Monday, August 20, 2018

Mead Maker: Interview with Starrlight Mead's Ben Starr

We continue on with our exploration of mead, aka honey wine, during our own personal #meadmonth. After talking to many mead makers around North Carolina and Virginia, we have decided that we might try making our own mead sometime in the near future.

Until that time, you can read up on our interview with Starrlight Mead co-owner and head mead maker, Ben Starr. He was kind enough to chat with us on a busy Sunday afternoon inside the production facility. Check out some excerpts from our conversation below.

Related story: What you need to know about this popular honey wine!

Seems like a lot of mead makers got their start in home brewing. Is that how you got your start as well? Actually, no. I’m one of the odd ones. My first batch of alcohol was mead.

When did you get your first sample of mead? Becky and I first tried mead at a renaissance festival. When I was 12 years old, I was a bee keeper, so I always loved honey. So when I had the mead at the renaissance festival – you know honey and booze – it was very hard to go wrong with that combo. I had friends at home that were making mead, and of course, this is over the years, I wasn’t 12 anymore.

Oh, we just thought you had some very cool parents or something like that.

Yeah. Ha-ha. But Becky bought me a mead kit, and then I read this book about wine making, and it told you everything you can do to screw it up. And that’s the way they presented it. And it scared me. So I set aside the equipment for about a year, before I got Ken Schramm’s book, “The Compleat Meadmaker.” I started reading that, and he explains the ‘why’s’ and the ‘not just do this,’ and then it started making more sense to me, and we decided to just go for it. So we made our first batch of mead, and that was around 14 years ago.

Related story: Interview with Ken Schramm of Schamm's Mead in Michigan

So at that time, what were you making as far as gallons? Somewhere between 1 to 5 gallons? Yeah, we started out with a 5 gallon batch, but we’ve also made some 3 gallon batches, and I had some 1 gallon carboys to try some different things.

What type of honey were you using back then? We used all different types of honey. We used mesquite honey, actually the very first batch we used, we did a clover honey. This is not my favorite honey to use, but I didn’t know any better at that point.

And how did all these lead to eventually coming up with Starrlight Mead? We were making so much mead that we ended up giving it away. After about two years we entered a competition with the International Mead Festival in Boulder, Colorado in 2006. We ended up taking the gold medal in our category and the best in show trophy out of the 212 meads.

And that was the point when we decided that we shouldn’t be giving it away, and we started playing around with a business plan. Shortly after, Becky got laid off and then she got a job at Chatham Hill Winery. She worked there for a few years, and shortly after that is when we opened up this place.

When did Starrlight Mead come into the world? We opened up in 2010. In September will be our 8-year anniversary. And that’s when we’re hoping to move to the new place.

You’ll be in the same area as Fair Game Beverage and Chatham Cider Works, right? Yeah. We’ll be right off Lorax Lane. Before you get to them you’ll see a huge industrial looking building. That’s where I’ll be make the mead. Actually, the square footage of that is the same square footage of our entire building here. And then right behind that, you’ll see a beautiful, huge, blue building. That will be our tasting room. And that is a little bit larger than this building.

Related story: Interview with Williamsburg's Silver Hand Meadery

Being in that compound with Fair Game and Chatham Cider Works, we can probably look forward to some collaborations in the near future, right? Some barrel-aged meads, and some cysers? There may be a fortified mead in our future. Using some of the distilled product from Fair Game and adding that to the mead. And with Chatham Cider Works, there’s some collaborations in the works with them as well.  Honey and apples go well together, as you know.

There are so many different mead styles – from cysers to melomels, and metheglins to the basic traditional. Do you have a favorite? I really don’t. I enjoy complexity. Especially when I can take something like our spiced apple – where it’s not just a melomel. It’s not just a cyser. It’s not just a metheglin. It’s a combination of all them together.

