Hunters Moon Meadery: From Bees to the Bottle
As mead, the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man continues its dramatic revival across the world, a small, family-owned meadery in Northern Colorado has the industry abuzz with award-winning honey wines sourced from bees raised in their own back yard.
“It all starts with the bees,” said Greg Bowdish, who with his wife, Kim, owns Hunters Moon Meadery in Severance, Colo. “Once you can appreciate the bees, you can appreciate the honey. And once you can appreciate the honey, then you can appreciate the wine.”
Bowdish, a home brewer, became intrigued with mead because his wife was allergic to hops and he wanted to brew a product that she could drink. “I’d always been interested in yeast,” he told Beverage Master Magazine, “so I started experimenting with mead. After nine years, we decided to get a license and open a meadery. That was in 2010.” They named their meadery Hunters Moon after the first full moon following the Harvest Moon, and as a testament to the hunting tradition in both families. Obviously, the name was fortuitous: since producing their first batch in 2011, the couple has won 19 International medals and four Colorado medals for their meads.
From the get-go, the Bowdish family wanted to use their own bees to make their honey. The first year, they had two hives on two and one-half acres. But that was just the beginning. Greg began to study beekeeping, and took mead-making classes from the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute. Today, as a Master Beekeeper, he tends to 60 hives on their property and surrounding areas.
According to Bowdish, a gallon of finished mead — or five 750-ml bottles —requires two and a half pounds of honey. That’s one-half a pound of honey per bottle. Honey production depends on many variables, including the weather and the health of the hives. In 2013, Bowdish harvested 3600 pounds of honey from 50 hives, an average of 70 pounds per hive. Last year, he said, he only harvested 300 pounds of honey from 60 hives, or five pounds per hive. “We had a wet spring and a dry summer, so the bees didn’t have an opportunity to collect a lot of nectar,” Bowdish said. The 2015 harvest, he noted, produced 1700 pounds of honey from 55 hives, an average of 30 pounds per hive.
Clearly, beekeeping is not for the faint of heart. And neither is honey-making. A normal beehive — at its peak in midsummer — contains 60,000 bees. A queen bee will lay 1500 eggs a day, a vital necessity because a worker-bee only has a lifespan of just six weeks. In that short lifetime, the bee will seek nectar from a five-mile radius, and produce one-tenth of a teaspoon of honey for the hive. A pound of honey contains 64 teaspoons, so it takes 640 bees to produce that pound, or 1600 bees to make the two and one-half pounds of honey that go into a gallon of Hunters Moon mead. Think about that the next time you take a swig of honey wine. Someone (or something) has worked very hard to create man’s oldest alcoholic beverage.
In spite of the work, the Bowdishes have made a commitment to produce meads from their own honey. “We pride ourselves on using our own honey,” Kim said. “We know where it comes from, and we know its quality. It’s rare that a meadery in the U.S. will use its own honey.”
According to the Bowdishes, the attributes of the honey are critical to the quality of the mead. Similarly, the flavor of the honey is dependent on the source of the nectar. The National Honey Board lists 300 unique types of honey. The vast majority of the Bowdish bees lives on farmland, and gathers nectar from alfalfa. Others live on an irrigation lake with lots of wildflowers and trees that provide a source of nectar in the spring. Selecting a specific honey presents a challenge to anyone wanting to make mead. “You can select the honey, you can select the flavors or spices that you use, and you can select the yeast, but a lot of the magic is out of your control.” Bowdish observed. “That’s the problem with mead-making. It’s so much fun to do that you have to restrain yourself a lot.”
Currently, the Bowdishes produce 300 to 350 gallons of mead per year. They make 13 varieties, ranging from dry to sweet, with five more in the works. Hunters Moon semi-sweet meads include flavors such as whole clove spice, wild huckleberry and chokecherry, saffron, coffee, blueberry, organic lemons, Earl Grey tea, Palisade peaches and Bing cherry. Sweet wines include a sweeter version of the wild huckleberry and chokecherry flavored mead; Kona Mikala, infused with coffee from the Big Island of Hawaii; and Ginger Moon, made with raw ginger root. Dry meads are Trappers Cask, limited release dry chardonnay oak-aged mead, and Trappers Cask Red, also a limited release Merlot oak-aged mead. Meads coming soon include Lady Eva, a peach/vanilla mead named for Kim’s grandmother, and Velvet Moon, a blackberry blossom honey mead that’s 16 percent ABV (Alcohol by Volume) and aged for four years.
