West Marin has long been known for its artisanal cheeses, organic farms and historic ranches. Many may be unaware, however, that for the last year Point Reyes has also been home to perhaps the only producer of naturally sparkling mead in the country.
Gordon Hull relocated Heidrun Meadery to West Marin in 2012, in part attracted by the area’s foodie culture, in part by the purity of the environment. He had opened the company in Humboldt County in the late 1990’s; at the time, most of the meads he had tasted were unpalatable, often based on medieval recipes concerned with the effect, rather than the taste, of an inebriant with a reputation of being unsophisticated and cloyingly sweet.
Mr. Hull worked by trial and error. The key, he realized, is effervescence.
Unlike grapes, whose acidity balances sugars left after the fermentation of wine, honey is singularly sweet. Utilizing what’s called the methode champenoise, or champagne method, adds the missing link.
At Heidrun, mead is fermented twice. The primary fermentation turns a mixture of honey, water and champagne yeast into still mead, during which carbon dioxide, also known as carbonic acid, is allowed to dissipate. Then Mr. Hull adds additional yeast and cane sugar—food for the yeast—and bottles it, trapping the carbonic acid the yeast releases as it feasts.
Two months later, Heidrun has a new batch of sparkling mead with enough of an acidic bite to tame the remaining sweetness.
Although there are hundreds of still mead producers in the country, Mr. Hull knows of no other sparkling mead in the U.S. that uses the champagne method. One company in Colorado artificially forces carbon dioxide into still mead, he said, and another produces mead using the methode champenoise in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Hull, who in another life worked as an environmental geologist in Washington state, took a leave of absence from his job in the early 90’s after catching “the home brew bug.” After a 10-week beer-making apprenticeship through the American Brewer’s Guild, he took a job at a brewery in Humboldt. He worked there for about six months before he began to consider starting his own outfit.
Wary of the explosion of craft beer upstarts, however, Mr. Hull grew curious about mead. “It was baffling to me that you could take this really beautiful raw ingredient, honey, and make it into a wine. That to me seemed like a beautiful thing, but it baffled me that every mead I tasted was unpleasant,” he said. “[I thought], ‘You can make a good mead, I’m sure you can. You’ve got to do it differently somehow.’ So that’s what I started monkeying around with, and I got lucky.”
Effervescence was a practical solution to brewing a mead that would appeal to the modern palate—and pair well with other West Marin staples like cheese and oysters. But it also simply gratified him. “Bubbly things are fun,” Mr. Hull said. “Given the opportunity, I’d rather make something with bubbles.”
Unlike champagne, the best of which is aged for years, Heidrun’s process of turning honey into sparkling mead takes about four months—a deliberately short time. Although champagne is often desired for its toasty, bready notes that come from a long aging process in which the yeast imparts those aromatics after the secondary fermentation is complete, Mr. Hull disgorges the yeast sediment as quickly as he can.
“What we’re really focused on is getting back to the essence of the flower from which the honey was made. Any other flavors are a distraction from that,” he said.
The next step for Heidrun, then, is to not only showcase the essence of flowers from places like Hawaii and Australia—an essence to some degree masked in raw honey because of the overwhelming sugar content—but to source those essences from its own landscapes.
So, with help from beekeeper Brad Albert, Mr. Hull has begun hives in Point Reyes Station, Bolinas and Sleepy Hollow. The meadery needs at least 26 gallons of honey to produce a batch of 50 cases; Heidrun expects that might happen in 2014 with a Point Reyes Wildflower varietal—a catchall designation, since no one knows exactly where the bees are sticking their probosces.
But tending to its own hives has proved challenging for Heidrun. “Our first year we lost all our bees,” said Mr. Albert, a former contractor and home beer brewer who studied with other commercial beekeepers in Oregon before starting at Heidrun.
Although new bees can use honeycomb from the previous year in the hive, Mr. Albert must also put new boxes, called supers, on top of the hive, so that the colony has room to expand. In each super, the new bees must expend the same amount energy to build comb as it would to produce 10 pounds of honey, so starting from scratch is far from ideal. Once the bees have built up the comb, though, honey begins to flow more rapidly.
Last year Heidrun lost over half of its hives. Some losses were attributed to queen failure, when the queen bee doesn’t lay enough eggs to keep the numbers up, which are crucial to maintaining hive temperatures of at least 98 degrees or so. But other factors could include colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which bees vanish for no single reason but which could be compounded by threats like Varroa mites that puncture the bees’ exoskeleton and Nosema, a harmful fungus.
Mr. Hull said the bees appear to be doing well this year, and he has another project calling his attention: growing the number of visitors to the meadery. There are tours to explain the mead-making process, and opportunities for people—especially locals—to come by (with a reservation), sit on the patio and order a cold, bubbly glass of an alcoholic beverage associated with Vikings.
The varieties of mead offered to a group of about a dozen visitors on a tasting tour on Labor Day weekend surprised some in attendance for both the lack of assaulting sweetness and the spectrum of flavors that varied depending on what plants and flowers the bees used as forage.
A Hawaiian variety made from Lahua blossom honey was dry and light as the bubbles pushed the aromatics into the nose and across the palate. Another, sourced from avocado blossom honey, was reminiscent of beer; the tour guide opined that it carried a “hop-like bite” and buttery mouthfeel, and one man in attendance said it reminded him of a Belgian blonde ale.
A third, made from carrot blossom honey, was simply called “super funky.”
Mr. Hull searches far and wide for some of his honeys, choosing only high quality sources, he says. When asked how far he goes for product, Mr. Hull replied that one eucalyptus honey came all the way from Australia, soliciting a wave of surprise from the visitors.
“Oh my god!” one person exclaimed.
“Those people are wild. It’s going to show up in the honey,” another
After the tour concluded, a few interested visitors followed Mr. Hull to the apiary, where the hives sit at the edge of a tiny grove of olive trees planted by the previous owner.
The group encountered a thick, fist-sized cluster of bees, hanging together from a tree branch like fruit. One woman, a master beekeeper on the tour, slipped her hand into the swarm, and when she pulled it out a single bee was crawling around her pointer finger, like a pet.
The swarm had broken off from one of the colonies because it grew too large, Mr. Hull said. When that happens, the colony splits and some of the bees leave the hive and wait—in this case, in the tree—while scouts look for a new home.
Heidrun is open to visitors with a reservation between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays, for either tasting tours ($15, refundable with the purchase of three bottles) or a glass on the patio. For information, call (415) 663.9122.