We’ve talked to other people making mead here in North Carolina. We recently talked to Diane Currier at Honeygirl Meadery in Durham and Dana Acker at Windsor Run Cellars in Hamptonville. Both had very kind words to say about you. It’s a testament to what you’ve done for mead here in N.C. Is that in part to you being the first meadery here? Actually, we’re the third. Fox Hill Meadery was before us, and so was Desi Dew, but they closed before we opened. Fox Hill is near Asheville and they distribute, and they make some great stuff.

Thanks for spending a few moments with us. We hope to see you and Becky when  you open up your brand new location.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Canned wines you should have tried this summer!

Jennifer Primrose
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The past two years our "Summer Wine Series" has revolved around rosé wine with our "Swine & Rosé" and "Rosé and Sorbet." We had a great time doing both but decided this year it was time for a change. 

As summer begins to fade, we are wrapping up our 2018 Summer Series – Getting Canned!

If you haven’t heard, there is a new craze out there in the wine world. Canned wine! Something that is a little hard for us to get behind. When we think of wine, we think prestige and class … sophistication. Like opening up a nice bottle of Caymus cabernet sauvignon. The sound of the cork popping out of the its neck. Pouring a nice red into a decanter or straight into a Riedel glass. Sipping wine with friends and socializing about the latest trends. Or while at a nice restaurant, with the sommelier popping the cork at your table while he describes the wine and proceeds with the proper routine.

Then came boxed wine. Sure, it has its advantages, especially back in our 20s and single. It's great when hosting a gathering at your house and you really don’t want to open that good bottle you’ve been saving for a special occasion. And to be fair, some box wines truly are not that bad – but others, well, we could do without quite honestly.

Next we saw the evolution from the cork to the screw top. This was another one we had a tough time with. Quite frankly, I can’t pop a cork to save my life. There is only one opener that remotely allows me to get that cork out – and not too gracefully, I might add. 

Going out to a restaurant, or even a dinner party at home and twisting off the top of a wine bottle just doesn’t cut it. Especially when you forked over $50 on that special bottle only for the sommelier to arrive at your table and twist it off. No pop. No smelling of the cork. Just a twist and pour. Now, it does have its benefits – it’s cheaper to produce and has actually been around since the 1960s. Technically, it’s all perception. Perception that screw tops must be cheap wine, when in fact, that too is not necessarily the case.

Now, the latest craze to hit the wine world is canned wine. Sure, it’s convenient. It’s portion control. It’s perfect for the pools, beaches, camping outings or even a nice North Carolina hiking exploration. So, why do we have a problem with this. We even asked the question to our friend in the industry who we know will be honest when it comes to wine, and his response was “why not?” OK, challenge accepted.

This summer we delved into the new world of canned wines on this new summer series.  We reviewed 6 cans and where to best enjoy the snap of these liquid refreshments.

Our first can of the summer comes to us via our only North Carolina canned wine in this series. Skull Camp Winery out of Elkin has a handful of canned wines available for purchase at their winery and brewpub – and we selected the Euphoria.

Euphoria is a sweet, semi-dry, white blend made with Traminette grapes giving way to aromas of honeysuckle and flowers. This wine is perfect on a hot day to drink following that tennis game. Advantage: 

This summer we were introduced to Frico. A small can of Frizzante by Scarpetta. This Italian winery produces wines such as Barbera del Monferrato and Pinto Grigio in bottles, but this little gift comes in small 250mL cans. Frizzante is a blend of Trebbiano, Glera and Chardonnay. The can was savored with its light refreshing bubbles and tastes of green apples and sweet, juicy pears. We thought this one would be a perfect wine to enjoy after a nice hike in the NC mountains. We also want to thank our friend Jim Soffe at Raleigh's Falls Village Wine & Beer for the suggestion.

We typically enjoy doing our rosé series as mentioned earlier, so of course we had to hunt down a rosé in a can – and we found one. With Essentially Geared Wine Co., we were able to find a canned wine being served up in a 12oz. can. The label on the can of this rosé suggest pairing this 12% AVB wine with pizza by the slice, barbecue brisket or falafels. We cracked open our wine and did some yard work outside. Mow the lawn. Pull some weeds. Sweep the front porch. Crack open a can of Essentially Geared. Other cans include a red blend, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a sparkling.

