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Planning a meadery?

Toxxyc

Worker Bee
Registered Member
Dec 21, 2017
377
10
18
Pretoria, South Africa
Alright, so here goes. I'm currently in talks with a friend who's interested in making some side income. We're now planning a meadery in our country. Neither of us are experts, but he's a microbiologist who works with yeast every single day (but for other purposes) and I have the hands-on experience making some other fermented drinks (and a good batch of mead), so he's keen.

He has a friend who works for a commercial winery, so she can help. I have hands-on experience, even if it's not a lot, and the energy. I apparently also have a good taste for recipes. He has the microbiological knowledge and funding. He also has the space to set up hives so we can get a steady source of honey (aiming for around 5 tonnes a year by end of 2020).

The big pro we have is that currently in our country plenty of people have heard about mead from movies and series ("BRING ME MORE MEAD!") but nobody has any idea what the hell it is. So far the only seemingly successful commercial offering of mead I can find is a sparkling brut sold in a champagne-style bottle, to be used as a sparkling wine substitute at celebrations, and that offering sells are more than double our estimated selling point. To boot, if the mead sucks, we have very lax distillation laws over here, so even a distilled mead-honey liqueur is an option.

I know a lot of water has to run into the ocean before we get to a proper commercial setup, but so far, and I'm asking this seriously - how hard can it be?
 

Squatchy

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So I totally wish you the best of luck. I actually serve as a consultant to new Meadery. And I helped a few get off the ground and I have other friends that own Meadery as well. It's not near as easy as you might think. And your expectation and on honey by the next year is just absolutely ridiculous. I know professional beekeepers and I've been told by several very successful beekeepers that if you think you're going to save any money on your honey by getting your own hives that you're out of your mind. So I wouldn't think that that would be a way to go unless you want to really learn to be a beekeeper and that's going to take several years and cost you both loads of money with very little return. I'm moving on to actually making me. I would always suggest that you should have experienced enough in entering your needs and competitions that you know that you can make award-winning Mead but a large percentage of the time. Everybody thinks they make great Mead until they send them into competitions and then they find out that maybe they're not so great. Anybody with the personality could sell a bottle of mead to someone but that bottle of mead needs to be so good it sells itself the second time around and there's a huge difference there. So I'm not trying to be negative here I'm just telling you that it's not easy it cost a lot of money. In fact one of the things we consistently here's how do you make $1000000 in the meat industry? And the answer is. Start with 2 million. I would think that the very first thing you need to do which I've been a proponent of four years is learn to make award-winning traditionals. And that will raise the bar for everything else you make. Nothing can hide in the traditional. Whereas you could add enough fruit and honey to gasoline to make it drinkable.
 

bernardsmith

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I certainly do not have the experience or the skills of Squatchy but while I agree with just about everything he just posted I am not convinced that winning medals in competitions is always a good indicator of what might sell. There are many meaderies and wineries in this part of the country that have no interest in competitions. Their focus is on making wines and meads that sell themselves and that MAY mean that their meads and wines are B class or worse (I think they often are) but their customers don't and what competition judges look for and what their customers want may not be very well aligned. But that's true about most things in life, ain't it?
 

4give

Worker Bee
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Jan 1, 2018
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Hi - I've been beekeeping as a side business for 5 years now. I'm slowly building up hives, and plan to keep it relatively small, so maybe it's a bit different with a mass investment up front for "a lot" of hives, but I can tell you that I have not been 'in the black' one year yet. I've basically broke even the last 2 years, but this year looks like a loss based on colony loss, and the weird weather.
5 tons is 10000 lbs of honey. The density of honey varies, but a general rule is 12 lbs per gallon, so you'd be looking at 833.33 gallons. I'm not sure of your location, and if the bees will forage all year long, or if a winter type season is involved. With a winter season, a decent conservative average for a mature hive (not a starter package or nucleus) is 5 gallons per hive. That's 167 hives/colonies. Even if your honey production is double that, you're talking 84 hives. Equipment and bee costs are not cheap, and trust me when I say that beekeeping is far more labor intensive than folks think. Keeping 1-2 hives is nothing, and I encourage folks to do it, but seasonal start-up time, and then harvest time, with even 25 hives is a lot of hours. Making mead is way easier than beekeeping.

