This is the fourth in a series of articles about West Virginia’s growing farm winery industry and the quest for a concerted tourism effort.
DRYFORK — The word “mead,” for many of us, may conjure up images of medieval England, where characters from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” are roaming in a scenic field. With three meaderies in the state — which produce wine from honey — some winemakers are hoping those faraway images soon will be replaced with scenes of West Virginia hillsides.
Ben McKean is one of those optimistic winemakers hoping for a tourism trail to bring attention to his 80-acre honey and mead producing farm, Healthberry Farm and Honey River Meadery, located in Randolph County.
McKean’s apiary, where bees are raised for their honey, is quite expansive.
“I have 90 hives, 60 in production. The hives are on other farms as well in the Dryfork River valley. I’m on seven other farms as well as this farm. We’ll produce about 2,500 pounds of honey this year,” McKean said.
With each hive averaging 50,000 bees, he tends close to 5 million honeybees.
Part of the raw honey he produces in made into mead, melomel and pyment — types of honey wine.
“I bought the farm in 1993. It was an abandoned farm. The honey business was established in 1995. The winery was established in 2012. This is a winery in it’s infancy,” he said, explaining that the meads are aged for two years before they are bottled.
In addition to varietal meads, McKean makes a mead that is fermented with grape juice called pyment and meads made with other fruit juices called melomel.
“Our word medicine comes from the word ‘mead.’ Mead is an ancient drink. It’s the first alcoholic beverage. Humans were drinking mead before written language. It’s 10,000 years old or older,” McKean said.
“This full bottle of mead has about a pound of honey in it. I’d say close to three-quarters of a pound per bottle,” McKean said.
To be defined as mead, the product must be fermented from at least 51 percent honey. According to the International Mead Association, there are about 200 meaderies worldwide and approximately 60 in the United States.
When McKean, a Maryland native, graduated in 1990 with a degree from West Virginia University, he decided to continue his education at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1993.
However, during his graduate studies, West Virginia was never far from his mind.
“As a farmer, I had just come out of college with a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture and a bachelor’s in forestry from WVU, and wanted to settle in West Virginia and make my living farming. I was also pursuing healthy lifestyles,” said McKean, 48.
His father had two beehives as he was growing up and he was intrigued by the practice, but it was a chance meeting in 1994 with the late Ferenc “Frank” Androczi that changed his farming future.
McKean saw a winery sign near Buckhannon, followed it, and met the man who would change his life as a farmer.
“I actually learned and apprenticed with the late Frank Androczi from Little Hungary Farm Winery. He made honey wine at his farm in Buckhannon and he was one of the first wineries in the state. I apprenticed with him for years and he became a dear friend. This is where this model was planted for me.
“I think he’d be proud to see I’m actually seeing it through. He was very knowledgeable. Straight from Hungary. Passing on the Old World tradition of winemaking, which we follow here. We age our wines two years. We bottle them without sulfite. They are all raw wines with honey and water or honey and fruit juice. Nothing is heated or treated with any chemicals at any stage of the process. So it’s truly the Old World style of wine,” McKean said.
The old-fashioned European-style winemaking McKean does was learned from a master winemaker.
“The apprenticeship I did with Frank at the winery was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. It was considered an Old World winery and it is a heritage art. It’s a dying art. It is not found in society much today. They gave us full funding to do an apprenticeship because it was a traditional art. Frank was 85 when he died. He started his [meadery] operation probably at 60,” McKean said.
Androczi’s model of honey wine fit right in with McKean’s own ideas of sustainable agriculture and his desire for a healthy lifestyle.
“It was a perennial crop system; honey has numerous health benefits as does the mead — in moderation of course, since it is alcoholic. It had all these interesting attributes. The beekeeping, the health of the honey, not tilling soil to produce really appealed to me,” McKean said.
“Honey is renowned over the ages. It really contains every element the human being needs to live. It’s a natural antibiotic, for one. No bacteria will grow in honey whatsoever. It will never ever spoil. They found honey in the Egyptian pyramids that was still good. That’s one of the only foods that you can say that about.
