Gregory Wilhelm, the 28-year-old owner of Royal Meadery, drew a few samples of mead Thursday morning from two white barrels in the back of his 900-square-foot meadery and tasting room in Richmondville as he explained what got him into the business.
“About six years ago I was home-brewing beer and I wanted to produce as many of my own ingredients as possible,” he said. “I was growing fruit, hops, and I decided to make honey beer, so I bought one beehive. From there, I was hooked. Over the years, I’ve gotten more and more beehives. I became overloaded with honey, so what do you do? You make a lot of mead.”
Right now, he’s distilling about 1,000 gallons of mead, or honey wine, at three pounds of honey per gallon. That’s more honey than he can produce, so he buys it from other New York state farms that share his organic values.
His company joined the START-UP NY program in April, promising to create seven new jobs, invest $225,000, and partner with SUNY Cobleskill on student internships. The START-UP program allows eligible new, expanding or out-of-state businesses to operate tax-free for a decade if they locate near participating colleges and universities.
Royal Meadery is one of six companies opening or expanding in the SUNY Cobleskill sphere, promising a total investment of more than $40 million and 315 new jobs.
“START-UP NY’s a great program because it’s bringing a ton of jobs to the county,” Wilhelm said Thursday. “And that’s really exciting because the county needs it.”
The program has faced criticism since a state report in April showed that it had created only 76 jobs in its first full year after $53 million was spent on marketing. But Wilhelm defended the program, saying job creation takes time.
“It would be great if I had $1 million and I could grow this at a faster rate,” he said. “This is my savings, loans. It’s a slow process. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Wilhelm developed his business plan throughout his three years at SUNY Cobleskill, which he finished this spring. The plan took third place in 2014 and second place in 2015 in the annual New York Business Plan Competition.
Right now, he’s running the meadery single-handed with the help of family and friends, but said he plans to start hiring in the fall.
The company will produce small batches to sell from its own tasting room as well as to local wine stores and restaurants. The staple New York Nectar, a semisweet mead that showcases local honey, will be joined by more daring varieties like New York Apple Pie — made with apple cider, honey, cinnamon, and vanilla bean — and Mumfords Melomel, a berry-based mead that Wilhelm describes as a good “bridge” mead for red wine drinkers.
“It’s definitely something you can experiment with,” he said. “A lot of people just sell a traditional mead. It’s honey, yeast and water. That’s great, but there’s so many different flavor profiles and categories you can get into, and it’s really good to experiment and produce something that maybe some other people don’t have. We’re doing a pineapple mead aged in rum barrels, we’re going to put coconut in there. Not a traditional style, but we think it’s a fun, trendy flavor profile.”
The surge in the craft beer industry, especially in New York, has carried things like craft spirits and cider — and now mead — in its wake. Wilhelm said mead is the fastest-growing category of alcoholic beverage in the country, but there are still only about 150 meaderies in the U.S. and about seven others he knows of in New York.
“Every day there’s a new one,” he said. “It’s a growing trend.”
Unlike beer brewing, which at a commercial level comes with fairly complex equipment, producing mead is mostly a matter of mixing the ingredients, carefully controlling variables like temperature and oxygen levels, and waiting.
Each batch, he said, takes about three months from start to finish. He started his debut meads in January, and now he’s working on his fall lineup.
“This is simple,” he said. “It’s no heat. We mix everything together, start the fermentation. So it’s a lot less capital to get started.”
As part of the START-UP NY program, Royal Meadery will offer internships for SUNY Cobleskill students, likely in partnership with the university’s new fermentation science program.
“Hopefully this could give [students] a little experience and direct them to pursue their passion,” Wilhelm said. “For me, this is something I’m very passionate about and I love sharing it with other people.”