Greg Fischer, owner of Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery in Chicago, IL, recently took time out of his busy schedule for a phone interview with Mead Buzz. We greatly enjoyed gaining some insight into Greg's world, and the impressive wealth of knowledge and experience which has built it. We hope you enjoy learning more about his journey as much as we have!
Mead Buzz: Where and when was your first taste of mead?
Greg Fischer: Probably 1972 or '73. Roger Morse, a professor at Cornell University, started raising bees at my uncle's apple orchard so I became really interested in bees and wanted to learn everything about it. I took a course with my dad at Cornell and Roger Morse had made some mead. Of course, at that time I couldn't really drink it but I did taste it. It was pretty good, but I didn't think 'Oh, I've got to make this my life's path.' My grandfather made wine in his basement and, around 1975, my dad and I were making a lot of wine together. We thought that since we raised bees that maybe we should try making some of this mead stuff. We made some and it was just god awful. We probably let it ferment out all the way dry and it just did not have a good flavor. We thought maybe for a nomad it would be just fine, but it was not for us.
But I got into wine making quite a bit and began studying it - so then it was bees and wine. I traveled around the country doing commercial beekeeping in between colleges and was studying agriculture. I was studying bees, but noticed that the wine industry looked a lot nicer than the bee industry; a much more inviting career choice. I worked in the wine industry for many years, more on the marketing side, and was going all around the country studying wine. I was transferred from New York to Chicago to run the Chicago market for Seagram Classics Wine Company. Later, the company reorganized and I was kind of cut out of a job. I could have had a job, but would have needed to move somewhere else and didn't really want to move from Chicago. After I left them I began doing some home brewing. My wife had her own business, so we were doing that for a while. We have a home brew club called Chicago Beer Society, and it was probably in the early 1990's that I tasted a cranberry mead this guy had made and it just knocked my socks off. Finally, I tasted some really good, not too high alcohol, mead. It was just a really good melomel, it was fantastic! So I said, 'Well I'm still into bees and I'm still into wine, and there's no market there', so this was a great market opportunity for a great product. Around 1995 is when I first thought mead is what I should pursue, and I spent years studying it. We got our first meadery license under Wild Blossom around 2000. It took some time to make a couple batches, find out what works and what doesn't work. Under Seagram Classics I wasn't making wine, I was a sales manager for them. So my thought is it isn't hard to make good wine, but it's hard to sell good wine. There's a lot of wine out there and selling takes skill. If you can get the sales down then you can just make it and sell it. If you can make it, but don't know how to sell it, well...that's the hardest part.
MB: How long ago did you begin keeping enough bees to produce honey for your meadery? Obviously, it takes a lot.
Greg: Not really. I've been keeping bees since 1969 and we made, and sold, honey so it wasn't hard to go commercial. When I started the company I decided to first raise some bees, so I built up to about 30 hives to keep it going. It was a good starting point, but we were still doing things on a pretty small scale.
MB: Tell us about the origins of the Wild Blossom name.
Greg: We were thinking of all kinds of different names; just bits we liked. We mostly pollinate wildflowers, we're not out doing pollinations, so that's where that came from. I like the word "wild" so I figured we'd tone it down with "blossom". I think my wife probably came up with it.
MB: You have a wonderful S'mores Bochet. We've found bochets are rather uncommon. Do you think that's because they are more involved, more of a pain to make, due to the process?
Greg: Yeah, this is the first time we made it, but we were pleased to find it came out pretty good. It was fermented in a bourbon cask. We do a full year of age in a bourbon cask before we release it, so it's not something we can just knock out real quick. As far as the bochet process, if you caramelize the honey just right it does add a nice flavor to it.
MB: What's the first mead you usually recommend to new customers, with no mead experience?
Greg: I usually push them toward the traditional meads. We have a traditional dry called Blanc De Fluer and we have a traditional sweet called Prairie Passion. We try to start them there before throwing them on fruits. You might tell them to try the blueberry, because you really like it, but then find out they hate blueberries. So the traditionals are a good jump-off point, and then people can go either way.
MB: What's your personal favorite?
Greg: Whatever is in my glass *laughs*
MB: That's fantastic! How do you go about finding inspiration for new recipes?
Greg: I really don't need any inspiration, I need inspiration to NOT create new meads.
MB: So you need someone to rein you in?
