Photos By Rachel LaFranchi
Gordon Hull used to be a geologist. It was the mid-90’s, and he was working for a government agency in Seattle. Hull had an affinity for beer and his home brewing hobby quickly turned into a passion. He applied for an apprenticeship with the American Brewer’s Guild, and took a 10 week leave of absence to better his home brew skills.
At the end of the course, Hull was surprised to get an offer to become a professional brewer. He quit his job as a geologist and moved to Humboldt to work for a commercial brewery. Hull realized he had an entrepreneurial spirit and was interested in starting his own business, but at the time there were breweries popping up all over and the competitive market made the timing wrong.
“At the time I was considering all of this, I happened to be experimenting with fermenting honey,” said Hull. “I’d tasted a number of traditional meads and they didn’t really appeal to me. I’ve always thought honey is such a beautiful substance; there should be a wine that reflects the character of the honey better than what I was tasting in medieval style meads.
“Because I don’t care much for sweet wines, I decided I would try and make a honey wine that’s not sweet. Because I like beer, I thought I’d put bubbles in it and make it sparkling. I produced a batch of mead this way, and was surprised and delighted by the outcome. It was quite refreshing and delicious, and I would drink it myself. If I was interested in it, I thought others might be.”
Hull started experimenting with his recipe and developing it more. He found if he used honey from different sources, he would get a different flavor of wine. For instance, a mead produced from orange blossom nectar produced a different flavor than if he used sage honey. Hull was fascinated by the fact that honey varieties are like grape varietals. Hull said that if he fermented out all the sugar in the honey, he would end up with a distinct character and found there was a very broad spectrum of flavors just like grape varietals.
“That excited me, maybe even more than making beer. There are so many people out there making great beer, I thought maybe I should try the path less traveled and consider opening a meadery.”
Hull spent the next two years developing a recipe, business plan and finding a location. He opened his meadery in Arcata in 1997 and produced his first batch in 1998. He described Heidrun Meadery, named after Norse mythology, as a one man show for 15 years. Hull had been making deliveries to San Francisco for more than 10 years and was tired of the commute, and coupled with getting married, he realized he was outgrowing the facility.
Hull said he also saw a need to develop the business further – there was more to it than just producing mead. “If I wanted to encompass everything that honey wine is about,” said Hull, “I needed to start a beekeeping operation – just like winemakers want to grow their own grapes. If I was going to start a beekeeping operation, I should also grow my own plants that the bees feed off of in order to produce honey. By doing so, I would be encapsulating the entire ecology of meadmaking in one place.”
Hull started looking for farms, something that could encompass both his business and his growing family. Hull and his wife Jeffra currently have two children Matilda, 9, and Penelope, 6.
Hull began looking south of Arcata where honeybees prefer the climate and the habitat. He found a farm in Marin County in Pt. Reyes Station. The farm was previously a dairy and had all the existing structures they would need. It was located close to their primary market in San Francisco to help facilitate distribution as well as welcome customers. It’s location along the Highway 1 corridor already offered a flow of visitors and Hull said his business fit into the community well. His wines pair well with many other farm products from the area, particularly cheese and oysters.
While the farm provides the perfect opportunity for customers to taste mead, it also allows them to see the flowers that feed the bees who are producing the honey which is making the mead. Visitors can see the whole ecological cycle in one place.
The four years after they purchased the property were spent getting permits and making minor changes to the infrastructure to better accommodate their business. Following this, they opened their doors, tentatively at first, to the public in 2011.
Heidrun Meadery now employs five people including Jordan Uth, a horticulturalist who manages all the farming aspects of the property and the greenhouse. She also cultivates flowers to sell to local floral shops, restaurants and weddings.
Heidrun’s sales director, Carly Sheriff, manages mead sales as well as the tasting room and its two staff members. Jay Uth, Jordan’s husband, holds a full time cellar position and is responsible for bottling and packaging the mead.
The company contracts two beekeepers who manage over 100 colonies for Hull, one dozen of which are on the farm. They have eight different apiaries within a 30 mile radius of the farm.
Hull is experimenting with micro-terroir of the different apiaries. He’s currently made mead from two spots, but plans to make more in the upcoming year. He has faced several beekeeping challenges as he set up his business but said he’s overcome most of them and feels confident that he’ll be able to make more varieties of mead from his own bees.
Hull still serves as the company’s meadmaker and is currently making six varietals, sourcing honey from all around the country. In the past he’s purchased honey from Oregon, Arizona and Hawaii to make several distinct flavors.
Honey comprises about 1/5 of every bottle, with Hull using a 1:4 ratio of honey to water. The mead process starts with melting the honey for one week at 105°F. The specific temperature is necessary to keep the honey from getting too hot which can volatilize the flavors.
Hull describes his mead process as a hybrid between beer brewing and champagne production.
The brewing part of the process comes first when the honey is blended with water. It’s boiled for 15 minutes to sanitize, but also so it doesn’t have to be filtered later in the process.
The mixture is then transferred to fermentation tanks where yeast is added and primary fermentation occurs for one week.
The mead then rests for one month until it is clarified sufficiently to bottle. It’s bottled in wine bottles with beer tops that don’t allow the CO2 to escape which gives it a champagne pop. The mead sits for two months while it clarifies at which point it is ready to drink with the exception of the sediment that has to be removed.
At this point, the bottles are placed in a riddling rack for two weeks and turned every day. Hull has recently invested in a large machine to mechanize and speed up this process. They are then placed in cold glycol which freezes the sediment that is easily popped out by pressure when the cap is removed.
The bottle is then fitted with a cork and hood, washed, labeled, foiled and cased.
The mead is distributed around the Bay Area, including many Whole Foods locations. Hull said changing people’s buying habits for wine isn’t an easy task, especially with a product that isn’t well known. However, Hull said that if people can visit the farm, have the experience and taste the mead, he’s confident he can change their choices.
Hull said many people who have tried mead in the past have not liked it, and he understands their suspicion. Yet, he emphasizes that his meads are a departure from traditional meads – they are light, dry and refreshing. As far as he knows, he’s the only producer of naturally sparkling mead in the world.
Heidrun Meadery produces about 3,000 cases per year, and they always sell out. He plans to increase that 20% over the coming year.
Hull said developing a business has taken a lot of resources, and he is concentrating on staying a family run business and focusing on the customer experience. His primary objective always has been and still is to make the best possible mead.
The farm’s visitors are often seasonal, with the majority of visitors coming during the summer months. The farm is kid friendly, and Hull said they welcome families. It’s a place where both adults and children can come to have fun.
“I feel very good about the connection we have to botany and apiculture. We have a lot to teach visitors, but it also helps us to help people understand. Most people understand where honey comes from, but if they can connect the bee with mead, we’re doing our job,” said Hull.
For more information and tasting room hours visit heidrunmeadery.com