In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/ inthisstate/.
It was Christmas 1997, and Mark Simakaski was looking for a gift for his wife Nichole Wolfgang. Her beloved pet beagle, Sage, had just died, at age 15, and Mark had an idea. Why not find her another pet, or, better yet, tens of thousands of them? Bees.
He would not have guessed it, but his gift would set the couple on a new life course; in a few years they would scrap their careers; leave their home in Chester, N.J., a wealthy town just west of New York City; join the Peace Corps in South America, and find their way to Vermont, where they would open a meadery, one of the few, if not the only one, in the state.
The Christmas Day present was actually two “stacks of wood” that Mark had to assemble into two hives. The bees, some 80,000, including two queens, arrived later in two packages, three pounds each.
“This all came as a surprise to Nichole, but she pretty much got on board,” says Mark. “It was just one of those wacky ideas that changed life.”
It is now 15 years later, and on a late-summer day, Mark and two helpers, Kirsten Murch of Groton and Hilary Bumgarner North Haverill, N.H., are hard at work inside the meadery, Artesano, filling 1,800 bottles with honey wine.
Today’s process is quite simple but time-consuming: First, nitrogen is pressure-shot into each bottle to remove the oxygen that would reduce shelf life; then the bottles, two at a time, are hand-held under a tube dispensing the mead, and finally the bottles are held under a machine that compresses and then punches corks into each bottle.
The three are a team, busy workers in a human hive.
Nichole, who handles sales and marketing, is home this day with the couple’s two kids, so it’s Mark who is minding the shop – the white clapboard building on Main Street that until a few years ago was the Groton General Store.
A flag outside with the single word “Open” flutters in a breeze, inviting visitors to enter and sample.
Leaving the rat race
As Mark describes things, the bees that he bought in 1998 were more of a catalyst than the determinant. Nonetheless the two, graduates of Drexel University, both with degrees in chemical engineering, had been “doing the corporate thing” for 12 years, were sick of it yet coping by, among other things, embracing their new-found hobby of beekeeping.
By 2005 they had had enough. They joined the Peace Corps and put their knowledge of bees to charitable use. They went to Paraguay, to a small town, San Antonio, where farmers scratched out livings growing beans and sesame plants and wanting to learn about honey making.
The couple spent a year in Paraguay, and then another year in Argentina, where Mark studied at a culinary school, learning about food science and safety and the joys of experimenting with flavors.
Newly returned to the U.S., the couple considered living in the Pacific Northwest or Colorado, but Vermont also was on the search list, and on a cold, blustery November day, they passed through Montpelier and were impressed by its friendliness. They bought a house in West Groton in 2008 and began seriously considering bees as business partners.
“We had made mead in jugs in Paraguay, using peaches (as fermentation agents), and it wasn’t bad, so we figured if we could find some good equipment, we could make something nice,” says Mark.
They began their business-planning that year, as the recession hit, which actually worked to their advantage: A manufacturer gave them a deal on the stainless-steel fermentation tanks (designed by Mark), which are among the most expensive pieces of equipment at a wine-making establishment.
After four years of operation, Artesano Meadery has a spot on the “Vermont Wine and Vine Trail,” the guide established by the state’s Grape and Wine Council for tourists. So one could say Mark and Nichole’s meadery is now on the map.
Artesano produces some 16,000 bottles of wine a year, distributed in person by the couple to more than 50 stores, food co-ops and farmers markets. The meadery offers several varieties of honey wine: sweet (traditional), dry, spicy and fruit-flavored, including raspberry, cranberry, blueberry and blackberry.
When pressed, Mark says his favorite is blueberry mead, something concocted quite simply by dumping berries into the honey, water and yeast after fermentation.
Artesano mead is sold in elegant 500 milliliter bottles with a logo, somewhat abstract, of a bee, or perhaps a hummingbird, approaching a swirl that suggests a flower. The label is simple and cheerful, which the couple would argue reflects what’s inside.
Not surprisingly, Mark suggests their mead wines are right for all occasions, whether for sipping or as a meal accompaniment. The former culinary student suggests braising a pork shoulder with mead, or to adding it to homemade mustard recipe.
“It works great in a vinaigrette,” chimes in Hilary Bumgarner, while holding bottles at the corking machine.
Good Vermont honey to start
Mark and Nichole still have bees behind the house, three hives facing south on a slope, but the bulk of Artesano’s honey comes from commercial hives in Bridport and on the Champlain Islands.
Mark, tall and lanky, drives a U-Haul to pick up the honey in 55-gallon barrels. Back in Groton, he pours it into the tanks, one-part honey, four-parts water plus a brick of yeast. The mixture ferments for about three weeks, then is stored for nine months of aging.
Mark expresses pride in his product, admits the couple had luck from the get-go finding the right recipe. He also credits the bees and the landscape.
Without invoking the French word “terroir,” so fashionable in the food circles these days, he says his honey reflects the region’s flora, the clover and wildflowers that grow in the Champlain Valley.
He also says he always feels “we’re not there yet” with Artesano’s mead, so he spends days “tweaking and perfecting, which is the fun of this.”
He mentions this while standing next to a stack of bourbon barrels, most recently used by a brewer in Maine. Artesano purchased them to further age and flavor a small batch of mead, which will be sold in a few weeks as “Poet’s Mead.”
That mead got a little extra dose of raw honey, explains Nichole on the following day at the shop. “And, it should have a higher alcohol content and turn out Port-like, presenting a good dessert taste.”
Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance writer and editor.