Reportedly beloved by Norse gods, old world poets and ancient philosophers and scholars, mead has a simple list of ingredients: honey, water and yeast.
It's been around for tens of thousands of years, yet here in Richmond it seems to be just taking off. Maybe it's because of a common misconception: "I thought it would be sweeter." That's a typical reaction that Black Heath Meadery's Bill Cavender gets about his product.
"It is more like a wine, but the sweetness range is what throws people off," Cavender explains. People tend to expect a thick, saccharine liquid, but he says the "versatile beverage" can be dry and incorporate a variety of flavors to build a profile as sophisticated as that of cocktails.
Black Heath Meadery may look like a small storefront, but the team manages to house the entire four-month process under one roof: recipe creation, fermenting fruit in large bins, mead-making in a tank that holds 160 gallons of water and 500 pounds of honey, bottling, labeling, and of course, hand-sealing with beeswax. It even has three beehives in the back alley.
Cavender and his wife, who's also his business partner, opened their doors in March 2015, but the meadery actually began as a crowd-sourced project called RVA Mead Lab a year earlier. In a converted stable behind Cavender's Chesterfield County home, he built a small fermentation room and invited those who gave at least $100 to partake in the process twice a month. Participants brought ideas and recipes and Cavender provided guidance. Some were brewers curious to expand their skills. Some were "Game of Thrones" fans.
It ended up providing the ideal test kitchen where Cavender could survey which flavor combinations captivated Richmonders and how commercially viable the product could be. The mead lab produced about 100 recipes in a year, and "people really fell in love with the product," Cavender says. He quickly found their 2,000-square-foot space and got to work.
"We had a feeling Scott's Addition might be cool," he says. "We had no idea what it was going to be like [now]." Based on the subsequent success of his neighbors, he couldn't have picked more perfect timing. "I do feel that the folks in Scott's Addition that are making alcohol [are happy to] cross-promote everything," he says. "There's a lot of that camaraderie where we do things together."
A recent collaboration includes Blue Angel, Black Heath's award-winning mead that gets its tart flavor from Gold Rush apple juice from Blue Bee Cider. It also has worked on recipes with Three Notched, Buskey Cider and the Veil.
His neighbors help draw in customers, too.
"What's nice about the craft beer drinker, [is that] they seem to always be looking for something new," he observes.
Most of the meadery's foot traffic comes in on Saturdays and Sundays, and Black Heath is often a stop between beverage destinations. After being classified as a farm winery in December of last year (meaning the meadery now produces more than 51 percent of its "fermentables," or the honey, which comes from 85 local beehives), owners are now permitted to welcome those curious craft beer fans into their new tasting room, which can accommodate about 18 people. A draft wall equipped with six taps, under blue lights and honeycomb shelves to display bottles, was designed and built by Brian Lopez of Morphology. The bar is reclaimed wood, with a 1970s-era stamped wood tile on the siding.
Black Heath Meadery produces an impressive 24 seasonal recipes a year as well as a handful of special releases for a members club. Cavender refers to his product as hyper-local, meaning his ingredients come from no more than 50 miles away.
Throughout the summer, meads are fruit-forward, featuring berries picked at their peak ripeness, like Chesterfield County blueberries in the Blue Angel. Tasting room visitors may order a flight, which includes four two-ounce pours for $14, or a glass for $7.
What's next? Cavender sees the production eventually moving to a satellite location, which will expand the tasting room. He'd also love to have a patio in the back parking lot someday soon.
Right now, though, he's concentrating on education and getting the word out. It seems that once people try mead, "it opens up a whole new world to them," he says.
Black Heath Meadery Tasting Room
1313 Altamont Ave.
Tuesdays - Fridays: 4 - 9 p.m.
Saturdays 1 p.m. - 9 p.m. and Sundays 1 – 7 p.m.
Sip for Yourself
For the novice: The Muse (12 percent alcohol with 2 percent residual sugar) is the meadery's traditional flagship product available year round. Made with 100 percent Virginia Wildflower honey and yeast., it pairs well with meat fresh off the grill and seafood.
For the curious: Fireman's Friend (14 percent alcohol with 2 percent residual sugar) is a sparingly sweet mead with a kick. It's a gin-barrel fermented mead with blackberry, blueberry and raspberry, and features locally grown Thai chilies. The gin barrels add an oak character.
For the wine lover: Black Currant Cyser (14 percent alcohol with a half percent residual sugar) is the Blue Angel, but fermented with black currant juice. With a warm purple tint and tart berry flavor, the experience is somewhere between a blackberry cider and crisp champagne cocktail. Less honey character and thoroughly enjoyable.
For the Cocktail Connoisseur: Meadmosa, passion fruit mead and champagne or the Summertime Spritzer, sour cherry mead with a splash of soda water and lime.