All that to say, that Squatchy is likely correct in that buying honey is likely more profitable. That's not to say you couldn't create a type of reserve/preserve honey. That is one of my dreams... Get a few hives in an area where I've provided a variety of specific foraging plants that creates a distinct honey. I use my own honey for my mead, and that obviously means I'm not losing a sale to the market place.

Squatchy, I remember one of your previous posts about competitions and how there is a lot of doubt in the judging after you reviewed their remarks. I also know (with a lot of thanks to you and those on this forum/GotMead), that I've received very positive feedback from others on just my second round of mead batches. A sommelier and another entrepreneur actually asked me if I was thinking about going commercial. Winning competitions, or scoring well, might bring some credibility for some consumers. Ultimately, if folks like it enough to buy it, I don't think it will matter how many medals it can win.

That said, I also agree with bernardsmith. :) There may be significant investment before one figures out what will sell and be profitable.

It still sounds like an interesting opportunity, and I too wish you all the best. I'd love to hear how things go.
 

Squatchy

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So I need to say something here. I totally agree with you. That a medal-winning mead might not be a best seller. I have many friends who own meaderies. Not one of the new what would become their best seller. So that will probably be a surprise for everyone I would expect. And all of, I su[ppose, Have bought commercial stuff that was less than great. I'm not being arrogant here so please don't take it that way. But most of what I have tasted from commercial meaderies are only fair at best. Much of the time I find my own mead is much better.

And will you always get good feedback from a judge? Probably not. I don't think the average judge is really very good. Lots of judges are not even certified in the bigger comps. And even less for local and state stuff. And again, there are lots of judges that are certified that know very little about mead because they are first and foremost beer judges who add on the mead certificate and embrace that like the adopted stepchild. Rarely do I find a beer judge that I respect as a mead judge. Some of are working on a new certification program that will not be a part of the BJCP program. But that will take a while. And when we do release it. It will have several levels of achievement that will actually be a very difficult achievement and will only come from lots of very intense schooling. So it truly will provide an in-depth commitment and study to actually pass it. And even more to move up the ladder. So you will truly be a "professional" once you have finished all of the courses rather than basically get a paper because you sat through a few hours of exams in open book format and passed 1 sensory class/test.

I'm nocking what we have. But we really want to raise the bar very far up so a real mead judge will be truly schooled just like what it is to become a certified sommelier.

What I want to emphasize is as a meadery owner. Releasing just one batch of substandard, soso mead will really hurt your future business in a huge way. Not to mention the cost to toss a bad batch. Or worse sell stuff that people tell others sucked and "I wouldn't ever buy that again". Depending on the circumstances. Two of those batches released for sale could kill your business forever. Lots of meaderies are going out of business because people had a dream and or some money and started before they could make good enough mead to survive.

I would say wait until you have won one hundred medals in the bigger mead-only competitions before even thinking about making a go for a business. And go work in a meadery or a winery for a couple of years after you have gotten past the 100 medals. And then start to add up the cost of doing business. If you want to own a meadery. You ought first to consider what it is to be a professional janitor in a food production facility. Imagine washing equipment for more than half of your time spent in a meadery and the other half bottling and packaging. And on tiop of all that work every weekend and every Friday night. And go to wine festivals with your booth and hand out more samples that what you sell over the weekend. While your paying someone at the shop to take care of you shop customers while you're out trying to spread your name for free for eternity.

Eventually, you will get to a place where you can spend all week doing the paperwork for the government and don't even make mead any more because you don't have time due to the red tape burden.

So you finally get past this. To now be able to pay a distributor to sell your stuff in liquor stores and online. Yes!!! You think to yourself until you find now you're giving away 35 % of your profits to someone else. Which means you have to sell 35% more just to break even.

And don't forget. One bad batch that restarts fermentation even after you thought it was stable and now your recalling the product you spent good money on to make and refund all of the money you picked up selling it. Or how about sitting on 1000 gallons in barrels only to have it sour on you or get infected with microbial issues. Do you have the ability to deal with all of the science needed? Can you fix your issues? Can you pay for failure and losses? Do you now feel like maybe you will be tempted to try and sell your b grade stuff? Only to find out people are talking bad about your product.

Do you see why I say you really need to consistently be able to make top shelf stuff all the time?

