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Imbibe: How Brewers and Distillers Are Helping Honeybees

As Mark Oberle and friends built the framework for their Southern California meadery, Meadiocrity, they often faced a sticky question: Where would they source thousands of pounds of honey for making mead?

From honeybees, of course. Instead of an aggregated mishmash of bulk honey, Meadiocrity resolved to use raw, unpasteurized honey from area beekeepers and the company’s own hives, a “bee to bottle” approach to making mead that remains today. The company tends to more than 120 hives across San Diego County, many placed around orange groves, no rent required.

It’s a rare win-win for humans, insects, and agriculture. Meadiocrity’s 6 million or so honeybees pollinate crops, then forage for pollen and nectar from the buckwheat, chaparral, sage, and wildflowers rising from fertile fields and hillsides. “We go into an existing ecology and put beehives down,” says Oberle, the mead maker and a co-founder. The company relocates beehives according to bloom patterns, the pollinators harvesting nature’s varied botanicals and transforming them into honey. Meadiocrity’s site-specific meads taste proudly of time and provenance, the essence of native orange blossoms infusing varietals such as Cultivated Native. “The honey we’re producing is coming from billions of local flowers,” Oberle says. No other sweetener can match honey’s bona fides, he says, “for being sustainable and supportive of the environment.”

Honeybees have flown into devastating headwinds. Since 2006, beekeepers have seen mounting cases of worker bees abandoning hives, an unexplained phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. America has lost more than 50 percent of its honeybee colonies since 1947, from an estimated 6 million to 2.8 million in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The declines directly threaten food supplies: More than 90 commercial crops depend on honeybee pollination, including almonds, pumpkins, blueberries, apples, and raspberries. “People don’t realize how many crops honeybees pollinate,” says Keith Seiz, the ingredient marketing representative for the National Honey Board. No bees mean no cider, blueberry ales, or blackberry Bramble cocktails. The honeybee’s agricultural importance always extends “beyond honey,” Seiz says.

In their quest to make memorable beers, spirits, wines, meads, and ciders, producers are stepping up to support honeybees. Arrowood Farm Brewery in New York state’s Hudson Valley hosts several local beekeepers’ hives to strengthen local populations, while the Napa Valley’s Caspar Estate winery houses 30 hives to pollinate its rose, vegetable, and herb gardens. Siponey makes canned cocktails featuring wildflower honey, then donates proceeds to honeybee nonprofits. And Caledonia Spirits in Montpelier, Vermont, partners with local beekeepers to produce raw honey, using it to make gin and vodka. “Our mission is to support and add value to agriculture,” says Caledonia’s president and head distiller, Ryan Christiansen.

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