BEULAH — The bees have been busy in Benzie county since Kurt and Sharon Jones bought two hives and began making honey 30 years ago.
Today, their Beulah-based Sleeping Bear Farms is known for its many honeys, honey products, and "BeeDazzled gifts from the hive” shop. It also gave birth to St. Ambrose Cellars, a winery specializing in artisan mead and wines made from Sleeping Bear Farms honey.
Mead is the newest buzz in the food business, and St. Ambrose Cellars is making its mark as northern Michigan’s first meadery. A honey-based wine, mead was noted among Forbes top 10 food trends of 2011.
Its roots are deep.
“Mead is one of the oldest-known alcohols,” said St. Ambrose Cellars’ sales manager Doug Coster. “We think of the middle ages and Friar Tuck drinking mead in Sherwood Forest ... but there is evidence dating back thousands of years BC.”
“Mead is predominantly a honey wine,” Coster said, noting local fruits and grapes are often incorporated, as well. “All alcohol we drink is basically fermented and distilled sugars. Honey is a great source of sugar and comes in many varieties.”
Coster has been with parent company Sleeping Bear Farms for 25 years, and part of St. Ambrose Cellars since the beginning. He said mead making began with small batches after the honey harvest about 10 years ago.
“We made it kind of celebratory and gave it to staff,” he said. “Then we began developing formulas and skills.”
The Cellars’ products include carbonated draft meads found on tap at area brew pubs and restaurants, as well as bottled still meads and fine wines, including Riesling, Vignoles, Marsanne Cabernet Franc, Pinot noitre and a port-style Forte. All of the honeys used are raised at Sleeping Bear Farms and all fruits are locally grown.
St. Ambrose Cellars began three years ago, starting out in Sleeping Bear Farms’ former shipping and receiving department. It began with two mead varieties and the first bottle was sold in August 2011.
Products were distributed throughout Michigan by August 2012, and expanded to a second state, Georgia, by August 2013. Current annual production is 2,500 cases, with 25 different wines and meads. Many have won awards in international competitions.
Demand continues to grow, but further expansion is on hold until next year.
“We are selling as fast as we can make it,” Coster said, noting the meadery is producing at capacity in its current 2,520-square-foot facility. A new 7,000-square-foot production site adjacent to the Sleeping Bear honey farm is under construction with an anticipated opening in spring 2014. The space will include bottling for the draft meads and a tasting room, with a large red barn slated for events and weddings close by.
When open, Coster hopes to add four to six new jobs, multiply production and expand distribution to the eastern states.
Matt Frolo, a regional winemaker with an MSU degree in vintaculture, is the St. Ambrose mead maker, known as a mazer.
Coster notes the greatest challenge has been educating consumers on what mead is.
“It can be hard to launch a new product in rural Michigan,” he said. “We have 31 wineries in the region but no mead (besides St. Ambrose Cellars).”
Awareness is growing. Burritt’s Fresh Markets in Traverse City has carried St. Ambrose Cellars meads for about two years, said Shawn Harvey. He credits part of the appeal to the local honeys and fruits.
St. Ambrose Cellars is located at 971 South Pioneer Road, five miles east of Beulah. Bottled products can be found at many local shops including Burritt’s, Olesons, Tom’s, Honor Family Market, East Shore Market, the Blue Goat, Francisco’s and online at www.stambrose-mead-wine.com.