner and head mazer (mead maker) at Bee & Bramble, an artisan meadery that began marketing its products locally in mid-November. Contrary to the commonly held notion of honey wine as an overly sweet drink, Schloz’s meads are dry, crisp and laced with floral notes — similar in taste and appearance to a nice white wine. And his goal, he says, is to change the way people view mead.
“My mission, I guess, if you could say there’s a mission, is to dispel the notion that this is a specialty beverage,” says Schloz. “This is a daily drinker. This is something you can pair with foods and that you can drink on a daily basis. I guess I’m testament to that: I love beer, I love wine, but honestly, I’d rather drink my own stuff.”
Schloz was first inspired to try making mead in 2010 after he tried some made by a friend during an annual gathering of his college buddies. It was a Viking-themed party, of course.
“It was sweet and wasn’t like what I would want to make,” he recalls, “but it was good … and I thought, ‘You know, I’ve got all this brewing experience, some distilling experience, very little winemaking experience, but it’s something that would fit very well with me.’”
Schloz engaged his engineer’s brain and began experimenting with mead recipes, the most basic of which call for only honey, yeast and water. Using 1-gallon containers of Haw Creek Honey and various commercial wine, ale and mead yeasts, he started tinkering with the concept in search of his specific vision of perfection.
“Being a [process engineer], I’m always intrigued by making anything I make the best that it can be … no matter what it is — Thai food, hot chocolate, espresso drinks, whatever. At that point, I never considered it a business. I was just concerned with making the best mead I could make.” Eventually, Schloz settled on using just two or three varieties of wine yeasts with French origins and honed his process until he “wound up with something vastly better than anything [he’d] had before.”
At that point, Schloz, an old-time musician, began bartering and sharing his products with friends at local festivals and music gatherings. A constant stream of praise encouraged him to take his hobby to the next level. By that time, he had lost his salaried job in the economic downturn and was working as an international aluminum manufacturing consultant, so he used his downtime between gigs and a couple of big paychecks to gradually launch himself into the mead business.
He now gets his honey, all sourced within the Appalachian mountains, in 50-gallon drums, and buys adjunct ingredients — such as blackberries, blueberries and elderberries — from McConnell Farms in Hendersonville and other area growers. The water he uses is double-filtered from a well on his Fairview property.
With a painstakingly researched process, carefully selected equipment and a working playbook of recipes, Bee & Bramble is now cranking out five varieties of mead, bottling it (in bottles adorned with labels designed by local artist Keith Phillips) and bringing it to the people, all from an outbuilding behind Schloz’s home.
But what about that perception thing?
On a national level, mead may be casting off its too-sweet stereotype and is actually on the verge of becoming a trend. A Dec. 14 story on National Public Radio quotes American Mead Makers Association President Chris Weber, saying that the number of commercial mead makers nationwide has increased from about 25 in the year 2000 to nearly 250 today. The story notes that the most significant growth has occurred within the last five years with almost 40 new meaderies coming online in 2014.
But how do those numbers translate locally? “Mead is still kind of on the fringes for people looking for libation,” says Geoff Alexander, co-owner of Appalachian Vintner on Biltmore Avenue. Alexander, who says his shop carries the largest selection of mead in the city, including Bee & Bramble, echoes Schloz in his belief that many people don’t consider mead as a drink option because they are afraid it will be cloying.
“I think it’s a little intimidating for people because they have preconceived notions of what honey wine is — they think it’s just sweet. But there are so many different styles now that are coming around.”
Although Appalachian Vintner carries numerous meads from all over the U.S., he says the only other Western North Carolina mazer he knows of besides Scholz is Jason Russ of Fox Hill Meadery in Marshall. But he thinks the potential is there for others to enter the market.
“Mead is absolutely becoming more popular,” he says. “The craft beverage market — whether it’s sodas or ciders or meads — everything is increasing. I think people are finding that there’s a lot of variety out there and a lot of quality out there.”
Winemaker Chuck Blethen, co-founder of the French Broad Vignerons and owner of Jewel of the Blue Ridge Vineyard in Marshall, makes mead from time to time, as does his son, Brian Blethen. (Brian’s metheglin — or spiced mead — is “second to none,” says his father.) Although Chuck also knows of only the aforementioned two commercial meaderies in the immediate Asheville area, he says more than a dozen members of his organization enjoy creating meads on a non-commercial level and are “definitely meadery-owner wannabes.”
Additionally, Chuck says that over the past few years, members of the Vignerons’ wine judging program — judges of the competitions at the Asheville Wine & Food Festival and N.C. CiderFest — have noticed numerous submissions of meads to various contests. “Because mead is a honey wine, we have judged them. That’s something that we’ve started doing as an organization,” he says.
Bee & Bramble meads are available for $14 to $17 a bottle at Katuah Market, Weinhaus, Divine Wine and Beer, Ben’s Penny Mart, Vaso de Vino and Appalachian Vintner in Asheville; Artisan Gourmet in Black Mountain; and Maggie B’s in Weaverville. They are also available by the bottle at 5 Walnut Wine Bar and by the glass Ben’s Tune Up. For details, go to beeandbramble.com.
For more on the French Broad Vignerons, go to frenchbroadvignerons.org.