Everything you make better self it's self without exception. For you to even have a 30% chance of being in business after your second year

I'm not at all being a party pooper here. And I'm negative. But this is pretty damn close to what it is like to start. And even worse if you're starting underfunded and under experienced. Can you do the paperwork to keep all the records straight? Especially all the government crap? Do you know how to market yourself? You can't think all you have to do is put up a sign on the window and "they will come"! It's not like that. Can you live with no profits for the first few years? Can you do that and then close and still manage to not ruin your marriage and your life?

I'm done here.

But this is how I see it. The good thing is. I know people who are happy being in the struggle.

I have also had to, unfortunately, write on commercial meaderies scorecards " That I would not finish a glass of this mead"! Which translates that I would not buy it nor would I suggest it to friends.

Incidentally. My friends who are doing well. Were all very prolific winners in the competition circles first and foremost
 

Toxxyc

Worker Bee
Registered Member
Dec 21, 2017
377
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18
Pretoria, South Africa
OK I have to add a bit more here, I think.

So, on the hives. The partner has a piece of land, in the middle of the South African bush. It's thick, and rife with trees on some of the neighboring farms. On other farms, there are farmers planting mostly sunflower. In the winter months, the area brags with a huge amount of aloes, which provides winter sustenance for the bees. There are no beekeepers in the area, and he had a friend who's a bee keeper come take a look at the area. He's very positive, and the first hives are already up. Both he and his friend (the bee keeper) are positive. I'm not hoping for 5 tonnes of honey a year, not now anyway, but let's see what we can do. The piece of land is currently home to wildlife (exotic animals, actually), and that's a completely different market that's actually crashed a bit, so he's looking for a way to make his land profitable. We have the land. We have the blossoms (South African bushveld is amazing in Spring). We just need the bees (which we can do). He has his own business making probiotics, so he's already working with yeasts and fermentation and he knows how that side of things really work.

Regarding the product - we are fully aware it might take around 5 ~ 10 years before we can make a profit on this. That's fine. That gives me plenty of time to formulate a good mead, and let it age a bit. The last mead I made really ended up good after a year. Yes, I didn't win competitions, but I also can't find competitions here for mead. We have maybe 2 or 3 meaderies in the country, and most of them aren't very diverse. I found one manufacturer who sells a dry sparkling mead (which is pretty easy to make, according to me) for almost double what I estimated we need to sell at to make a profit. So the plan is simple:

1. Start off making small batch meads. Control the process. Get a young, drinkable mead in a bottle and distribute a few bottles in the area. South Africa has a VERY healthy drinking market, and we can exploit that. Craft beers and gins and stuff are just making their growth here known, and it's turning into a mad business. We want to ride that wave up. Even a half-decent mead would be great. People are looking for alternatives here, and they'll drink everything. So if I can make just a half-decent mead, we have a ton of bottle stores who'll buy a case or two. It's a start.
2. We want to start at the smaller bottle stores. The rural ones. If we can price a mead for a good price that's nice and drinkable, we have a market. I'm 100% sure of it. We have enough white wine drinkers in SA who will AT LEAST experiment with something that looks like white wine and mentions similar notes to a fruity white. Then, if the smaller places kick off, we can expand. I'm not planning on making 15,000 litres of mead by the end of next year. Hell, if I can make 500 litres in total up to then, I'll be happy. I'm starting with small, very small batches to test recipes. If they work - fine. If they don't - I adjust. There are plenty of good recipes out there, and I just need to nail one of them to get started.

So, in short: I'm not over-shooting here. I'm fully aware it's going to be a long and hard process. We'll need a liquor licence to get started, and that can take up to a year here. For now, we need to get a good feeler going for what we plan on doing. That involves a fun job - making mead. Making good mead. Doesn't have to be award winning. Doesn't have to be the best out there. Just has to be drinkable. Drinkable is fine.

To finalize, I'm going to ask A LOT of questions here in the near future. That ~10% ABV batch I'm planning will be the first attempt. I'm not planning a fancy recipe because we don't get a bunch of fancy stuff in SA. I want to work with what we have - good, raw South African honey. If we can't make the hives work - we have beekeepers who will sell large quantities of honey for a good price - I'm talking R80 per kg here. That's about $4 per pound. Not bad at all. So let's see where this goes. Even if it doesn't work, I can make fermented drinks, which is fun. I like fun. Fun is good.
 

