By Anne Most, Communications '14
It is the holiday season, a time filled with festive music, twinkling lights and the stress of shopping for that perfect gift. While you're out shopping for clothes, tasty treats and the latest iPad, did you ever consider giving your loved one a gift that, well, buzzes?
Mark Simakaski '94 wanted to get his wife Nichole Wolfgang '95 something special for Christmas in 1998. So what came to mind? Bees, naturally. The couple found themselves wanting another pet, their 15 year old dog having just passed away, and Nichole had a
love for honey, so in Mark's mind, there was no better fit than thousands of bees.
"I thought it was cool. We're a little weird that way," said Nichole.
The couple both majored in chemical engineering and met in the romantic setting of a thermodynamics lab at Drexel. Little did they know that a few years later, a little honey-producing insect would change their lives forever. Instead of turning water into wine, Mark and Nichole used the forces of beekeeping for good and turned honey into wine, also known as mead.
Their journey began in Chester, NJ. After reading book after book about bees and the art of beekeeping, Mark and Nichole had acquired a strong passion for their new-found hobby.
"When we started beekeeping, there weren't a lot of people doing it," said Mark.
Wanting to spread their knowledge of the underappreciated art, the two chose to pack up their belongings, leave the corporate world behind, and joined the Peace Corps in 2005.
"The goal of the Peace Corps is cultural exchange. They teach us about their culture and we teach them about ours," said Nichole.
Mark and Nichole said that they traveled to a village of approximately 150 people in the Chaco region of Paraguay, where, despite the language barriers, they taught the village natives about bees and bee-keeping. The village spoke Guarani, the indigenous language of Paraguay, along with Spanish. Nichole said that she and Mark were taught Spanish, which helped them significantly.
Along with the gratification of teaching others, Nichole recalled taking advantage of their lush natural surroundings. She said that South America is one of the best places for beekeeping, and that there was a beehive in every fifth fallen tree. Mark and Nichole made their first batch of mead while in South America.
"It was a great opportunity; it was a safe opportunity," Nichole said. "It was really nice to help people and to work with them and figure out the beekeeping stuff. It was a lot of fun for us."
After their time in the Peace Corps, the couple spent one and a half years in Argentina where Mark went to chef school, which helped him develop his palette, and Nichole studied fine arts, which would help with the design and graphics for the meadery. They then returned to the United States, wanting to take their bee-keeping skills and apply them to manufacturing mead and starting a business. The two opened Artesano Meadery in Groton, VT, a quaint meadery where Mark and Nichole produce mead with local honey and fruit. According to the meadery's website, a plethora of meads are produced, including traditional meads, chili cinnamon mead, essence dry mead, and spiced mead.
Artesano Meadery contains nine tanks used for producing the mead, which is a year-long process. Each tank holds 250 gallons, totaling in the production of more than 2000 gallons of mead a year.
Nichole expressed her priority to balance her work life with her family life. In order to make time for her family, she and her husband do not use their own honey to make the mead, but use locally produced honey. This saves the couple a lot of time.
Mark and Nichole also use locally-grown fruit. Nichole said that this was a bad year for raspberries, so they made blackberry mead instead. They use a wide variety of fruits for their meads, helping their local economy.
"We just want to keep experimenting," said Nichole.
She describes the mead-making process as similar to making white wine. However, mead differs from wine.
"There's definitely a different flavor to it," she said. "A little more floral, a little more earthy."
She said that the mead affects people differently than regular wine because it is produced with honey as opposed to grapes.
According to Mark and Nichole, the mead-making process is quite a complex task that requires a lot of patience. Five of the nine tanks in the meadery are used for fermentation. Mark and Nichole take 500 to 600 pounds of honey, blend it with water and then add yeast. They then wait as the fermentation process begins, which takes three weeks to a month. Nichole noted that it is important to keep the temperatures relatively low in order to control the fermentation reaction. Once the fermentation process is completed, they let it sit for a month, and then age the mead for eight to nine months. And then, voila, high quality, flavorful mead.
Mark's background in chemical engineering has not gone to waste in the business of making mead. He used his engineering skills to design the fermentation tanks, as well as the pumps used to produce the mead.
One challenge that the two face is educating people about mead. Nichole explained that the majority of people do not know about mead, or turn a blind eye to it. She also joked that many people ask them what kind of sausage they are making, mistaking "mead" for "meat."
In terms of the future of Artesano Meadery, Nichole expressed her desire to keep the business on the smaller side, wanting to balance her work and personal life. However, Artesano will not stay stagnant. While, for the moment, the couple may not be looking to expand in terms of volume, they want to continue to experiment with different types of mead.
And what is the most important part of producing mead?
"Taking the time to do it right and to make a high-quality product," said Mark.
For more information about Artesano Meadery, visit its website at artesanomead.com.