For most people, the Vikings are ancient history.
For Duanesburg resident Peter Voelker, they’re an inspiration.
While reading Norse history and mythology, Voelker decided to try making mead — a honey wine mentioned in the works of philosophers such as Aristotle, the epic poem “Beowulf” and stories about the Vikings’ voyages, battles and eventual migration to Iceland.
“I’d never had mead before,” recalled Voelker. “And, no, what I made wasn’t good. But I thought, ‘What can I do to make it better?’ ”
Over the years, Voelker has slowly perfected his mead, and last fall began selling it in area wine and liquor stores in a distinctive-looking bottle that highlights the drink’s rich and ancient history. The label features a picture of a black-clad, solitary Viking clasping a sword, a horned metal helmet perched atop his head.
Voelker believes his mead is the best out there — and his website suggests he has plenty of confidence in his product.
“I have forgone the usual wine competitions and tastings for my mead,” he writes on the site. “I will not allow a panel of judges to swirl, sniff and sip just to tell me how great it is. I already know there is no better.”
He also touts his personal connection to the Vikings, noting he is a descendent of the monarch who unified Norway, King Harald Airhair.
“To me, I’ve got the best mead you could ever taste,” said Voelker, 43, whose day job entails working as a compliance manager for a power plant. Most meads, he said, are flat and almost sickeningly sweet, lacking the complexity and vibrant natural flavors a good mead should possess. “A mead is supposed to be big, bold and tasty,” he said. “It’s got a punch.”
Voelker’s mead has impressed those who have tasted it.
Albany resident Greg Back recently visited Helderberg Meadworks and described the experience on his blog, In the Name of Beer.
“It’s delightful,” Back wrote, of Voelker’s mead. “There is a raw and feral quality to it that is completely lacking in any other mead I’ve tried. It is unrefined, but in exactly the way that works for me. The honey shines through brilliantly, and the floral aroma that Peter is looking for is present both on the nose and in the strong sweetness up front. It isn’t a sugar bomb at all, but instead there is raw honey in the initial taste that is tempered by oak notes at the back end. Sipping the mead, I feel a link with my European ancestors in the sense that this a strong and ancient beverage, but I also feel close to the farmers and the processes of nature, so apparent in the delicacy of this mead. This mead is truly a product thousands of years in the making, and a true testament to the ingenuity and innovation of the little guys, who are currently stealing the show all over the state.”
In an email, Back said he think Voelker’s mead is special because “it is made in such small, artisan batches from local honey. … There is a great deal of mass-produced mead that completely forsakes the raw honey in favor of what is artificially sweetened and, essentially, what is cheap. Most other meads, if you get a chance to try them, are super sweet, low in alcohol and therefore thoroughly uninteresting. There is also the fact that the Helderberg’s mead is intentionally unaltered by more modern processes that would strip it of all of its magic.”
For Voelker, the process of making mead begins with Ole McDonald Honey Farm in Sharon Springs, which supplies him with raw honey.
“It takes about 600 pounds of honey to make 200 gallons of mead,” he said.
The Helderberg Meadworks is a small operation: Inside the garage are three 200-gallon tanks, a small electronic filter, a bottle filler and a corker. To start, Voelker dilutes the honey with water, adds yeast and lets the mixture ferment and age for several months; to make his mead more flavorful, he puts oak planks in the tanks. He then uses the filter to transform the initially cloudy concoction into a clear, golden elixir fit for bottling. Once that process is complete, he pumps the mead into a metal trough, where it is siphoned through a plastic tube into glass bottles, which are then corked and sealed with a wax-like polymer.
“The whole point is to make something very natural,” Voelker said.
He began making alcoholic beverages about 15 years ago when he started homebrewing.
He enjoyed the hobby, but as the local craft beer scene improved and better beers began coming on the market, he grew dissatisfied. “I found that I could just buy really good beer,” he said. “I began thinking, ‘So what’s next?’ ”
His interest in the Norse, whom he began reading about for fun, sparked his imagination.
Voelker’s mead has a high alcohol by volume content — between 15 and 16 percent.
This high ABV caused a some trouble with the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which doesn’t allow alcoholic beverages with an ABV of more than 14 percent to be classified as mead. As a result, Voelker removed the word mead from his label; his product technically falls into the beverage class known as “other than standard wine,” a category that includes wines made by blending different types of finished fruit wine.
Even so, local wine and liquor stores have no qualms about stocking Voelker’s product in their mead sections.
Christopher McCabe, assistant manager at Carman Wine & Liquor in Schenectady, said Voelker’s mead has been selling “quite a bit” since the store began stocking it about three months ago, alongside Bunratty Mead from Ireland.
McCabe said mead is more popular with younger shoppers.
“They like sweeter stuff,” he said.
Ralph Bonavist, co-owner of All Star Wine and Spirits in Latham, said he began stocking Voelker’s mead late last fall, after Voelker visited the store to pitch his product.
“It’s selling well,” he said. “Our customers seem happy with it.” He said his store sells about four meads, including one from Earle Estates Winery & Meadery in the Finger Lakes, but makes a point of pointing out Voelker’s mead to customers “because it’s high quality and made locally, and Peter is a good guy.”
Bonavist said Helderberg is the only meadery in the Capital Region that he’s aware of, and Back described Voelker as a trailblazer.
“With all of the intense focus around these parts on craft beer, I think mead is something that both wine and beer people can get behind and enjoy on its merits,” said Back, whose blog mostly focuses on beer but occasionally covers other topics.
Brian McDonald, owner of Ole McDonald Honey Farm, is also a mead maker, though he makes it for his personal consumption only. He said Voelker is the first professional mead maker he’s sold honey to, though he occasionally sells smaller jugs to people who make small batches for themselves.
McDonald makes a variety of meads and often uses fruits such as blackberries and pears for flavoring. He said he took up beekeeping about 10 years ago and started making mead shortly thereafter.
“I drink it at home with friends,” he said. “The quality of my mead has greatly improved.” He said mead is appealing because “you’re generally tasting exactly what the flowers are that produce the honey.”
McDonald said most of the people he talks to don’t seem to know what mead is — until he tells them that it’s a honey wine. “Then they go, ‘Oh, OK,’ ” he said.
A 2012 New York Times article suggested that mead is enjoying a renaissance.
“Now, from Portland, Me., to Portland, Ore., and from Alaska to Hawaii, mead’s reputation is being restored,” wrote reporter Michael Sanders. “This may be partly due to the explosion in styles of mead as its makers move past the sweet, slightly caramelized, honey-forward traditional mead of that Renaissance Faire. Today, you can find local meads dry-hopped and as flinty and sere as the bleakest unoaked Chablis; light summer quaffers with the freshness and subtle bubbles of a good prosecco; complex, multilayered dessert meads perfect with chocolate; even seasonal meads flavorered with saffron, sage, fruits or juniper berries.”
Asked whether he’d noticed an uptick in interest in mead, Bonavist said, “It’s picked up a little bit. The inquiries we get tend to be from the younger generation, from people in their late 20s or early 30s.” He added, “Most of the trends we see tend to take about three or four years to work their way up from Manhattan.”