Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 15, 2013

Crowdfunding saves the day

By KATHY GIBBONS kgibbons@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — BELLAIRE — A “nights and weekends” effort to create to commercially craft a centuries-old alcoholic beverage received the kick-start it needs to launch, thanks in large part to an Internet website campaign.

Jeremy VanSice long dreamed of starting a meadery at his family’s farm on a picturesque peninsula surrounded by Clam Lake, Lake Bellaire and Torch Lake.

“Mead is water, honey and yeast,” said Jeremy, 36, who with his siblings grew up spending summers in Alaska with their father. “It’s the oldest form of fermented beverage known to man.

“Mead is a little different from beer. It takes a little bit to age.”

Longtime home brewer VanSice took mead-making classes through Northwestern Michigan College and began creating it with honey from bees kept on the farm.

He worked as a bartender at Shanty Creek Resort and spent a year in Alaska on cod boats (think “Deadliest Catch”) to squirrel away cash to transform about 800-square feet in an existing pole barn into a processing facility for Bee Well Meadery. Brother Chris, 38, an East Detroit High School teacher, came on board and helped during summers and school breaks.

“The sinks are in, we have a fermentation room that’s actually climate-controlled,” Jeremy said. “We’re starting on a pretty small scale.”

But they ran into a pretty huge roadblock when they learned the farm’s water well wasn’t adequate for their needs.

“Since it’s hooked into my inlaws’ house and into a pond for irrigation, (inspectors) were concerned with backflow issues,” Jeremy said.

Their option was to spend a lot of money to upgrade the current infrasctructure or opt for a more affordable route of building a new, dedicated well and septic. They also needed to make improvements to the heating and cooling system.

But there was no money to do it.

“I was about to give up,” Jeremy said.

That’s when Chris suggested turning to the Kickstarter crowdfunding website.

“My brother is more tech-savvy,” said Jeremy. “I’m the farmer and the beekeeper and have this vision.”

The brothers made a video and launched their project on Kickstarter — a site described as a platform for creative projects — on Jan. 30. In return for pledges, they offered rewards: a jar of honey for a $25 donation; founders club membership for a $100 pledge; the chance to create a custom mead for $750.

“I’m like, ‘Nobody’s going to like this’ and he’s like, ‘Let’s just give it a shot’,” said Jeremy. “And right away within 10 minutes of him posting the video, people from Ireland donated, people from Australia, people from Alaska.

“It was really amazing to see how many people were familiar with mead and on board with the idea.”

Funding on Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition. Projects must receive at least 100 percent of the goal to be funded. According to the website, 11 percent of projects finish having never received a single pledge. But 81 percent of projects that raised more than 20 percent of their goal have been successfully funded.

The VanSices’ Kickstarter campaign isn’t over until March 1, but the brothers already exceeded their bare bones goal of $9,000 by more than $1,500. Of the 142 backers they had as of late last week, Chris estimated about 40 percent are people they have never met.

“I never thought we would reach our goal so quickly,” said Chris. “I’m just surprised how word travels.”

Carrie Skinner, who graduated from Bellaire High School with Jeremy, contributed $25. She now lives just outside Denali National Park, Alaska, and said the mead project is the first time she climbed on the Kickstarter bandwagon.

“They have this opportunity in our small community of Bellaire to start this dream of theirs,” she said. “I love to see people succeed in something they are passionate about.”

Another supporter, James Houston of Aurora, Ohio, has a second home in Bellaire and knows Jeremy and Chris. He’s a also a Kickstarter first-timer and contributed $500 when he saw the campaign was about $400 short of reaching the $10,000 mark.

“It’s basically continuing an arm of the farming that’s gone on with their family for about six generations now,” he said.

Now the brothers are excited knowing they can move ahead with Bee Well Meadery. They’ve ordered more hives and are focused on production and distribution starting this spring, with product available by sometime this summer.

“I just want to get open and make mead,” Chris said. “As demand rises, we’re just going to keep growing.”