My heart felt as heavy as the raindrops as I watched a spring thunderstorm blow across the parking lot. I knew my wildflower seeds were goners. How was I ever going to save the bees at this rate?
Recent news about the plight of our threatened, furry-limbed pollinators had prompted me to forgo vegetables in my front-yard garden patch in favor of wildflowers this spring.
The directions on the pack of seeds call for the gardener to leave them uncovered, tamped gently into the earth, to mist them regularly with the garden hose and let the sun’s transformative rays do their work. But as I watched a strong wind blow the rain sideways, I imagined my seeds swimming toward the storm drain, my plan to help save the bees washing away with them.
Discouraged, I trudged into Bottle Revolution on Lake Boone Trail to distract myself. To my delight, bees awaited me – on the labels of Honeygirl Mead on the shelf.
Durham-based mead-maker Diane Currier is looking to save the bees, too, and she’s doing a bit more about it than I am.
The most basic definition of mead is that it’s a fermented beverage made primarily from honey, and also the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man.
Currier had been a dedicated beer brewer for years until she visited Alaska. One day after a hike, she found herself in a meadery. There, Currier sipped mead brewed from honey that bees had made with nectar from the towering pink fireweed flowers in a nearby meadow. The continuous sunlight of the arctic summer supercharges the natural world there, coaxing trees and flowers to stupendous fullness like nothing seen in the lower 48 states.
“I was just in those flowers, and I’m drinking those flowers now,” she thought. “What a way to connect to nature.”
It proved to be a life-changing experience, and she decided to brew mead instead of beer.
An N.C. State Fair ribbon for her hibiscus lemonthyme mead in 2012 convinced her she was on the right path, and she opened Honeygirl Meadery after learning more about the craft from the folks at Starlight Meadery in Pittsboro.
Growth in the N.C. mead scene reflects the ancient beverage’s national trend line. The American Mead Makers Association reports that mead is among the fastest growing segments of the domestic alcoholic beverage market. The U.S. counted 30 mead producers in 2003. That number hovers above 300 now.
Currier attributes the popularity of mead to the same forces driving the craft food and beer movement.
“It’s about people wanting to know where their food comes from, where their beverages come from,” she said. “All that is contributing to the growth of the entire scene.”
A range of tastes
While mead is honey-based, it isn’t necessarily sweet, Currier explains.
“I like a mead that’s well balanced,” she said. “The interesting thing to me about mead is that there’s a whole range from half-dry to sweet. … With mead you need to try it, because we all have different taste buds.”
In making Honeygirl Mead, she tends to focus on the dry-to-semisweet range.
“My goal with mead-making is to have you have a glass of mead where you would have glass of wine,” she said. “I want (it) to be very approachable. I want this to be very accessible, to be very food friendly.”
Her dry hibiscus lemonthyme mead is reminiscent of a chardonnay.
But even with a dry mead, Currier says, you’re going to know that it’s made from honey.
“It’s a mouthful of layers,” she said. “We really fermented the sugar, and what we are left with are all of those nectar sources. When you drink it, you really need to consider ‘What was your initial taste? What was the midpoint, the aftertaste?’ ”
About half of the wildflower honey she uses comes from North Carolina, but there’s not enough of the stuff in state to meet her demand. The rest comes from an out-of-state supplier.
Honeygirl produces about 5,000 bottles annually, and once it’s gone for the season, it’s gone. Fans keep their eyes out for the annual batch of fig mead, made with fruit she buys from her customers. The strawberry mead is also popular, made with berries Currier handpicks.
Even more than Currier’s taste for mead, her love of bees fuels her passion for her craft.
“I am trying to elevate honey and bee awareness by making mead,” Currier said. “It’s a humbling thing to use pounds and pounds of honey in the beverage. I’m trying to honor bees and beekeeper. That’s my primary motivation.”
You don’t have to tend hives to help the bees. It turns out I was on the right track when I planted my wildflowers. They provide a more diversified diet for the bees, which helps them better withstand the stressors of chemicals and disease. You can also support local beekeeping organizations.
Lucky for me, there’s still plenty of spring left for me to plant another batch of wildflowers. And if all my gardening efforts prove fruitless, I can always drink mead.
Amber Nimocks is a former food editor for The News & Observer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ambernim.
▪ Go to honeygirlmeadery.com/about-us to learn where to find Honeygirl Mead in shops, at their meadery and at farmers markets and festivals.
▪ For advice on which kind of wildflowers are best for North Carolina environments, visit the N.C. Botanical Garden website at ncbg.unc.edu/native-southeastern-plants.
▪ To explore the possibilities of supporting local beehives, check out the Bee Downtown campaign at Durham’s American Tobacco campus. americantobaccocampus.com