“It’s very good for boosting the immune system. Very good for the heart and circulation. It’s excellent topically as an antibiotic on the skin and it moisturizes it. All in all, they are finding benefits every day. This is raw honey going into raw mead. It’s full of live enzymes and trace minerals, vitamins that are hard to get in an everyday diet. There are amino acids. Great probiotics. This is a probiotic wine, a living wine. This is what I love about it. It’s so healthy and intriguing,” McKean said.
Origins of grape wine
McKean said honey wine predates traditional wine, and pyment is the mother of grape wine.
“This is where the grape wine came from. Humans started mixing fruits with their meads and discovering they fermented too. Getting their favorite fruit melomels — grape became one of their favorites in Europe very quickly — and someone said, ‘Wow, the grape melomel is so good, let’s try just the grape juice.’ Voilà, red wine. Today’s wine industry was born from that moment, that realization,” McKean said.
“We do add fruits to some of the wines. That’s where a mead becomes a melomel. These are old European traditions. A mead is strictly honey and water. So when you drink that, all the flavors in that wine are coming from the honey itself. We do varietal meads, depending on the season, which flowers are in bloom when we harvested the honey. So we have different flavors that way,” McKean said.
His varietal honeys and meads include basswood, aster and goldenrod.
He uses only fruits grown on his farm and other West Virginia farms.
“We do a raspberry melomel where we grow whole raspberries ourselves and a blueberry. The blueberries from a friend’s blueberry farm near Fairmont, Bunner’s Ridge to be exact. Then the pyment is a grape melomel and those grapes are grown near Petersburg, which I just got day before yesterday.
“All West Virginia products. We grow everything except the grapes. One thing I learned at Frank’s winery is that growing the grapes is very difficult. They are allowed to ferment on their skins for a week to 10 days to really get the red color and tannins out of the grapes.
“It’s a traditional style of making a red wine. So, this will be pressed out next week. Then the honey — we’ll use the dark honey — will be mixed in with the juice, and then it is actually aged in an oak barrel. The pyment is aged in oak. This is the traditional wine that Frank Androczi taught me to make. This is really in honor of him that we make this,” McKean said.
W.Va. is great for bees
“It’s delightful. It’s my passion,” McKean said of apiculture, otherwise known as beekeeping. It is the maintenance of honeybee colonies, commonly known as hives, by humans.
The practice is an ancient one: In 2007, 30 intact beehives dating back to the mid-10th century and early ninth century were found by archaeologists in the ruins of Rehov, Israel, according to beelogics.com.
“I’ve been working for years with the bees, getting better at beekeeping. Getting better at working a larger number of hives. And just reinvesting money of selling honey into expanding and getting new equipment to where I can do this winery. So, this is a product of something I’ve been after for every bit of 15 years now. I finally have enough hives and have expanded with enough equipment to make it a reality,” McKean said.
He estimated that one-third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination, most of which is done by bees.
“West Virginia is prime for honey production. We have so many wild plants and trees that are good nectar producers and are great for producing honey. The Department of Agriculture is supportive of honey producers.
“It’s our state insect, the honeybee. We don’t have some of the problems that are plaguing bees right now. West Virginia is an excellent place to keep bees. The reasons are: We have low pesticide use; there’s not large agriculture here; there’s rugged terrain and it’s hard to farm here, so this is something farmers can do, produce honey,” McKean said.
Our state, he said, is an excellent place for bees to live and for the ancient practice of beekeeping.
“Beekeepers are moving to West Virginia because it is hard to keep bees in the states they are in now for different reasons — disease, pesticides, killer bees down south, the Africanized bees,” McKean said.
“Honey production is very difficult in large quantities. It takes a very skilled labor. It’s very hard work and it’s difficult to tend to bees and keep them. Modern-day equipment has helped, but there is still a lot people need to know to do to keep them alive and producing,” McKean said.
He said he keeps his bees happy by keeping them healthy.
“One big concept is making sure they have enough honey to survive the winter. They are so efficient at producing and storing honey that they produce excess. So the one major thing that we do is really try to make sure they have enough honey to survive the year.