Next we move on to Dancing Coyote's estate grown white wine, hailing from Clarksburg, California. This 250mL white wine is a blend of several European varietals: Cortese (48%), Falanghina (22%), Loureiro (22%) and Pinto Grigio (7%). This wine, which is 13% ABV, was crisp with a lot of aromatics. It has a slight bit of effervescence. The wine was fermented cold in stainless steel tanks and aged for 5 months, never seeing any oak or malolactic. This wine would be perfect to pack up in the cooler for your next camping trip.

We decided to try something a little different – a sangria. We were introduced to Pulpoloco at our neighborhood wine bar while our friend was doing his Facebook live series. There we learned about this sangria from Spain. The wine, which comes in a paper can, is similar to the paper used from those childhood popsicles, Push-Up Pops. The label states that it's "... a refreshing blend of Tempranillo wine, fruit and spices."

Pulpoloco drank pretty easy, which is to be expected with a 5.5% ABV. We were imagining a full sangria with this base, mixing it up with some apples, oranges and plums as well as a splash of Triple Sec and some vodka. This little gem would be perfect out at the lake with friends for your own Sangrias at Sunset party.

For our final canned wine of the series, we popped the top on Ramona. This refreshing pink grapefruit treat is perfect for the beach – especially on these hot Carolina days. This wine is all natural, organic and comes in at 7% ABV. This easy drinking wine could get you in trouble, especially if you love pink grapefruit. We suggest mixing this drink with your favorite vodka for a kicked-up Greyhound.

Final Thoughts

So, what were our final thoughts and results on canned wines? Canned wines are the future. They are hip, convenient and casual, light weight, unbreakable and easy to pack. What's not to like? Sure, it may remind you of the 1980s and early 90s and the age of the wine cooler but now in 2018, these wines are better and more sophisticated. But please, do NOT drink from the can! Keep it classy and pour your wine into a wine glass or unbreakable tumbler if you’re out and about.

Honestly, going into this, we were thinking “Bartles & Jaymes” wine cooler at best. We were wrong. These wines were actually pretty good. Not the best we’ve had by any means, but there are some good wineries out there heading in this new direction. 

While doing a little research and talking with those in the industry, it is our opinion that canned wine is not just a fad, but that we may be seeing a rise in production of canning wine in the future. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, but didn’t the price of aluminum just go up which would thereby increase the price? Economists, we are not. Only time will tell on the actual future production. In no way do we see it taking over the traditional bottles just like corks will remain king over the screw top.

As the sun begins to set on Summer, we encourage you to visit your local bottle shop and pick up a can or two and let us know your thoughts. During this series, we estimate that we were spending roughly $7 per can. That's not bad.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Mead Maker: Interview with Glenn Lavender

In our second installment of our #meadmonth series we’re looking at Silver Hand Meadery of Williamsburg, Virginia.

We first found out about this meadery in November 2015, when it first opened its doors to the public. At that time they weren’t pouring their own mead, but mead from other Virginia meaderies. We did a honey and mead tasting that day, which was led by Silver Hand owner, Glenn Lavender. We enjoyed our tasting and said we’d be back when they started pouring their own product.

Related Link: Mead 101: What you need to know about this popular honey wine

We’ve been several times in the past couple years – always bringing home a bottle or two to add to our collection. When we decided to release a blog on mead back on Aug. 4 for Mead Day, it was a no brainer to reach out to Lavender for some information on honey wine.

We didn’t talk to Glenn face-to-face, but he did send us a Youtube link of him answering all our questions. And so we decided to share all his insightful information with you. Be sure to visit Silver Hand the next time you find yourself in colonial Williamsburg.

How did you get your start in the whole mead making business? There were a couple things. One was reading historical fiction novels. A lot of them were from the same author, Stephen Lawhead. He wrote a book called The Silver Hand, and in a lot of his books he’d have these Celtic warriors returning home from battle and celebrate by drinking mead. And his descriptions of mead just sounded awesome. I wanted to try it and find some.

