The Berans and the bees
Mark Beran might be the epitome of the modern, environmentally conscious, artisan winemaker. His company Medovina, based in Niwot, just north of Boulder, offers a slate of wines from sweet to dry, sparkling and still, and a dessert wine, the Sweet Melissa, that he is serving in the Grand Tasting Tent at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen this weekend. His dry, oak-aged offering is recommended with barbecue and grilled fish, especially a cedar plank salmon. The delicate, ultra-dry Paonia Peach he suggests as an aperitif, with shaved Parmesan cheese. Making wines commercially for just five years, Medovina is already fully allocated – everything that is bottled gets sold.Beran’s wines are as earth-friendly as they are food-friendly. He and his wife, Kellie, self-distribute their yield – 5,200 bottles last year, their biggest output in 13 years of production – within a tiny radius, reaching only as far as Boulder, so the transportation costs are minuscule. Medovina uses no pesticides or herbicides or water in the production. There are no sulfites added to the wine, nor, amazingly, are there naturally occurring sulfites.And there are no grapes.Beran makes only mead, a wine made from honey that is the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man. Instead of vines and grapes, the essential elements are bees and honey. Beran could hardly be nonorganic if he wanted to. Theoretically, one of his half million-plus bees could wander off and take the nectar from a pesticide-treated flower, and return to the hive. (Usually in such circumstances, he said, the bee is killed – not executed, but dead from the pesticide.) But since the process of raising bees and making honey has almost no human fingerprint, making mead is virtually always an ecologically harmless practice. “There’s no intervention by man,” said Beran, a fit-looking, clean-cut 55-year-old. “We simply provide the housing for the bees and harvest the honey. They do everything else.” Even the suppliers are not harmed in the venture. “The bees always produce in abundance; there’s always more than they need to survive. There’s always more for the beekeeper.”
Beran is an environmentalist through and through. A self-described pack rat, he made the barrel he uses as a display tool of wood recycled from an old hot tub he built. But he didn’t start making mead as an earth-conscious decision.A Miami native, Beran grew up with a mild fascination with bees. That enchantment mostly passed; he became an engineer working with the development of electromagnetic products. His specialty became automatic doors.In 1992, living in Niwot, Kellie began experiencing problematic allergies to pollen. “We heard if you eat raw, local, unfiltered honey, you can develop an immunity to pollen allergies,” said Mark. The two went to a local beekeeper to gather some information, see the equipment involved. They ended up loading two colonies of bees into the trunk of their Volvo that very day.Their colonies – which range in population from 10,000 in winter up to 80,000 in summer – produced an immediate surplus of honey. Kellie’s allergies abated from the regime of raw honey. Mark, meanwhile, learned a fact of beekeeping.”With bees, it’s hard to stay small,” he said, sitting in the lobby of the St. Regis Aspen and getting ready to set up the Grand Tasting booth in his first visit to the Food & Wine Classic. Beran explained that bees like to grow through swarming. A queen will typically leave her colony, and a third of the population will follow, creating a breakaway republic of honeybees. The key to sustaining the new colony is timing: “If you happen to be there to see the event, and you see this colony leaving, it’s hard to say, well, there go my bees,” said Beran. “If you catch them early on, it’s easy to give them a new home, with frames and beeswax and honeycombs. If the queen is in the home and is happy and stays there, the rest of the bees will stay.”After two years, Beran’s bees had grown to four colonies. A member of Mark’s tennis league was a home-brewer, and suggested they give a stab at making honey wine, or mead, a beverage that dates back to nearly 2000 B.C., and has been consumed in ancient Greece, India and Africa. Mead is mentioned in the English epic poem “Beowulf,” which dates to the Early Middle Ages. Beran was a wine-drinker – living in Germany some years earlier, he had developed a taste for German whites – and enthusiastically gave it a try. Mead needs to age at least a year, so Beran made a batch, then another batch a month later, and then more batches every three months before he ever tasted what he was producing. “I really enjoyed the process of making the mead,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait to taste it; I wanted to fill the pipeline.”
