Arsenal Cider House’s new production facility in Penn Hills is still under construction, with nothing produced yet inside the 17,000-square-foot warehouse. But outside, 110,000 workers are toiling away to create something that will one day end up inside Arsenal’s signature “daily rations” growlers.
“We’re on 2.7 acres here and we bought the building for production, so I’m thinking, what am I going to do with all this land?” said Bill Larkin, owner of Arsenal Cider.
Larkin recently installed 10 beehives behind the building and, along with production manager Andy Rich, is learning how to keep honeybees and harvest honey to create Arsenal’s own brand of hive-to-glass honey wine, called mead.
Each hive hosts about 11,000 bees, and Larkin said the total population will grow to about half-a-million over the next year, a nearly 400 percent increase.
“Right now we’re just feeding them,” he said. “Since they weren’t a colony when we installed them, we need to help them along to become a colony.”
Mead represents the fastest growing segment of the alcohol industry, according to Michael Fairbrother, president of the American Mead Makers Association and owner of Moonlight Meadery in Londonderry, N.H.
“It’s been explosive,” he said. “My company alone … has been growing on average 77 percent per year for the last five years.”
Dave Cerminara, owner of Apis Meadery in Carnegie, said he has had a similar experience in the two years he’s been in business.
“We haven’t been able to keep up with demand,” he said. Cerminara is working on a second facility which would increase his production capacity 10-fold.
Laurel Highlands Meadery opened its tasting room in Irwin earlier this year and Wigle Whiskey will begin selling mead at its new cider house, Threadbare Cider, set to open later this year.
According to the most recent state of the industry report from the AMMA, mead sales increased 130 percent from 2012-13. An updated report is currently in the works, and hobbyist mead maker and proprietor of the website Meadist.com, Paul Reiss, said he estimates that the number of commercial meaderies in the U.S. has increased about 40 percent per year for the last five years.
And that’s good news for bees, said Reiss, because most mead makers want locally and sustainably sourced honey.
“It’s absolutely something meaderies think about,” he said. “It’s good for the environment and good for bee populations to have more meaderies out there, because they rely on the honey and it provides more of a marketplace for the honey.”
Fairbrother buys his honey from Dutch Gold Honey in Lancaster, a company that sells only true-source certified honey.
“True-source certified honey is actually independently verifiable, traceable all the way back to the hive," Fairbrother said. "So, we know it’s not corn syrup-infused or otherwise tainted."
He said true-source certification is important to ensure that honey is free of impurities, but also so producers are paying the proper taxes and tariffs, which are earmarked to fund honeybee preservation efforts.
According to the National Honey Board, honey prices have nearly doubled – from $3.76 per pound to $7.12 per pound – since the advent of Colony Collapse Disorder in 2006.
CCD is a syndrome in which workers and drones abandon the queen and larvae inside of a hive. Scientists have yet to pinpoint the cause of CCD, and the number of managed hives lost due to the disorder has been on the decline since 2010. But that doesn’t mean bees are bouncing back. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2014 the beekeeping industry lost 40 percent of colonies due to parasites, pests, pathogens, poor nutrition, pesticides and CCD.
Last spring, the Obama administration released its Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators, with the goal of losing no more than 15 percent of honeybee colonies annually by 2025. Honeybees are responsible for about $15 billion in added value to agricultural crops each year, according to the USDA, and without them the supply of fruit, nuts and vegetables would suffer.
While mead still makes up the smallest portion of the alcoholic beverage industry, its rapid growth can be attributed to increased interest in gluten free alternatives to beer and the local food movement, said Reiss. Because mead is so simple to make – its main ingredients are honey, water and yeast – mead makers can keep it hyper-local.
“Who knows what it’s going to taste like coming from here,” said Larkin, gesturing to the weeds and wildflowers surrounding his hives. “It’s going to taste like this. It’s going to taste like this area.”
Mead is the world’s oldest fermented beverage. The chemical signatures of honey-based beverages were discovered in Chinese vessels dating back to 7000-6500 B.C., and the first written mention of mead was in the sacred Indian text the Rigveda from 1700-1100 B.C.
Fairbrother said, despite being the oldest alcoholic drink, it’s the least understood by the general public.
“People think it’s going to be sweet, but mead is very diverse,” he said. “It can be sweet, dry, semi-sweet. It can be carbonated, sparkling, it can be low in alcohol, strong, heavy in alcohol base. The reaction I see the most often when people try my meads is, ‘Wow, I never expected something to taste this good.’”