by Courtney Llewellyn
Mead has been made across the world, from ancient China to ancient Greece, from the savanna of Africa to the tundra of Scandinavia. King Harald Fairhair united Norway back in the ninth century, and today one of his descendants, through many generations, is working toward uniting lovers of drink through his passion for authentic mead.
Peter Voelker is the mastermind behind Helderberg Meadworks, based in Duanesburg, NY. The brand is named for the rolling hills of the Helderberg Escarpment which is located about 10 miles west of New York’s capital of Albany. It was serendipitous that the local landscape boasted a name evocative of mead-drinking peoples when it came time to name his product. Names are important to Voelker.
“My mother’s maiden name means ‘beautiful hair’ in German, and that was my first clue about being a descendant of King Harald,” he explained. He managed to trace his family tree back to the late 1300s and early 1400s and found his connection to King Harald that way. “I was doing ancestry research at the same time I was doing my business plan,” he laughed.
That business plan came after a meandering route through the wilderness of life after college. Voelker studied nuclear engineering in college because he “thought it was a good idea at the time.” The job market in that field was a bit barren post-graduation, so that led Voelker to a full-time civil engineering job. He said becoming a mead maker, or a mazer, was supposed to be his retirement project.
“I started making beer when I graduated from college in 1992, but there was no shortage of good beer,” he said of his journey toward making mead. “Everyone does wine and I wasn’t allowed to distill [due to New York’s laws at the time].” His home near Brotherhood Winery, which touts itself as “America’s oldest winery,” provided him with another happy opportunity – they produce a mead (a honey wine) that is more in line with traditional mead, without a lot of extra flavoring or added sweeteners.
At its core, mead is simply fermented honey, water and yeast – and Voelker noted that just because it’s made with honey doesn’t mean the end product is sweet. He liked the combination of those natural ingredients enough to start making his own.
He said he began making his own mead in 1993. “I’m still honing my process,” he explained. “Home brew is one thing, but making it commercially is a completely different experience.”
The entire enterprise started with a few thousand dollars in initial investment, according to Voelker. “It wasn’t a big deal if it didn’t take off,” he shrugged. He professionally began his mead making business in 2011.
Voelker receives four 55-gallon drums of wildflower honey at a time and uses 600 gallon tanks to age his various products. It takes roughly three drums of honey to make 600 gallons of mead, and Voelker places oak staves in his tanks to help age the honey wine and add flavor, since he doesn’t have the space to age the liquid in barrels. He does almost all the work for Helderberg Meadworks himself in a 24-by-30-foot insulated workspace, including the bottling and corking.
His first variety was dubbed Heritage. Voelker said the recipe took five years of home brewing to develop. “It’s what I think they would’ve made back in the times of the Old Norse,” he explained. “I didn’t know if people would like it at first, because it’s not the usual mead they find at the liquor store. I had no idea how to sell it at first either. I knew that would be the hard part.”
He brought his first batch of Heritage to one of the biggest retailers in the area, where Lady Luck appeared once more. Voelker said the owner loved it and immediately started to sell it, and that was in November 2012. He now has a distributor sending Helderberg to 150 stores across New York State, from Long Island to Buffalo. He offers a mead club to customers as well, shipping a variety of his meads to their doors on a regular basis. (He prefers to send them during the colder months to preserve the integrity of the products.)
“I thought I’d just ride it out until I could retire, but it keeps growing,” he laughed. “I did not expect the huge positive response I got.” He’s on track to make 800 cases, or about 7,200 bottles, this year.
The demand took off, so next on the agenda was creating an apple mead, also known as a cyser. “There are lots of apples in New York, and using local products is hugely important to me,” Voelker said. His honey, cider and maple syrup come from within 20 miles of his home. His Staghorn sumac tastes a little like lemon; his black currant mead is similar to a dry rosé. Recently, he collaborated with Brown’s Brewing Company to create a braggot, a beer/mead hybrid.
“Using local products really affects flavor,” he said. Helderberg Meadworks also utilizes unfiltered well water, because, according to Voelker, “yeast loves minerals.”
Speaking of yeast, Voelker said a blogger once described his Heritage variety as “feral,” so he took that idea and ran with it. “It took two years to capture good yeast from the air and develop my own strain, but it was worth it,” he said. That led to a new variety appropriately named Feral.
Seven years in to this experiment, Voelker has learned exactly what it takes to make exactly what he wants. It depends on the product how long each mead ages; all varieties sit for a minimum of four months, but one in his workspace has been aging for three years. What he’s doing seems to be working, because at the 2018 Big E Wine Competition in western Massachusetts, his Cherry Vanilla earned double gold, best fruit wine and best New York wine; the Heritage earned silver, and Odin’s Tears and Black Currant won awards as well.
Right now, Voelker is focusing on completing and opening Helderberg Meadworks’ tasting room, situated high on a hill above Route 30 in Duanesburg. It features the high, vaulted ceiling reminiscent of the Viking drinking halls of yore. The parcel is also home to a nascent field of grapevines, so that in the future Voelker can make pyment, or mead made with honey and grapes.
“I don’t make anything I don’t love,” Voelker stated as the sun dipped low over the view of the Helderberg Escarpment from his tasting room.
To learn more about Voelker and his mead, visit www.helderbergmeadworks.com.
A Nordic staple with New World flavor
by Courtney Llewellyn