Make a 'bee'-line to your local Meadery
If you feel the need for mead, check out the new tasting room specializing in honey wine at Squash Blossom Farm near Oronoco.
ORONOCO, Minn. — As luck would “hive” it, Roger Nelson was first “bee”-witched by mead 15 years ago when he visited a meadery on Vancouver Island. Now, Nelson and his wife, Susan Waughtal, have opened their own meadery at Squash Blossom Farm just to the northwest of Rochester near Oronoco.
You might “bee” wondering what exactly mead is. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey. It is thought to be the oldest alcoholic beverage consumed by humans. Some researchers have found traces of fermented honey in Chinese pottery from 9,000 years ago.
Nelson and Waughtal moved to Squash Blossom Farm in 2008. In the time they’ve been there, they’ve created a bustling small farm that’s branched out into making wood-fired pizzas and breads and hand-made chocolate. The farm, festooned in flowers and impossibly pretty, is alive with the sounds of music, barking dogs, clucking chickens, and laughter as it opens its gates to host community gatherings. Over the years, the farm has hosted everything from Cow Pujas to art fairs, and operas to weddings.
Squash Blossom’s latest addition, its mead tasting room, officially opened this month. “We first dreamed of making mead a part of our Squash Blossom operation about 10 years ago when we created a farm vision and strategic plan through the Farm Beginnings course offered by the Land Stewardship Project,” says Waughtal. “That was years before we even had built our commercial kitchen, and was a distant-if-ever crazy idea, so we are tickled it has all come to fruition.”
“I’ve been interested in all types of fermented foods, and have been making wine for many years,” says Nelson. “The small scale of it and the unique nature of making wine from honey really intrigued me,” he adds.
In a twist of fate, Nelson says he’s a bit afraid of bees, but Waughtal’s maintained some hives that have provided honey for back sweetening their mead. The bulk of their honey for fermentation comes from the local beekeepers at The Bee Shed.
“Honey is shelf-stable in its normal state, but will start fermenting if you dilute it with water and add yeast,” explains Nelson. “This combination of dilution and yeast selection allows you to select how much alcohol there will be and can affect the flavor.” Besides honey, water, and yeast, the mead-making process requires stainless steel tanks, oak bourbon barrels for aging, pumps to move mead from tank to tank, and filtering and bottling devices.
Currently, Squash Blossom farm bottles four varieties of mead: Traditional, Raspberry, an Elderberry and Aronia Berry blend, and Cranberry with Hibiscus and Rosemary. These varieties range in alcohol content from 12% to 14% by volume. They also have several “Session” or “Short” meads that are chilled and carbonated that they sell by the glass: Traditional, Metheglyn (spiced), Cherry/Juneberry, Perry, Acerglyn (maple syrup) and Chocolate.
Nelson says he made his first batch of mead shortly after moving into Squash Blossom, and it turned out “not entirely un-drinkable.” He started to learn about making mead more seriously about six years ago. With some assistance from the now closed Post Town Winery, he made an 80-gallon batch. “Scaling up to this size was a bit of a jump for me,” he says.
A batch of mead takes about one to two months to complete fermentation and then can age as long as desired. Nelson says the longer a mead ages the better it gets. “There’s a learning curve for most steps in the process, it seems. A lot of eighth-grade math needed to convert units from teaspoons, ounces and gallons to grams, and liters depending on who you are reporting to,” says Nelson. “Getting the right diameter hoses and fittings to work with the various tanks, pumps and filters. Making sure you have enough room in the tank at the beginning of fermentation because all of the CO2 created can foam up in the mead and spill out onto the floor.”
Besides learning the ins and outs of making mead, Nelson and Waughtal have also worked hard to complete their licensing process. It started with a license from the federal government and included a state license for a farm winery. Their meadery is governed by the Minnesota State Department of Agriculture.
Despite the stringent safety and health requirements their meadery has met, it exudes a funky character from the many thrift shop finds, reused building materials, and salvaged antiques Nelson and Waughtal used to create it. Much of the floor is a repurposed bowling alley surface while the ceiling is made from walk-in freezer panels spray painted to look like pressed tin, and the room overlooks a small Koi pond.
“It has also been surprisingly complex to figure out sometimes because the century-old barn is nowhere near plumb, square, or level,” says Nelson.
The mead-tasting room is open Saturdays from 2-6 p.m. and Sundays from 1-3 p.m., and again during Pizza on the Farm events from 4-6 p.m. Waughtal and Nelson have also hired chef Travis Heim who is creating a menu of light fare available on Saturdays.
“We are excited to be able to create another delicious local product to round out and diversify our farm enterprises,” says Waughtal. “And what could be sweeter than to be able to offer a glass of mead?”
If you go
Squash Blossom Farm and Meadery is located at 7499 60th Ave. NW Oronoco, Minnesota.
The mead-tasting room is open Saturdays from 2-6 p.m. and Sundays from 1-3 p.m., and again during Pizza on the Farm events from 4-6 p.m. Pizzas must be preordered at www.squashblossomfarm.org and usually sell out a few days before Sunday.
Fun mead facts
Mead was enjoyed by Vikings, Mayans, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and the Ancient Chinese. It may have been first discovered by chance when foragers stumbled on beehives flooded with rainwater and fermented with airborne yeast.
Mead is featured in some of our best-known literary works like “Beowulf,” Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”
In medieval times, a dowry often included a month’s supply of mead, thought to be an aphrodisiac, to ensure the newlywed couple would conceive a child. This tradition gave us the term “honeymoon.”