Black Heath : Unearthing a New Niche

 By: Sarah Becky
When it comes to craft beverages, there’s nothing more niche than mead. When it comes to supporting the local beverage community, there’s nobody more involved than Black Heath Meadery.  Black Heath, which opened on March 4, 2015, has found its own place in building collaborative relationships in Richmond. Bill Cavender, Black Heath’s founder, notes that collaboration is in the spirit of craft beverages – it’s good for the community, but it’s also good for the business. 
“Collaboration is in the spirit of what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to focus on local and to support local farms and local beekeepers, so it grows out of that. We also work with people in the neighborhood. One, it’s a good civic thing to do, but two, as a businessman, how can we entice more people into the neighborhood, to drink alcohol, to eat burgers. We work together as neighbors,” Cavender said.

Cavender’s path to mead making was an indirect one. He started home brewing beer, then wine, but once he read about mead and tried making it, he fell in love with it. “I’ve always loved that connection with history. Mead, of course, being the oldest fermented beverage has a historical connection with just about every country that has honey.” Cavender noted that his father’s family is Polish and Lithuanian. Poland and Lithuania have both produced mead for thousands of years. Because of its history, you probably think of mead as being something knights and ladies in elegant costumes drank whilst roving through a Renaissance Faire, eating meat on a stick and listening to wandering troubadours. Mead is even older than that. The ancient Greeks, Celts, and Vikings all drank mead. Pottery vessels from 7000 BC, found in northern China, show evidence of fermented honey.

Mead is growing in popularity here in the U.S. According to the American Mead Makers Association, the number of commercial meaderies has jumped from around 30 in 2003 to over 500 in 2017. Mead takes about four months to make. Because honey does not naturally ferment, mead makers use wine yeast, and sometimes beer yeast, to drive the process. Fermentation also depends on the rate at which you blend the honey with water, as well as how much water you add. The type of yeast and the fermentation rate affect the flavor, but flavors can also be added during fermentation or ageing. Sometimes, if you’re lucky enough to work with a neighbor who has access to bourbon barrels, you can build the flavor in right at the beginning. 
On May 23, Black Heath released Weight of the World, a collaboration with Veil Brewing Company. This mead made with honey aged for four months in a 55-gallon Buffalo Trace barrel and spiked with Madagascar vanilla beans is Black Heath’s latest local collaboration. They’ve worked with other Richmond breweries and cideries, and even a local food truck (I have three words for you: mead-glazed bacon), and they’re not done yet. They recently have finished work
on a Cyser (honey and apple juice) with Buskey Cider, another neighbor down the street in Scott’s Addition.

Bill says, “Collaborations work because of relationships with other people, and they work because you’re bringing high end ingredients and techniques together.” Collaborations have worked so well for Black Heath that they can now call them “award-winning.” Their Blue Angel Cyser, fermented with apple juice from Scott’s Addition neighbor Blue Bee Cider, took home a gold medal in the 9th annual Mazer Cup International mead competition. A new batch will be available this Fall. 
Bill’s plans for collaboration aren’t the only thing Black Heath is working towards. Once they are able to harvest 51 percent of their honey from their own hives, which they hope will happen for the first time this year, they’re looking to be designated a farm winery, which means they can sell mead by the glass in their tasting room and sell bottles at farmers markets. When you consider that each batch of mead uses 500 pounds of honey, and Cavender makes two batches a month, that is a lot of honey.
It’s all worth it because Richmond is a good place to build a following around this niche market. Cavender notes the support in Richmond for craft beverages and the availability of good local products, plus the fact that he, his wife, and their daughter consider Richmond home.They hope to continue bringing the good word of mead to the community, and plan to keep working to make the craft beverage scene in Virginia a sweet, vibrant one.