New mead business arrives in Middlebury
Every time you buy a bottle of mead, you’re supporting your local pollinators.
— Alex Apfel
MIDDLEBURY — Alex Apfel wants to add a new flavor to Addison County’s growing assortment of adult beverages that includes beer, wine, whiskey and hard cider.
Mead — also known as “honey wine.”
Apfel recently earned permission from the town of Middlebury to make 8 Elm St. the headquarters of Golden Rule Mead. His plan calls for using the building — which most recently hosted the Parlour salon — as a tasting room with small retail outlet for his product and a place to conduct “small-scale experimental brewing” of his mead. He stressed, however, that the bulk of Golden Rule Mead will continue to be produced at the Artesano Meadery in Groton, Vt.
If all goes well, Apfel hopes to also use 8 Elm St. to “showcase local musicians and artists” and provide “meeting spaces for discussion/craft/meditation groups,” according to his application to the town.
Mead will be served in tasting flights as well as by the glass (8 ounces or less) on-site, as well as in both pre-filled and refillable containers for takeaway. Food options will be limited to items like prepackaged crackers, with honeys and jams from local apiaries and orchards.
Apfel, who grew up in Colorado Springs, just turned 30. But don’t let his youth fool you. His already ample resume includes stints at several breweries.
He arrived in Vermont during the fall of 2015, to take a job as a brewer with Middlebury’s Otter Creek Brewing. He had been working in the same capacity at a small place called Davidson Brothers Brewing Co. in Glens Falls, N.Y.
Apfel had developed an interest in brewing while scrubbing dishes in Colorado at the Boulder Beer Co., one of his first gigs after graduating from Bucknell University. He got to hang out with the Boulder brewers, and eventually made his way onto the packaging line.
But he found opportunities for advancement limited, so Apfel left Boulder and moved with his family to upstate New York in 2014. He landed a job as assistant brewer for Davidson Brothers Brewing.
Again, he got restless because he didn’t feel like he was having a big enough role in the final product.
“I did everything but brew,” he said with a wry smile, noting the irony of his Davidson title.
Instead of getting disillusioned, Apfel got determined.
“That was the point I developed a work ethic,” he said.
He scanned the marketplace and landed a job as a shift brewer at Otter Creek Brewing. Specifically, he made “wort” — which is the liquid extracted during the mashing process of brewing.
Apfel looks back fondly on his time spent at the Exchange Street brewery.
“I learned all about the brewing process; I got a crash course,” he said, adding he worked his share of night shifts.
Unfortunately, Apfel was among those laid off from the brewery in early 2017.
But he remained dedicated to beer making, and found work as a senior shift brewer at Fiddlehead Brewing Co. in Shelburne.
CHANGE OF BEVERAGES
By the spring of 2019, Apfel yearned to strike out on his own. He left Fiddlehead in May of that year. He wanted to remain in the beverage industry, but with a twist. He was going to make mead.
“Continuing to make beer wasn’t appealing to me,” he said. “I started looking into alternative fermentations, and mead was a low hanging fruit.”
Mead’s main properties are honey and water — a liquid canvass that can be embellished with fruits, teas, spices, grains and hops. It’s much simpler to make than beer and requires less time and effort — which is important for a one-person operation like Golden Rule. It’s a fairly simple infusion process, working with temperatures of up to 100 degrees.
“(Mead) is very light, compared to beer,” Apfel said. “With mead, I’m starting with honey and taking off the bulk of it, which allows me to create a more nuanced end-product.”
Apfel started experimenting with his own recipes, and forged a relationship with Artesano Meadery. He credited Mark and Nicole Simakaski, the owners of Artesano, for helping him “make my dream to come true.”
While the craft beer industry is getting more and more crowded, there are only around 500 mead makers in the country right now, according to Apfel. The industry started to take off in 2010. So there’s a better chance for a good mead to distinguish itself amongst the more limited competition.
And the craft beer industry has provided a template for mead makers to follow.
“Mead making… has the benefit of the craft beer industry coming first,” he said. “We’ve already had an incredible introduction made for us by the craft beer industry.”
While mead is showing promise and could find a nice niche in the beverage market, it will never be as ubiquitous as beer, Apfel conceded.
“Beer is also inherently less expensive to make,” he said. “Grain — your primary alcohol source — is at least five times less expensive than honey.”
Apfel uses only Vermont wildflower honey. His suppliers include several Addison County apiaries. Among them: Champlain Valley Apiaries, Dancing Bee, and Kirk Webster of New Haven.
“Every time you buy a bottle of mead, you’re supporting your local pollinators,” he said.
He noted honey has healthful properties, as do some of the teas, fruit and other products Apfel uses to enhance the flavor profile of his mead.
Mead is also naturally gluten-free and has fewer calories than beer. The sugar is cooked out, so it’s lighter on the system.
He currently has around 10 recipes. He’s put out four varieties thus far. The latest include Twig and High Mountain Tropics.
Apfel’s previous releases include “Local Hopper” — which includes hops grown in Starksboro — as well “Cori Rose,” infused with organic herbs. Both were made with honey from Champlain Valley Apiaries.
“I’m open to any combination of ingredients,” he said.
Golden Mead sold its first kegs in November, and began selling bottles at the Middlebury Winter Farmer’s Market in December.
Fans can currently find it at the natural food co-ops in Middlebury and Rutland, Middlebury Discount Beverage, and The Bobcat Café & Brewery in Bristol. He also sells it at the Wednesday farmers’ market in Middlebury and the Saturday farmers’ market in Rutland.
Apfel is hoping Golden Rule will become a commercial success — not only for himself, but also for area apiaries.
“Our ultimate goal for our business… is to put our shoulders to the wheel of responsible apiculture and support local pollinators,” Apfel wrote in his application for 8 Elm St. “Part of achieving this goal will be to act as a partner and forum for leaders in apiculture, which goes beyond insisting on using responsibly raised Vermont honey to create a reliable financial basis for local producers.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
It’s often been said that many hands make light work, and that’s certainly the idea behind … (read more)
When Middlebury voters endorsed a local option tax back in 2008, they saw it as a means by … (read more)