Toxxyc

Worker Bee
Registered Member
Dec 21, 2017
377
10
18
Pretoria, South Africa
Alright, so since last post a lot has happened. That "test batch" I made came out very, very well and we're planning on hosting a little get together with some parties to hold a tasting evening with the mead. It's not clear, but that's fine, it tastes fantastic.

On to the farm - 5 more hives were installed over the weekend. I think that puts the numbers up to 10 now. 5 are occupied with good, growing colonies and the honey is under way. According to the beekeeper who installed it, there should be a min 100kg harvest closer to the end of this year from the existing hives, and more if the bait is picked up by a few colonies in the new hives. 100kg is a lot. It'll allow me to make around 300l of mead, which is quite a few. To boot, the order for the other 300kg of honey is also standing, and since honey doesn't go off, we'll have enough for winter. I can't wait. It seems like this is, so far anyway, going great!
 

Squatchy

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I probably have over 700kg of honey sitting around my place. I just received 300kg of different varietals from Brazil last week. I'll be doing a presentation at Meadcon next year making 10 different meads, everything the same except for the honey varietals to showcase the different kinds of honey.
 

Toxxyc

Worker Bee
Registered Member
Dec 21, 2017
377
10
18
Pretoria, South Africa
I probably have over 700kg of honey sitting around my place. I just received 300kg of different varietals from Brazil last week. I'll be doing a presentation at Meadcon next year making 10 different meads, everything the same except for the honey varietals to showcase the different kinds of honey.
Yeah that's the nice thing about honey. You can store it (pretty much indefinitely). About the mead I made - I'm planning on getting some different honeys in the near future and, like you mention, make meads with the same procedure and the same neutral yeast strains so I can highlight the floral notes of the honey. This whole mead thing is pretty damn neat. I love it!
 

Squatchy

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Yeah that's the nice thing about honey. You can store it (pretty much indefinitely). About the mead I made - I'm planning on getting some different honeys in the near future and, like you mention, make meads with the same procedure and the same neutral yeast strains so I can highlight the floral notes of the honey. This whole mead thing is pretty damn neat. I love it!
So I would also do some test with a couple of other strains that I think are the best "all-around" strain. D21 and T306 are the best strains that do well with most everything. And certainly, do fantastic with trads. The only neutral one, in my opinion, would be DV10. And often K1V. However, it does add a little nuance to some things. But I have won lots of awards with it as well as the others
 

Toxxyc

Worker Bee
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Dec 21, 2017
377
10
18
Pretoria, South Africa
So I would also do some test with a couple of other strains that I think are the best "all-around" strain. D21 and T306 are the best strains that do well with most everything. And certainly, do fantastic with trads. The only neutral one, in my opinion, would be DV10. And often K1V. However, it does add a little nuance to some things. But I have won lots of awards with it as well as the others
I can't seem to find those yeasts in South Africa. I know about them, but I haven't seen them in shops yet. I used 71B for my previous batch, as I mentioned, and I saved the yeast cake to use again. I want to replicate this batch exactly before I start playing with yeasts. The time for that will definitely come. I was VERY happy with 71B and I really can't fault it in the batch I made. It was touted as imparting a fruity flavour, but I didn't get much fruit from it at all. On the contrary, it accented the honey very brightly, which I love. The mead shines honey and you can taste the varietal (specifically macadamia nuts) quite well, without being too sweet at all (I backsweetened to 1.010 IIRC).

I'm very happy with 71B. I've heard plenty of good things from the other three you mentioned (D21, DV10 and K1V), but if I can't get them (specially if I can't get them regularly) I don't see the point in trying to get a good mead going on them. Work with what I have, if you know what I mean.

Same goes for using GoFerm (which we also don't get). I asked around and companies offered to import it for me, but the prices they quoted was SHOCKING. It worked out to around $20 for an amount enough to rehydrate 2 or 3 small batches' worth of yeast, so I've been rehydrating with Fermaid O dissolved in warm water since (with great success). I know it doesn't do what GoFerm does, but my yeast seems happy, for now.

Once the business is up and maybe when we start doing something worthwhile, I'll look into registering at suppliers direct and import some products like GoFerm and yeasts on large scale direct from companies like Lalvin and Lallemand. That might be a good idea, and worth doing in the end.
 

