For many, hobbies serve as a wonderful outlet from the day-to-day of job and career. For a fortunate few, personal passions and professional pursuits align to create a true labor of love. J.D. “Ivar” Schloz is one such fortunate fellow. The owner/operator of Bee and Bramble Fine Meads has a singular focus on producing top-shelf honey wine, an interest that has grown from his personal obsession into a full-time occupation. Drawing upon his engineering background, Schloz is pushing mead into the conversation as a main-line beverage that can proudly stand alongside more traditional forms of wine and beer. Mead, or honey wine, is an ancient beverage often poetically dubbed “the nectar of the gods.” Using honey as its primary ingredient, mead is often flavored with other fruits and even herbs to produce more complex flavors. Like cider, mead has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts during the last decade, as producers and consumers alike are re-discovering this unique beverage.
On a too-hot summer day, Schloz led me into the cool, dark confines of his one-man operation in Fairview. In the tidy main room of his self-designed facility, impressive pieces of machinery and winemaking paraphernalia rest comfortably next to pallets of bottled finished product, ready for store shelves and spots on customers’ racks. Gregarious and engaging, Schloz walked me through the process of converting raw honey into bottle-ready mead, and the additional steps to bottle or keg the precious liquid for the ultimate end consumer. His operation is organized and efficient, as would befit the brainchild of a former process engineer.
But why mead? Schloz first tried homemade honey wine on an annual bike trip some years back, and he marveled at the pleasant, uplifting buzz it gave him and, perhaps more importantly, the absence of a hangover the next day. His curiosity about the beverage was piqued, and he filed mead away in the back of his engineer’s brain to further investigate. When he left his job as a metallurgist in Washington State and relocated to Asheville in 2004, Scholz found a booming homebrew scene, which was right up his alley as an experienced home brewer. He explains that the plentitude of brewers in the area actually dampened his own desire to brew beer at home: with so much good homebrewed product to try, and so many startup breweries cropping up as well, he reasoned “why bother?” What the homebrew glut did to dampen his own brewing enthusiasm, however, it also gave back in terms of motivation to try his hand at the much different challenge of crafting honey into wine.
Schloz explained that he finds most commercial meads on the market have an “overwhelming taste of honey.” For personal taste, he wanted something else: a honey wine that would reveal the subtle underlying flavors of the honey, without blanketing the palate with sweetness. As he embarked on systematic investigation of the steps required to produce mead to his liking, he zeroed in on locating the correct yeast strain to use in fermentation to “unlock” the flavors contained in the honey. After running the rule over more than thirty yeast strains over the course of several years, he knew right away when he had found the one he wanted: “it was immediately apparent – it was really stunning actually.” So which yeast strain is the key to his perfect mead? Schloz is coy. With a wink, he assured me that the particular yeast strain he uses is and will remain a closely guarded secret. Bee and Bramble is also dedicated to producing mead that is unfiltered and unrefined (meaning the beverage has not undergone a process to remove small particulates in the liquid). The resulting beverage is more flavorful and aromatic, and reveals more of the underlying character inherent in the honey.
Schloz points to local sourcing of raw materials for his mead as another key in development of his ideal flavor. He settled on mountain wildflower honey as the base ingredient due to the complexity of the flavor profile it revealed as compared to single-source honeys such as poplar or sourwood. During our conversations, he repeatedly emphasized the hyper-local nature of his product; every ingredient and much of the support infrastructure (down to the graphic design services for his labels) is sourced as locally as possible.
With his product nearing readiness several years back, the first market testing Schloz undertook was with a time-honored group: his buddies. Old-time music being another of Schloz’s many pursuits, he began taking bottles of his homemade concoction to gatherings for what he dubs the “personal appreciation” of his fellow musicians. The reaction was immediately positive – of folks who had already tried mead but didn’t care for it, he heard quite often “but I like this!” And the consensus among everyone who tried it was that he should absolutely start selling it.
The aforementioned engineering skill set was even more essential as Schloz took his friends’ advice and prepared to bring his mead to the commercial marketplace. He carefully designed and oversaw construction of his winery facility and the even more arduous task of getting the required certifications to begin operation. Now that he’s been up and running for a while, Schloz looks back at this time period as an exercise in “learning why more people don’t do it.” Even for a relatively small-scale operation, he needed to navigate the bureaucratic channels to officially set up a winery, with all of the inspections, approvals, and licenses that came with it.
Fortunately for the drinking public, Schloz’s persistence paid off, and he is fully up and running, with a broad range of offerings to satisfy diverse tastes. The “Traditional,” Bee and Bramble’s flagship mead, is crisp, light, and floral, with a nuanced flavor profile that is unexpected and extremely pleasant. Very comparable to a dry white wine in flavor and alcohol content (11.5%), the mead drinks well on its own or pairs well with meals, particularly beef, poultry or fish. Schloz’s creative imagination and rigorous testing has led to numerous other meads, including combinations with hibiscus and rose petal flavorings, the Cyser (a mixture with apple cider), versions with assorted berries, and a forthcoming blueberry/ginger mead that should be available in early fall.
Schloz’s handiwork has been garnering much-deserved attention: Bee and Bramble was recently featured on UNC-TV’s “Carolina Weekend,” and he maintains a steady schedule of tastings and events throughout WNC.
All of Bee and Bramble’s meads are available directly from the source by visiting beeandbramble.com, and consumers in the Asheville area can find Bee and Bramble in several local wine shops and a selection of downtown Asheville bars and restaurants.