BURGAW — What was once the most popular drink in the world — just ask the Vikings — has been making a slow-but-sure comeback over the last decade, according to The American Mead Maker’s Association. Meaderies have been evolving fast since 2003, when only 60 existed in the U.S. By 2013, there were 200; by early 2016, 300. Today, the association counts 450.
Southeastern North Carolina will add to that list when Retro Meadery launches its own brand of fermented wine this summer. Co-owners Michael Fields, Daryl Benitez, and Matthew Clemmons are in the early stages of opening their Burgaw-based company and are eyeing the old Harrell’s Department Store, located downtown proper. The independently owned department store — popularly known as a filming location in “I Know What You Did Last Summer” — closed in 2020 after 117 years in business.
“We’ve been working with owner Vernon Harrell, who also sits on the town council,” Fields said. “So we’ve already been talking with them and with the permit and zoning departments, putting all these relationships together to make sure we’re successful.”
Retro Meadery is procuring funding now. Its three partners have launched a crowdfunding campaign on a community investors platform, which basically allows people to put money into their own communities instead of Wall Street. Made possible through the JOBS Act, Title III in 2016, it’s part of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Regulation Crowdfunding, which “enables eligible companies to offer and sell securities through crowdfunding,” according to the federal website.
People can invest in a company in their community and get paid back on their return. Fields breaks it down: If someone chooses to invest $100 in Retro Meadery, once it’s up and operational, the investor would receive $170 on his return. However, if the meadery’s goal isn’t met on the crowdfunding site — they’re at $16,600 of their $80,000 goal, with three weeks left — the money never transfers, and the company founders are back to the financial drawing board.
Fields said they won’t be set back too much if the crowdsourcing doesn’t work out; they are already in talks with UNCW’s business development team to secure a loan from a local bank to kickstart the operation. They expect startup costs to land between $80,000 and $100,000 to get the equipment, building and the shipping process firm.
One way or another, Retro Meadery is happening, Fields assured. The LLC was formed in December 2020.
A mead for every palate
Known as one of the first alcoholic beverages consumed by humans as far back as 1700-1100 BCE, mead was indulged upon by the Vikings and is often referred to as “the nectar of the gods” in Greece. It tends to have a high ABV. Retro Meadery will average around 13%, according to Fields.
Fields admitted he had not heard of mead until one of his partners, Benitez — who is Retro’s head meadmaker — decided to make a few batches of craft beer and invited Fields to join the homebrewing experiment. They bought a starter kit to play around with various concoctions, which also led to making fermented wine.
“The mead turned out pretty good,” Fields said.
The next time, instead of buying a kit, they crafted their own base of flavors from scratch. A passion was unearthed as they started researching meaderies in the U.S. When they realized the closest meadery was in Charlotte, the friends, who all work in IT, put together a business plan.
“One of our other friends was interested in the process and jumped on board with us, and through that we came up with some really good products,” Fields said.
The trifecta of millennials launching Retro Meadery are looking at their peers as the target market. “In doing our research, we are seeing millennials are getting into sweet, natural types of beverages,” Fields said.
Mead is a simple concoction of water, honey, yeast, and whatever fruits or spices are added for flavoring. “I mean, how much more natural can you get?” Fields asked.
The fermented wine tends to be a sweet beverage but can be made drier — it just depends on the amount of honey used. Fields said Retro uses three-and-a-half pounds per gallon for sweeter flavors and two-and-a-half pounds per gallon for dry flavors.
“The process is very simple: Add in your pounds-per-gallon of honey, then you add in your water, and then you add in the amount of yeast that you need for that tank size,” he explained.
It normally takes around 14 to 16 days for fermentation to begin. “And, depending on the recipe or ingredient you’re using, it can take one month to five months before bottling,” Fields said.
The partners have been creating flavors aplenty to test on family and friends over the last six months. Fields said the cinnamon mead has been a hit, made with a base of apple cider or apple juice, cinnamon and honey. The sweet orange-blossom flavor was nixed.
“It had more of a bitter bite to it and maybe was a little too citrusy,” Fields said. “The dry seemed to come out on top and was pretty good.”
They have toyed with a sangria flavor, raspberry, and of course, blueberry. “Burgaw is home to the Blueberry Festival, after all,” Fields said, adding that Retro will work with local farmers to procure blueberries.
As much as the company would like to source local honey, too, Fields explained it is just not feasible right now. “North Carolina doesn’t make enough honey and it’s too expensive at the moment,” he said.
Retro Meadery currently uses wildflower honey to make most of its meads. It would ring in around $140 per bucket from North Carolina, which wouldn’t work as Retro needs 55-gallon drums. “Honey is is really expensive, depending on what type you get,” he said.
“Blackberry and blueberry honeys are super rare and can run upward of $500 for a 5-gallon bucket,” Fields said for comparison.
They will be playing around with premium flavors, though — like raspberry, which is collected from bees gathering nectar from a raspberry plant.
“Avocado honey is a thing from Mexico,” Fields added, “and that actually tastes like molasses or licorice. We want to play around with it with a coffee mead we’re trying out, to see what kind of flavor we can get.”
They’re also working on an elderberry mead and have reached out to partner with Elderberry Tribe in Wilmington.
While premium flavors will produce more expensive bottles, Fields said Retro’s pricing will be competitive. Normally, 350 liter bottles sell for $30 and up; Retro will have 750 liters for $25, but price them up for premium flavors.
Hopefully, though, they will not depend on the market to dictate their flavors and pricing in the long-run. Fields said he and his partners already are assessing five- and 10-year goals for the meadery. Specifically, they want to buy land to grow their own flowering plants to cultivate hives and care for honey bees.
“We want to do honey tastings, too, from our own beehives, to have our own honey instead of having to purchase it and have it shipped to us,” he said.
First things first, getting the operation up and running. The partners have settled on an ’80s theme, featuring product names like “Cinnameade” (cinnamon meade), “Pacgria” (Pac Man meets white sangria) and “Bob Raspberry” (a play on the fruit with ’80s PBS artist and icon Bob Ross). They want to take over the bottom floor of Harrell’s Department Store first to produce and ship product.
Fields said they will evolve into opening a tasting room, which will also have live entertainment. “We’ll have retro movie nights and retro music video nights,” he said.
On the second floor, they envision an event space — but that won’t come until on down the road.
“Burgaw is growing,” Fields said. “They’re looking to revitalize the downtown area, to bring in more tourists to walk around, check out the stores, and we feel like we would be beneficial for that — being able to provide entertainment, drinks, and eventually within two to three years, possibly a bistro.”
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