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The Purest Wine

A passion for beekeeping sweetens Artesano mead


Published June 20, 2012 at 10:24 a.m.

Along the edge of Hunt Road in New Haven, a bee darts with efficiency from clover to clover, bending its body into a comma to suck out the nectar it finds. Then it buzzes back — quite possibly to one of beekeeper Kirk Webster’s 250 nearby colonies — to deposit its booty.

That bees can turn nectar into honey, using the enzymes in their stomach, seems almost miraculous. So does the multitude of flowers bees visit to make the honey that goes into one bottle of mead — more than a million, according to the calculations of Mark Simakaski. He’s the Groton mead maker who converts much of Webster’s rich clover honey into honey wine.

It was probably about 8000 years ago that humans accidentally discovered that honey mixed with rainwater could become something both palatable and intoxicating. Mead — fermented honey, water and yeast — was the earliest alcoholic beverage in most world cultures, predating both beer and wine. Despite its long reach through human history, mead gradually fell into disfavor after its apogee in the Middle Ages (think Beowulf).

Yet the steady growth of Simakaski’s meadery, Artesano, suggests that modern palates — at least in Vermont — are once again turning to the subtle, sweet and floral notes of the beverage. “Some people take a sip and say, ‘It’s not for me,’” says Simakaski. “Others take a sip, and you can see their gears turning.”

When Simakaski and his wife, Nichole Wolfgang, began producing mead in 2009, they bottled about 1000 gallons of their first, flagship flavor, simply called Traditional. Now their line includes half a dozen meads, and all 2250 gallons made each year are sold within 90 minutes’ drive of sleepy Groton.

Simakaski and Wolfgang began keeping bees about a decade ago while living in New Jersey. Both worked time-consuming corporate jobs, and when Wolfgang lost a beloved dog, Simakaski thought bees might fill the gap. “We could have 40,000 pets in a hive and would only have to look at them a few times a year,” he quips.

In 2005, the couple joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Paraguay. There, while teaching beekeeping to the locals, they made their first batch of mead: They blended honey with water in a gallon jug, mashed in some peaches and let the natural yeasts on the peach skins work their magic. When they returned stateside, the couple decided they’d like to make mead full time.

They crisscrossed the country looking for the ideal spot, checking out states on both coasts. When they visited Montpelier one November, Simakaski recalls with a chuckle, “We kind of liked it.” Soon they found a place in Groton and set about perfecting their mead. “We made many, many test batches,” he says, “and we came up with a protocol.”

Even though they were collecting their own honey, the couple needed a lot more than they could produce themselves — and they wanted the purest honey available.

So they turned to Kirk Webster, 58, who’d had his first taste of beekeeping in 1972, working with the renowned Charlie Mraz (now deceased) of Champlain Valley Apiaries. Webster left Vermont for a time but returned in 1985 to start his own apiary in Middlebury.

What drew him back to beekeeping? “I was always really interested [in] and drawn toward nature,” Webster says. “It was a place I could work, and [beekeeping] is kind of a unique window into the world of nature.”

He entered beekeeping while the field was fraught with a prolonged battle against the varroa mite, a tiny parasite that kills entire honeybee colonies. The so-called “varroa destructor” took calamitous hold all over North America, and beekeepers turned to chemical treatments to fight its spread.

Yet Webster was committed to organic practices and determined to perfect “treatment-free” beekeeping. He began breeding a strain of mite-resistant bees from eastern Russia: monitoring their food, controlling mating and breeding his own queens. “It used to be a lot easier to keep bees, and you could keep them alive without paying attention, but that’s all gone now,” he says.

Webster eventually decided that “[varrao] mites and commercial beekeeping could coexist without intervention,” as he writes on his website, which is dense with practical treatises such as “Nature Has All the Answers, So What’s Your Question?” and “A Page From a Treatment-Free Beekeeping Diary.” Webster began breeding bees for sale, too; now they’re in such high demand that they usually sell out early in the season.

Though taciturn, Webster can turn poetic when talking about his tiny charges. “The bees touch on so many different plants, you really get this incredible feeling of how the whole landscape is connected in various ways,” he says. “The bees give you a way of seeing and understanding that.”

Webster admits he gets attached to the bees. “I suffer a lot when they are suffering, too, such as when they don’t have enough food or the right kind of food,” he says. “Sometimes they’re hanging on their fingernails by the end of the winter.”

Mark Simakaski found Webster through the beekeeping grapevine, and the two were simpatico: Webster produces treatment-free clover honey, and Simakaski’s philosophy of mead making eschews the use of heat.

“I get paid a good price for my honey because of the way I treat bees and because I don’t heat honey,” says Webster. “The very best honey is in the combs. Any time you do something to honey, it degrades it a little, even extracting it. [Simakaski] says he doesn’t heat his honey, as many mead makers do,” he adds. “That is very interesting to me.”

In late summer, Webster visits each colony and spins the honey out of the combs via centrifugal force. In the fall, Simakaski rents a U-Haul to cart 7000 pounds of it back to Groton.

Until the science of fermentation was fully understood in the 1800s, many cultures ascribed the phenomenon to their gods. That’s why the names Dionysus, Osiris, Ninkasi and the Maenads, among others, are printed neatly on little white cards affixed to the stainless-steel tanks inside Artesano. Simakaski uses them to differentiate amoung the batches.

In the meadery, he dilutes the honey with water, adds yeast and lets the mixture ferment inside the tanks for about a month. After the optional addition of blueberries, raspberries or spices (for Simakaski’s offshoot blends), the mead ages for nine months more. Simakaski occasionally transfers it between tanks to move it off its lees, or yeast, and ferments it until it is nearly dry and 12 to 15 percent alcohol. He adds some raw honey to almost all of the blends just before bottling for a bit of sweetness.

This method of cold fermentation “takes a little longer,” admits Simakaski, but it yields delicate mead with only a hint of sugar. Artesano’s Traditional flavor betrays its source the most: Straw colored, slightly sweet and floral, it has the purest honey flavor.

As the popularity of that mead grew, Simakaski and Wolfgang added the pale-purple, slightly puckery Blueberry Mead and the brighter, fruitier Raspberry Mead, both of which use fruit from the Charlotte Berry Farm. To create their autumnal Honey Wine with Spices, the couple infuse mead with vanilla, clove, nutmeg and orange peel. This and the raspberry variety generally sell out, Simakaski notes.

More recently, Simakaski and Wolfgang formulated the crisper, drier and more delicate Essence Mead; just last week, they were bottling their newest flavor — the warming Chili & Cinnamon Mead. The latter’s lingering, spicy finish is courtesy of habanero chiles and Ceylon cinnamon that are added to the wine in nylon bags. Soon the couple plan to release Poet’s Mead, aged in barrels that once held both bourbon and Allagash Brewing Company beer. Simakaski says this concoction picks up oak undertones. Most of Artesano’s meads can be sampled in the airy tasting room in the center of Groton.

Though beekeeper Webster has not yet visited Artesano’s meadery — and isn’t much of a drinker, he says — he’s happy that Simakaski and Wolfgang are using his product. “I’ve thought for many years that someone should make mead with this honey, so I’m thrilled that Mark came along and sought me out,” he says.

It was a match the bees themselves might have designed: a beekeeper who refrains from spraying them with chemicals, and a patient mead maker who strives to capture the essence of all that busy nectar gathering.

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