Greg: Yeah, there are so many new ideas! I could come up with thousands of recipes. The fun part about being a home mead, or wine, maker is coming up with the fun ideas. With the commercial market you have to worry about how you're going to sell it, how you're going to do it. On the home level you're more of an artist and can say, 'Hey, let's try this, or try that.' We still do a lot of experimentation but we more have to figure out what we're NOT going to make, not what we ARE going to make. The thing I love about mead is that there are so many different varieties. We're pushing nearly 20 different types. So, back to the question, mead is what inspires me.
MB: Do you have any new meads on the horizon that we can look forward to?
Greg: We're doing a lot of barrel-aged pyments and are still toying on where to go with it. I've come up with some really nice, bold, dry, red pyments, fermented with honey, and you can really compare them right next to a nice shiraz, cabernet, or malbec. I can sweeten them up, too, and make them more of a sweet pyment, so I'm trying to decide where they should go. My inspiration for that is I have a lot of red wine drinkers who come in, try mead, and say, 'Well, no I don't want that, I just want a really big, red wine, I don't want to drink this fruity, white zinfandel type wine. I'm past that.' So I developed this nice, bold red and am going to barrel-age it for a year in French oak. They really are nice and compare well with a good cabernet, with softer tannins and a bit more floral characters. It's good. If I gave it to somebody, and they didn't know, they would say it was different, but wouldn't say 'Oh, it's one of those honey wines' because it's so much like a cab or shiraz. So that's the thing I'm pushing for, so I can grab all those red wine drinkers and get them drinking mead.
MB: That's something you've mentioned before, a desire to bring mead more into the main stream. Different meaderies have taken a different approach to attempting that, such as including braggots in their line-up to pull in the craft beer drinkers. So is that your plan, to convert the traditional wine drinkers?
Greg: Yeah, so they can't just say they've had mead once and don't like it. Braggots are another idea we want to expand on and the new operation will have a brewing license, but the laws are so screwed up. We've made some really nice braggots. I have a couple in a keg right now that are so good. They're right up there with the Belgian tripels and all that other stuff, so that's another area of the market that's going to take off.
MB: It's amazing how just adding that one malt ingredient creates an issue to where you need a whole other license, and have to go through a whole other process, to create a beverage.
Greg: It almost proves that there is something good there, because if it wasn't then they wouldn't have a law on it.
MB: *laughs* This is true. Something we've noticed with regard to mead's presence in the main stream, maybe even just over the last 6 months or so, is that it suddenly has its own signage in stores. We would normally walk in and head for the dessert wine aisle, but more recently are finding that mead has its own category. Are you seeing the same thing?
Greg: Yes, I've been working with Binny's, which is our main store here in Chicago. I have a really good relationship with one of the main buyers there and he's all about doing mead. He's the one that said he'd put a whole category in for us, with signage in every Binny's store. They have 10,000-20,000 square foot stores, which now all have mead sections.
MB: We recently went to a Binny's and picked up some of your stuff. As always, we headed for the dessert wine section and couldn't find it. We finally asked a worker there, who told us to check the 'Mead' aisle. We looked up and the hanging sign actually read "Mead". We were pretty excited. It's getting there.
Greg: Yes it is, big time. Our sales reflect it. Still, there's that educational curve where people don't know what mead is. But we just did a festival with a bunch of wineries and breweries, and right next to us was another local winery which makes great wine, has about 5 different locations, and has been around here for a long time. The line for our table was 100 yards back. Their table barely had a line. People would try their stuff and move on. I think that mead is just really inspiring people. Now they've heard about it and want to taste it. Because it was so hot, we were doing mead slushies and my little machine couldn't keep up. I have a two bag machine, and as fast as I could fill it up and let it freeze they would suck it right down and I'd try to fill it back up again.
MB: Mead slushies are great in the summer time! So what would you say your biggest challenges have been and/or will continue to be in trying to bring mead more into the main stream?
Greg: Trying to get into restaurants. If you finally get into one and they give you a mead section, it will do really well. But sometimes they just write it off, don't promote it at all, and kind of bury it. Right now there are so many different new craft beverages out there with all the new beers, pale ales, just all of the new stuff. Everything from craft tequila to just the whole beverage market. I've been in the market for a long time and, 15-20 years ago, I had the same attitude - 'Damn, the market's all full. There's no room!' It takes me for a ride. I didn't know there would be so many more varieties. It would be great if the mead section could open up as much as beer and there would be these major mead sections. I think there could be, looking at what the response was at our festivals, with new people tasting it and hearing them say 'This is my new favorite beverage'. I think we're a small craft beverage operation, just like most everyone, so we don't have the leg of a constellation of brands, doing a massive advertising push. Maybe that's what it would take? It's what happened to ciders. 10-20 years ago it was...."Cider?"... A few places would have a couple of them, but it was one of those buried items. People liked it, but it never went anywhere. When the really big guys got into it, that's what really pushed cider through the roof. We'll have to see. I think the biggest challenge is the noise in the market with everything else, all the other products.