The mead-making process, noted Bowdish, is both a science and an art. Bowdish begins the procedure by mixing honey and water, using a high ratio of honey to water (2.5 pounds per gallon, as noted earlier). “I want a wine that’s going to be drinkable for five years or more,” he said, “and the amount of honey determines longevity. The more honey, the longer it lasts.” Bowdish warms this blend to the point that you can stir it, then lets it cool and adds an organic yeast nutrient and a yeast energizer. He ferments the mixture until it reaches the desired level of alcohol —measured with a hydrometer — which is generally 12 percent ABV. According to Bowdish, his research determined that wine is most stable when alcohol levels are between 11 and 14 percent, so he settled on 12 percent as a “nice, medium ground.” Fermentation takes approximately six weeks. Bowdish then adds spices and/or fruits, and sets the product aside to age. Usually, he said, mead is aged for six months. He prefers to age his for a year. During that time, he adds potassium sorbate — rather than sulfites — to stabilize the mead and prevent re-fermentation. Before bottling, Bowdish clarifies and filters the wine to eliminate all traces of yeast and ensure complete sanitization. “We are very particular about cleanliness,” he noted.
Bowdish told Beverage Master Magazine that he constantly experiments with mead to enhance the flavors. For example, he tested 12 one-gallon batches of honey and wine with eight different yeasts to determine the ones he liked best, and chose one for standard mead and another for fruitier mead. The Bowdishes are also continually fine-tuning their operation. “We have increased our tankage and saved up honey, so next year we are going to start playing harder,” he said. As they grow, he added, they plan to supplement their honey with other honeys (mostly from Colorado), plus produce additional specialty honey meads. Bowdish is enhancing the bee yards too. “I’ve made my hives more mobile,” he explained. “I’ve put them on pallets so I can move them with a skid loader in case a farmer is spraying nearby and I don’t want them exposed.”
Clearly, the Bowdishes have a passion for their enterprise, all the way from the bees to the bottle. And they are not alone. “Mead production has doubled in the last three years,” Greg Bowdish told Beverage Master Magazine. “Even wineries are adding it to their product lines.” Bowdish attributes this growth to the public interest in trying new flavors. “Millennials, especially, are into trying new and different things,” he said. “But all lovers of alcohol today have more refined palates, and want to explore new flavors. There are so many things you can do with beer, cider, wines and meads.”
To attest to this growth, Bowdish noted the popularity of the Mazer Cup International Mead Competition, the biggest mead event in the world, held annually in Colorado (the word “mazer” refers to an ancient drinking vessel). This year’s contest attracted 800 mead entries from all over the world, including Canada, Poland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, China and South America. Products from over 450 home breweries and 350 commercial meaderies were also entered. “This event is great fun,” said Bowdish, who is certified as a mead judge and studying to be beer judge certified by the Beer Judge Certification Program. And, it was a successful one for Hunters Moon Meadery: they won their first gold medal is this competition (for their new-release Blackberry blossom honey mead).
Mead has come a long ways in its 9,000-plus years of history, when Kings kept mead in their cellars and bees were believed to be messengers of the God. “I encourage everyone to go out and try mead,” Bowdish said. “There are lots of really, really good mead-makers nowadays. It’s not the same story as it was when college students were making mead in their bathtubs, or when vendors were selling it at Renaissance Festivals. We’ve learned over the years what makes good mead and what doesn’t.” Judging by their success, the Bowdishes have gotten the formula right…and continue to perfect it.
For more information on Hunters Moon Meadery,
visit their website at www.huntersmoonmeadery.com
Tasting and tours can be arranged by appointment only.
For more information on Meaderies,
visit the American Mead Makers Association at…
Mazer Cup International Mead Competition at…