At the same time, I was getting into bee keeping, and my bee keeping catalogs would arrive and they always had a page or two devoted to mead making equipment. So, I started to see these two things together and realized this was something I wanted to check out.

It took a while to find some – I was living in southern Ontario at the time – that’s where I’m from. I had to drive about an-hour-and-a-half to the Niagara-area to find some mead. I found a great winery that was making mead. I liked it and loved it. And thought, ‘This should be a business opportunity for someone, someday.’ I didn’t think it would be me. But that’s how things got started.

Fast forward around a decade or more, and I moved from Canada to Williamsburg. I worked at a church for two-and-a-half years, and decided I wanted to open my own business. I didn't know what kind of business I wanted to run. I had a few different ideas, but it was the mead making business that rose to the top. Being in historic Williamsburg, we thought it was appropriate to have it here.

You can see that our logo is inspired by the Celtic knot, which ties into Silver Hand and those old historical novels.

I think we’ve been coming to your meadery since it opened … can you tell us a little more about your opening date?  We’ve been open since November 2015. We had our first meads available to sell in February, 2016. We actually sold mead from Black Heath Meadery in Richmond at our place for the first few months. That gave us a chance to see what people liked. We’re in our third year, and have doubled our space after being open a year. We have 8 employees right now. We have one head mead maker, besides myself.

Silver Hand is a great example of a small business. With around  8 employees, I’m sure most of them are involved in a lot of the process from start to finish.  We try to have everyone involved in the process. Everyone will be involved on production day at some level. Everyone bottles – because that requires more hands. And then there’s our de-gassing and nutrient additions and that kind of stuff. We’re teaching the staff that, so when people come in and do a tasting, I want our staff to be able to say, ‘We did this!’.

What’s behind the scenes? What’s your production like at Silver Hand?  We have 8 tanks and they’re all 115-gallons a piece. We have 4 French oak barrels, that we’re actually aging a cyser in. We also have another 4 bourbon barrels that we’re aging a traditional mead in. When we’re running full-bore we’ll start 2 new batches every three weeks – so that’s around 1,600 bottles. We had to do that in our first year-and-a-half, but we’re now caught up.

There are so many different styles of mead out there. How many different styles does Silver Hand produce?  We actually do a little bit of every style. We do traditional, metheglin, we always have a cyser. We have a pyment right now, which is exciting. It is the first time we had one (which was made in collaboration with Williamsburg Winery).  We have a couple of melomels. We’ve done a bochet in the past.

In the mead world, honey is like grapes. There are so many different types of honey. What are some of the different types of honey used in making your meads?   I like to try to use a different honey varietal for every mead. We offer honey tastings as well, so people can taste an orange blossom honey. Then they’ll taste an avocado blossom honey. They’ll go through all the different varietals, and then they can taste the mead. We try to tie them to the meads. We’ll choose the honey for the recipe to the mead – so that’s how we connect those things together.

Here in North Carolina our mead scene is growing at a great pace. I know the U.S. is over 400 meaderies but here in NC we’re up to around 12. How is the Virginia mead scene?  It’s growing. We have new meaderies popping up here very quickly. I don’t even know how many we have right now. As far as tastes – I’d say they swing towards the sweet side. When we opened, our meads were a little semi-sweet to dry, but we had a couple of sweet meads and they sold like crazy. So, we decided to do a little more sweet meads. We’re a business, so we’re going to make meads that people like. We kind a skewed that way a little more than I originally planned.

Going back to North Carolina, a lot of our beer people love mead. We see the beer drinkers brag about landing meads such as Schramm’s Mead in Michigan. Do you find that the people who enjoy mead in Virginia are primarily beer drinkers as well? We have aligned ourselves more in the wine world. We sell our meads in wine bottles, they’re not sparkling and our gravity is like wine … and again, we kind of treat it like wine. I don’t see the same thing here, from my experience. I find that it’s the folks who go to wine festivals love mead. It’s a big hit for them. Especially if it’s sweet wines – they’ll come here and buy things up.