When your co-workers are bees, you'd better be industrious. And Mark Beran -- engineer, inventor, snowboarder and beekeeper -- lives up to the standards of his hardworking colleagues. In his tiny, 350-square-foot shop in Niwot, he produces world-class mead.
"Somewhere out in the universe, there can be a non-linear event that I can't forecast that can make this whole thing make sense," says Beran, standing by four 82-gallon fermenters filled with honey wine. "You can't put that in a business plan, and I could never do that as an engineer. But of all the years I've been in business, making mead is the most pleasurable."
He's been making mead professionally for two years, using his engineering know-how to master the trade. His tidy meadery in a converted one-car garage is a state-of-the-art-of-small-spaces operation whose year-round, 64-degree temperature is maintained with a small window air conditioner, a tiny gas heater and lots of insulation. The mead kettle, in which Beran blends honey and water in ratios he perfected with his own spreadsheets, is heated by a gas burner he got at a Chinese-restaurant supply house. He customized it for optimum efficiency, soldering shut each gas jet, then opening them back up with tiny drill bits for peak performance. Beran caps his hand-corked bottles with beeswax molded to fit into a conventional hot-glue gun, which he runs through a voltage regulator at just 25 volts.
Beran will serve his Medovina honey wines this Saturday at the Boulder Revel, a celebration of Boulder County food-and-drink artisans at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder. For details, go to www.redstonemeadery.com or call 720-406-1215
Beran's do-it-yourself credo extends to his honey: The raw material for his Medovina meads comes from beehives in his back yard. "That's a big advantage," he says. "The honey is totally fresh and needs minimum pasteurization."
Medovina meads are clean, finely crafted, pale-blonde renditions that lean to the drier side of the sweetness spectrum. The line starts with an "off-dry" version that resembles a Riesling; almost clear in color, it sports the sliced-red-apples aroma of traditional meads, along with a hint of citrus tang and a muted level of honey sugar that makes it perfect dinnertime drinking. The "semi-sweet" mead offers slightly richer aromas, a light-oil body and the flavors of honey, apples, pears and alcohol. It's Beran's biggest seller.
His "dessert" wine is several steps shy of the cloying, sticky meads that possess residual sugars and scare off would-be mead drinkers fretting about headaches and hangovers. It's an accessible, elegant whisperer that doubles as an after-dinner liqueur or anytime sipper, with enough alcohol to counter its candied pleasures. The Medovina lineup also features a cyser -- an obscure drink, made from blending mead and apple cider, that delivers green apple and citrus notes, undertones of more apples and honey, and a tart finish. Down the road, Beran plans to release a number of smaller-batch expressions blended with fruit-steeped meads that are now fermenting in his shop. Those boutique gems include honey wines blessed with Western Slope peaches, as well as sour cherries and rose petals from his yard.
Beran's creations weigh in at about 13 percent alcohol, an insidious, nearly invisible feature that slowly warms the back of the eyeballs and the top of the brain as only the best alcoholic beverages can. "Our meads are pretty potent," he says. "We've found that we get a good harmony at a higher alcohol level." The meads age for nine to twelve months, until the yeasts are done with their work -- an "old-world" process that skips the sulfites most wineries use to stop yeast activity. "We trade time for production capacity," he explains.
"We're trying to look at things differently here, from beginning to end," adds Beran, who runs the operation with the help of his wife, Kelly. "Bean counters would say this doesn't make any sense at all -- how can you do so much mead in this tiny little space?"
Bee counters would be less skeptical: Beran hopes to sell 2,500 bottles of mead this year. Once his production reaches the magic 4,000-bottle mark, he plans to publish a book about how he turned an at-home hobby into a business. A business with advantages: "For me, two years from concept to having a product for people to enjoy is a pretty short timeline," he says. "Every place I went, the people were so warm. I felt like I had been welcomed into a new family. They encouraged me to do this, even though, in some sense, I was a competitor."
Beran and fellow members of the Boulder County Beekeepers Association are meeting more and more young people interested in raising bees and making honey. That's a good thing for the 2,000-year-old mead trade, which is currently enjoying a revival that the New York Times recently recognized. Beran credits Redstone Meadery and its founder, David Myers, for leading that revival locally. "Redstone Meadery is doing a tremendous job of creating awareness," he says. "They're producing a product line diverse enough that there's a chance that anybody who enjoys alcoholic beverages will find something they like."
With Palisade's Rocky Mountain Meadery, Redstone, and Beran's own operation, three mead-making businesses now call Colorado home. "We really want Colorado to become the mead center of America," Beran says. "What a great place to grow the mead industry! People are into trying more wholesome, homespun things, and it's probably the most concentrated brewing culture in the country."
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Colorado's mead growers aren't as limited as the state's wine industry, he points out, because there's far more land suitable for honey production than grape growing. "If meaderies develop in Colorado and create a demand for honey, more beekeepers will produce more honey," he adds. "We can actually grow a honey industry in Colorado."
In the meantime, Beran is enjoying the buzz of his own industriousness. "I've been in a lot of different businesses since 1983," he says. "The mead business is the first that I ever got into because it was strictly in my heart. Everyone -- well, except for the people who had drunk our meads -- said we were crazy to do this."
His investors are optimistic, and while he's not yet drawing a paycheck, Beran feels compensated for his hard work. "The most fun of all," he says, "is having somebody taste the mead and go, 'Hey, I like that.' That's the reward for now, and eventually there will be a financial reward. There are real, very basic human requirements that are satisfied by doing something because it's in your heart and you know you can do it well."
For Beran, mead-making "pushes all the right buttons," he says. "It has as much science as I want to bring into it, as much creativity as I want to bring into it, and it's an art form, a craft." It's also allowing him to investigate an idea he couldn't pursue as an engineer. "I'm finally testing a theory that I've heard for years and years: 'Do what you love, and the money will follow.' I believe that will happen. Meanwhile, I'm loving what I'm doing, so how bad is that?"