When Mark popped his first bottle, he and Kellie were encouraged. “It was quite delicious,” he said. An experimenter by nature, Beran made slight alterations with each batch – changing the kinds of yeast, using combinations of yeast. Early-season honey was light and delicate and tasted of clover; later-season honey was darker with more wildflower tones and a deeper flavor. As the colonies continued to grow in number, so did the honey yield and the bottles.”We never thought about where we were going with it,” said Beran. “But like with the honey, we ended up with a surplus of mead.”
Mostly, the Berans shared their wine at dinners and parties. In 2000, in a rush to get to a party, they showed up without a bottle.”And the first question the host asked was, where’s the mead?” recalled Beran. It was no idle joke: “They sent me home to get some mead. On the way, I said, there’s a message here. I decided to go commercial.”Beran quit his engineering job to become a full-time beekeeper and mead-maker. Medovina now has 17 colonies, producing 26,000 pounds of honey annually, and seven distinct wines. Among the meads is the Stinging Rose, which Beran calls “totally unique.” Made with a blend of honey and handpicked rose petals, it takes the Berans two weeks to pick the necessary petals, so on orders of Kellie, the company’s accountant, production is capped each year at 100 liters.The Berans sell their mead, at an average price of $20 a bottle, at the Boulder County Farmers Market. It is a tremendous hit there, with an average of five cases a day picked up by market shoppers. Medovina wine – the “Summer Solstice” – is served at only one restaurant, Ras Kassa’s, an Ethiopian spot in Boulder. Beran notes that mead is the national beverage of Ethiopia. Because his product has no sulfites, it is especially popular among vegans and Buddhists, who won’t drink any alcoholic beverage other than mead.Beran says there is a common perception that mead doesn’t age well, but he vigorously disputes this (as he disputes the even more prevalent notion that honey wine is invariably sweet). A compound in honey – glucose oxidase – gives honey a natural acidity; hydrogen peroxide, a preservative, is also produced as the wine ages. The combination of acidity, sugar and preservatives makes for a very beneficial aging process.”We still have a few bottles from of that first wine,” said Beran, “and it’s fabulous. It’s getting better and better, more smooth.”
Beran doesn’t have the usual concerns that most winemakers have, like spoilage. Honey doesn’t spoil. Revered in ancient Egypt, honey was buried in the tombs of the monarchs. “After thousands of years, that honey is still chemically honey. It’s a stable food,” said Beran.What concerns him – as well as his 30-40 fellow mead-makers in America, and beekeepers the world over – is something called Colony Collapse Disorder.For the first 12 years of keeping bees, the Berans never lost a colony. Three years ago, they lost the first colony. The next year, they lost two; last year, they lost four. Still, Beran considers himself fortunate; over that same stretch of time, some commercial beekeepers have lost upward of 80 percent of their colonies. A third or more of the 2.4 million colonies have been lost in less than a year, bringing the numbers down to the levels they were 15 years ago.The decimation began, says Beran, in Europe and has spread. There are numerous theories for the cause of colony collapse, but no consensus on which theory is to be believed. Beran puts no stock in the “cell phone” theory, that the rise of cellular use is wiping out the bees. More valid, he says, is pesticide use. Bees were one of the first species to have their DNA fully mapped; it was discovered that bees have an inherently fragile immune system. The honey combs themselves, as well as a resin called propolis, that the bees collect from trees, are part of the bees’ immune system.”And beeswax is like a chemical sponge,” said Beran. “So if we’re introducing any pesticides into that beeswax, that has a huge impact on the immunity.”More frightening still, healthy bees will not take over a colony left behind after the disease has taken its toll. When beekeepers have forced unaffected bees into a colony wiped out by Colony Collapse Disorder, the healthy colony has been killed. The decimation of bees should concern us all; Beran says a third of everything we eat – veggies, fruits and nuts – depend on pollination by honeybees.Still, Beran believes bees will survive, and moreover, that mead may have a brighter long-term future than grape wine. With climate changes, the traditionally strong grape-growing regions may face alterations significant enough to seriously affect the winemaking industry.”If that happens – and we hope it doesn’t – in 100 years, honey wine may be the dominant alcoholic beverage,” he said. “As long as there’s bees and there’s flowers, there’s honey.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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