MB: And as you said, that's where branding and marketing become so important. How do you stand out amongst the sea of competition?
Greg: What gets me is there's such a push for sustainability and natural, healthy products. I think mead is that product. You can't get any more sustainable than mead. It's carbon negative, not carbon positive, and is a natural, healthy product. We're trying to put that message out there. Sometimes I feel like it connects, other times I feel like I'm yelling and nobody's hearing me. *laughs*
MB: Where do you think your passion for nature and the environment comes from?
Greg: I've always had a love for nature. I grew up in the country and there's nothing better than being out on top of mountains. It's just so beautiful! Seeing how the environment is getting so trashed, I think about what I can do as a person to elevate the environment rather than bringing it down. I think what we're doing right here is a way to do that. Showing people the beauty of nature, versus taking away from it.
MB: Is that the experience you're trying to create with the new space - bringing people more to place of peace, quiet, and communing with nature a bit more?
Greg: Yes, versus crazy, loud bars. As much as I like the mead hall feel, with dancing, drinking, and all of that, I'm more about relaxing and enjoying the sun. With the new place, we're popping the whole roof up, everything is glass, so we're bringing that whole outside environment to the inside. We're nestled right in the forest preserve, so you open up the doors and all you see is forests and trees. You're watching eagles soar, at night you can hear the owls, and in the morning you have deer in the yard. There's a bike trail where you can bike up to 30-40 miles on paths along the river. You'll be able to do a lot of things, rather just walking in and hearing loud music. I mean, I don't mind loud music, but would rather keep it more mellow.
MB: That sounds great! You're preparing to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help with the new facility. Talk about that.
Greg: I may push the button there tonight. I'm going on a trip the Canary Islands in a week or two and will have a lot of time on planes and traveling all over, so I think it's a great time to launch right before all of that. I won't have all the business stuff taking me away so I can really concentrate on it.
MB: You originally had a September opening date for the new space - is that still the plan?
Greg: September is still looking pretty realistic. We're still waiting for permits and such, but the construction is moving along really well. We're laying out a lot of our tile right now, which is looking really phenomenal. I'm trying to do a lot of honeycomb themes in our production area, with these great industrial warehouse tiles, which are all in the shape of honeycombs, and are a golden honey color. They're going to make our production space look great.
MB: Is the grand opening of the new space contingent upon the success of the Kickstarter?
Greg: No, we'll do it one way or another. If the Kickstarter is successful then we can do some really cool stuff. I can hire the right people to do the landscaping and put the wildflower gardens in, versus me trying to do it with my pick and shovel. *laughs*
MB: Is there anything else you would like people to know about your Kickstarter campaign? What's the main takeaway you hope to leave people with?
Greg: I think the Midwest is going to be the mecca for mead. The West coast has its grape wine, and California and Washington state are always going to be known for grape wines. The East coast seems more beer-oriented, and the Midwest is more on the verge of the mead explosion. I always looked at mead-making as being half wine-making, half beer-making, so I would say wine is made in a vineyard, beer is made in a brewery, and mead is made in both the apiary and the brewery or meadery. It just happens that the Midwest is in the middle of both wine and beer. We're the prairie state, and I guess the Midwest is the prairie part of the country, which has a lot of really phenomenal, multi-floral, sources of honey. Mead is going to be a main force in beverages. As a company, we want to be on the forefront to lead the way and turn people on to really good mead.
MB: We think what you're doing is really great. We've visited quite a few meaderies and haven't come across a set up quite like what yours will be. It's really unique and is going to stand out.
Greg: Yeah, you should definitely try to come out for our grand opening and see what we're doing out here. I've been working on this for 30 years now. It's been a fun journey and is just getting better and better.
Wild Blossom's Kickstarter campaign has launched and we hope you will consider supporting it. Every little bit will help to make this beautiful space even better!
Wild Blossom meadery will ship to your door! Visit www.wildblossommeadery.com and fill your basket with some of their fine meads. You can't go wrong!
Many thanks to Greg for taking the time to chat with us. We cannot wait to visit the new space!