“I also try to put their hives in a place where the bears can’t find them. That is one of their major predators. And, we keep the bees away from any areas that may have pesticide use at all.
“That’s what we like about this area. There’s lots of wild plants. I keep current in raising bees and beekeeping, so I keep current on diseases and pests that are attacking honeybees and how to effectively treat them.”
‘Mountain Meadery Tour’?
The Healthberry Farm and Honey River Meadery owner is excited about the possibility of a concerted effort to promote the state’s farm wineries.
“It’s good for everyone. It’s a model that has been done all around the country. It promotes tourism. People go to more than one winery and it makes it interesting.
“I have a dream of a ‘Mountain Meadery Tour.’ I really would love to see honey [in West Virginia] become like maple syrup is to Vermont,” McKean said, noting there are two other licensed meaderies in the state: Kenco Farms, near Sutton, and Mountain Dragon Mazery, located in Fairmont.
“A wine trail would bring people to the region for another reason. People are looking for wineries. They are looking at putting together a trip through the state, and they can look at a map and see what they can hit along the way. I’ve done that in winemaking areas. You go to one and pick your favorite and buy a few bottles and go to the next and pick your favorite bottle. People end up buying at all the stops. It’s very beneficial to everybody,” McKean said.
The versatile beekeeper said he is in favor of any activity that brings visitors to a farm.
“[I support] the agritourism model — going to wineries and learning about grape growing, and people can come here and learn about beekeeping. The importance of bees, too, as pollinators, not only for our health but also to pollinate crops and to pollinate all kinds of plants in our environment that we rely on,” McKean said.
He said until such an agritourism trail is developed, he is hard at work promoting his products at festivals and local businesses.
“The TipTop Cafe in Thomas sells our mead and the local store Camden’s Corner in Dryfork carries all our products and I sell it here. I can do tours of the honey farm and do honey tastings here, and the purchasing of mead and other products,” McKean said.
Honey River Meadery labels
“I’m super-excited about the label and how it worked out. I started with a dream of something very colorful, something very playful. I developed it for the honey first of all. Then from there, I developed the wine label so people could recognize one from the other.
“I mentioned to the artist that I’d love to have a skep, with is an old-fashioned basket-style beehive in the mountains with a honey river flowing out of the entrance. It’s old tradition that in heaven there awaits rivers of honey and mead. I read that and it gave me that idea,” McKean said.
Like everything else with his business, the winemaker wanted to utilize the skills of a West Virginia artist.
“I talked to an artist in Morgantown, Meg Juckett [of Elm Leaf Design] and she helped me design this, and we just chatted back and forth on the Internet to make this label. It was her idea to have the bees carrying buckets of honey, which I just loved. Then I said, ‘How about a bee in a canoe on the river, and then, for the wine, we put the bee on a barrel?’ I’m big into rivers and paddling, so we had to incorporate that somehow,” McKean said of the personified bees on the label.
Originally, the label had the name of the farm on the label, but he was told that was against the federal regulations.
“It’s funny — for the original wine label, I had ‘Healthberry Farm’ at the top of the label — that’s who we are. The federal government doesn’t want anything on the front that has anything indicating health benefits,” he said.
Initially, he was perturbed that he couldn’t have “Healthberry Farm” on the front label, but then he realized he had a good name for his wines.
“‘Honey River’ — boom — immediately the Honey River brand was there, and I’ll be pursuing this as Honey River Meadery,” McKean said.
The river theme is a natural for a man who is a whitewater rafting guide on the Youghiogheny River, a 134-mile-long tributary of the Monongahela River.
When he isn’t busy beekeeping or rafting, he writes songs and plays in a band named Follow Your Bliss with his girlfriend, Erika May.
He said he also looks forward to visits from his 14-year-old daughter, Cora McKean, and they enjoy “skiing, biking and paddling” as a family.
All fine activities for a man whose motto is “Bee healthy, bee happy!”
For additional information about the honey and mead label designer, Elm Leaf Design, visit elmleafdesign.com.
Reach Judy E. Hamilton at email@example.com, 304-348-1230 or follow @JudyEHamilton on Twitter.