Government of New Brunswick

By: Danielle Andrus

In a small, quiet community located on the outskirts of Fredericton’s Northside, the world’s oldest fermented beverage in existence -mead - is being produced, perfected and sold.

Sunset Heights Meadery, the only full-time cottage meadery in New Brunswick, began production in 2013. Owned by John Way and Deb Wilson, the meadery has already won more than six major awards, including a recent sweep at the Mazer Cup International in Colorado, the world's largest international mead competition.

“When you win medals, they’re gigantic,” said John, the co-founder of Sunset Heights Meadery and Pollen Angels. “And then when you win the sweep of all three medals within a category, you own that category. So we own session sweet right now in the world.”

Mead is a historically treasured alcoholic beverage usually made from honey, water and fermented with yeast. John and his wife Deb first became intrigued by it on a craft brewery excursion in New Hampshire in 2013. Though they were planning to open their own brewery, John was curious about the world of mead, having tried to make it in the past. They set out on a tour of Moonlight Meadery, one of the most successful meaderies in the United States, unaware of how this visit was going to change their lives.

“After the tour, Deb turned to me and said, ‘Tell me again why we are opening a brewery?’,” John said. As his wife began to list off reasons why she enjoyed mead, it became clear that starting up a meadery was in their best interest.

With this in mind, John went back into Moonlight Meadery and reintroduced himself to the owner, Michael Fairbrother. After a long chat, Michael offered them a detailed crash course on how to create amazing mead to bring back to the New Brunswick market. John and Deb spent some time learning how to make mead from Michael and his head fermentation brewer. They then started Sunset Heights Meadery.

hive-bee

Creating award-winning mead is no easy task; it can take years to perfect a recipe and bring it to market. Sunset Heights Meadery begins with honey from their own hives or from local beekeepers, bought at a premium rate. The honey is slowly added into a mixing tank with either freshly-pressed apples, bought from a local New Brunswick orchard in Memramcook, or water, as used in their “snow mead.” It is then pumped into a fermenter with yeast and secondary ingredients to begin the fermentation process. All of the ingredients that are fermented at Sunset Heights Meadery are either grown or sustainably foraged within New Brunswick.

fermentation

Primary fermentation can take anywhere between three to six weeks, with a lot of feeding and temperature control happening in the meantime. When the yeast has finished fermenting and settling, the mead is then transferred into a secondary container, where creativity with flavours, blending and aging comes into play.

Mead is particularly interesting because no two batches will ever be the same. This, John said, is due to the honeybees visiting a variety of flowers in a variety of areas, which changes the characteristics of the honey. These factors seem to work in their favour and help create some of the best artisanal meads in the world.

In 2014, John and Deb launched a series of “sparkling session meads” (meads with added carbonation) under the brand known as “Pollen Angels” while their still meads developed and aged, and began showcasing their product locally.

John and Deb said that the introduction of their mead to the local market has been interesting and challenging, given that many people have never heard of mead while others had previously experienced poorly-made meads, “something which tends to leave a bad taste in one's mouth.”

 “We always enjoy enticing consumers who have had previous negative experiences to try our meads, watching their surprise and delight, and they inevitably bring friends back for more,” said John.

John and Deb have been amazed by the overwhelmingly positive reception in the marketplace, recently evidenced by winning third place in the “Fan Voted Best of the Fest” at the 2016 Fredericton Craft Beer Festival. “We usually wouldn't run around saying 'we're number three,’ but in a room with over 50 brewers, and 1,500 people there to drink beer, we're okay with our mead being voted third,” said John.

product

Meanwhile on the world stage, in their first year, John and Deb sent entries into the 2014 Mazer Cup International competition. They won two medals that year: silver for their hopped cyser “Honeycone” and gold for their blueberry cyser “Sunset Blues.”

“First year entered; three entries; and two medals. Everybody noticed,” John was told as he accepted his second medal of the night.

With such an outstanding result, Sunset Heights Meadery quickly began to innovate and expand its product list to include more seasonal meads, sparkling session meads and mead expressions under the Pollen Angels brand, including some “Rogue Angels,” fan-sourced expressions that have also ended up at the podium.

Competing at the Mazer Cup International with professional mead makers and specialists who have crafted, grown and perfected the mead market is extremely difficult, especially when it comes to judging. Sunset Heights Meadery competes with meads from all over the world, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Great Britain and Malaysia, which means its meads need to be almost perfect to place.

This showed in their “The Crowne Jewel” mead, made from honey from the rooftop hives of the Lord Beaverbrook hotel, which they entered in the Mazer Cup in 2015. It scored an average of 95 points, but still could not win a medal.

competitions

 “In wine competitions, medals are awarded based on the score given by the judges,” said John. “Consequently, there can be dozens of gold medals floating about from the same competition in the same category. At the Mazer Cup, it's like the Olympics. It doesn't matter how good you are; if you don't make it to the top three, you lose.”

In 2015, Sunset Heights Meadery took home the second place silver medal in the session sweet category with their Pollen Angels “Bee Mine,” a chocolate cherry combination produced especially for Valentine's Day.  2016 has proven to be the most rewarding year yet for John and Deb. Just one week after the craft beer festival success, their Pollen Angels expressions “Scuttlebutt,” “Cinfully Yours” and “Punky Pie” swept all three medals in the “Session Mead - Sweet” category.

“That’s happening very, very rarely. They figure it’s five or six times in the history of the competition where someone has won all three medals in a category,” John said. “On average throughout the competition, it’s between 20-25 entries per category… A sweep in a category is beyond gigantic. It's even sweeter for us that while at last summer's release party, our super fans helped in the creation of our bronze medal ’Punky Pie‘ expression. That medal will be featured in a group photo op at our spring release party this year on the last Saturday of this month. The party is long since sold out.”

Sunset Heights Meadery’s meads can be purchased online, or at their seasonal release parties. Pollen Angels can be found on tap at select local bars and restaurants throughout the province. More details can be found on their respective websites: http://www.sunsetheightsmeadery.com/ or http://www.pollenangels.com/

For more information, visit Sunset Heights Meadery or Pollen Angels on Facebook and Twitter or contact sales@shmead.com.