Squatchy

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So I understand your predicament. I want to clarify for you and future readers. When the catalog says things about certain nuances it creates. Only some of that will come through in a traditional. Keep in mind. The maker is telling you what the yeast does when fermenting grape juices. So the description might not be totally accurate because it's not being made in grape juice. Hard to create certain flavors if it doesn't have certain flavors to build with. And yet, some of the things happen in spite of the building blocks coming from adjuncts.

For instance. Lots of times you will get a certain fruit nuance from the yeast esters even though there is none of that fruit in the must. But it might not correlate exactly how the book reads in a honey only creation.

This is exactly why it's imperative to do several A/B comparisons if you can to find what strain marries well with what honey. I've spoken and written about this in many places. Including the podcast as well as white papers here in the forums and on line on several FB groups.
 

Toxxyc

Worker Bee
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Dec 21, 2017
377
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Pretoria, South Africa
That makes sense, thanks Sir. I will admit I have not listened to all your podcasts, but I have listened to a lot of them. I must have missed the discussion about yeast esters, or simply forgot it. I've done more research into making drinks (not just mead) lately than I've done for almost anything in my life (except research in long range target shooting, that being my primary interest). Anyway, it does make sense. It will also explain why I didn't get the fruity esters from the yeast that I was told 71B might produce. Slightly, yes, but not like it was described. Same with the previous batch, using a belgian ale yeast. I picked up a little bit of the spicy flavours, and a bit of the alcohol flavour they touted, but little of the green pepper and others they also noted.

So yeah. Once I have my procedure down 100%, I'll start running batches side by side with different yeasts. With what I can find in South Africa, anyway.
 

Toxxyc

Worker Bee
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Dec 21, 2017
377
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Pretoria, South Africa
I've looked into Kveik yeasts, yes. There are some available in SA, but I've not thought about using it for meads. Ciders, yes, but not meads. Will see if I can get a good neutral strain and give it a run for it's money some time!
 

Squatchy

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I don't use them for the neutrality. I love the esters they throw for fruitiness at hot temps. 90F is you can manage to give wonderful pineapple, passion fruit, mango ect
 

Toxxyc

Worker Bee
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Pretoria, South Africa
I have a ferm chamber now, so I can ferment at whatever temps I want. I'll definitely look into the Kveiks, but for now I want to get a steady, constantly good traditional out before I start playing with other things. I'm nowhere near comfortable enough with mead (yet) to start playing. Beer and cider, yes, but not mead. Mead is pretty sensitive, and I don't want to start stuffing up before I'm comfortable.
 

Toxxyc

Worker Bee
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Dec 21, 2017
377
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Pretoria, South Africa
So I've made two batches of an 11% traditional using the honey we get naturally here in South Africa (not a specific varietal, comes from our local flora). Both batches turned out, how do I put it, amazing. I followed the rules, stuck to the numbers and while the first batch was overshot (I aimed for 1.072, but hit 1.080), it worked so well I repeated it to the T for the second batch. It's amazing, using the same yeast and the same process and the same numbers, I have managed to perfectly duplicate the first mead in the second batch. I'm FAR from being professional, but I think this is a good direction.

We're out of honey now (drought and late rains), so I'm in a bit of a hiatus, but I'm going to repeat this recipe once more. Everyone who I have given this to to taste has concurred that it's a good drink, and they'll be willing to pay money for it. This is not only family and friends, but I've also approached a few others - people owning taphouses, restaurants, etc. etc. Had a BJCP judge also have a taste. I've now started playing with some of the finished mead (backsweetened to different levels), and I'm starting to get a hang of this thing.

Once I'm done with the traditional and I'm really happy with what I can do now, I'll start branching out. For now though, using the yeast I'm now getting familiar with (71B) and using the method I'm familiar with (simple, yet effective) it seems I can churn out a 6-gallon batch of great mead every month, drink-ready, all thanks to this forum. Specifically, Ryan (Squatchy). Without your guidance, your direct and straight way of explaining and saying something, I don't think I would have gotten this far, this quick. Thanks man. I owe you one.
 

Squatchy

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Thank you for the kind words in the support. I really appreciate it. I'm glad that you're doing well and if I can help some more please let me know
 

Squatchy

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I really think you enjoy the kvick yeast. I certainly do I love it. And it's no different than fermenting with any other yeast. Wine yeast or beer yeast don't have any idea that there're different from each other