This is the first of what we hope will be many "Hive Highlights", where we sit down with the owners and mazers of meaderies across the globe to gain some insight on who they are, what drives their passion and how they go about creating their own personal brand of mead magic!
We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Maciej Halaczkiewicz, owner and award-winning mazer of Arktos Meadery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We arrived around 4 PM on a Saturday afternoon, right when the doors opened, and guests were already beginning to fill the bar stools. Thankfully, Maciej had a friend helping out who could take care of customers while we sat at one of the large wooden mead hall tables to chat with him.
Mead Buzz: Where and when was your first encounter with mead?
Maciej: Hmm…that's a good question. A church I used to attend served a golden beverage that I believe was honey wine. I never asked anybody or verified, but I think it was mead. The first introduction that I can verify came when my brother returned from a visit to Poland years ago and brought back a six year old bottle of mead, which he then aged another four years in the US. He heated up a bottle of that mead for me on a really cold winter day. That was my first memorable experience drinking mead.
MB: How long ago did you begin making mead?
Maciej: September 11, 2011 is when I made my first batch of mead. I called it my 9/11 batch.
MB: Wow; very interesting.
Maciej: No reason in particular, it just happened to be made on that day.
MB: And I assume it was something you just made in your house?
Maciej: Yeah. I had made alcohol before that on other occasions, just boiling fruit and using sugar and such. That was the first time I had actually decided to invest in equipment, not milk cartons, and make mead.
MB: What made you want to do this for a living? You obviously went to school for very different reasons, you were in the Navy, so what led you to this career path?
Maciej: I had fooled around with the idea in 2012 because I had some people who only drank things like Bud Light tell me my Queen Bee was amazing and that they wished they could get it in stores. So that kind of seeded the idea in my head. I didn't know when I was actually going to start, but decided in October of 2012 to begin the process of opening a meadery. That's when my brother passed away. He had gone to school for a business degree and really liked drinking mead. I contacted him the very day before he passed and said, 'Hey man, let's do it. I'll make the mead and you can run the business side.' I hate the business side. Ugh. So when he passed away, I guess I became determined to do it as quickly as possible. In 2013 I decided to test myself because I thought, 'I really need to find out if I should stop making mead; if it's worth my time opening this.' It was probably my third batch of Queen Bee; it was a year old and I had entered it into the Mazer Cup in the home brew competition and, while I didn't win a medal, it got really high scores. Some of the judges said that it was a "world class mead", like a really amazing sack mead. The competition was in March and the following December was when I really started to get involved with the process, researching what kind of licensing I would need, what kind of equipment, all of that stuff.
MB: When was Arktos officially founded?
Maciej: Arktos LLC was created on May 10th, 2013. Over that summer I tried to get the business opened in my friend's basement because I was living there and he had a little cellar. The feds approved it, but too much money would have been needed to put into his home to actually get the business started, so I never fully finished all of the paperwork for the state. I ended up holding off just a touch so I could find some property, which is the location we're in currently, for production. The feds had approved it, so I just transferred everything over here. It took me a year and a half because of all of my screw ups, but I didn't have a lawyer - everything was researched and done by me. I'm sure if I'd had a lawyer taking care of this stuff it would have been done in 6-9 months because that's how long the process should take. I began experimenting with a bunch of recipes and came up with Fairy Godmother, Black Stripe, and Three Bears. Mid-September of 2014 is when the final state licensing was approved.
MB: Tell me about the name "Arktos"
Maciej: I had been fooling around with names and things that I really liked. For some reason, I don't know why, I'm obsessed with bears. Specifically, Kodiak grizzly bears; they're ginormous and I want a real life teddy bear that's a Kodiak grizzly. So I started looking up words and names that mean "bear". Arktos is the origin for the Greek vernacular of "bear". There were different names, like "arktos", "arkadios", "arktaphonis", but I just wanted something simple. I know I'm Polish, but the Polish word for "bear" is too complicated for people to be saying over and over again. "Oh hey, let's go to Niedźwiedź Meadery." Yeah, I didn't think it worked. So Arktos sounded good, and really rolled off the tongue. I've done a lot of research on the origins of mead, and to my best knowledge, the oldest written history of mead making is Greek. They called it the "nectar of the gods" and since the word I wanted to use was "bear" and bears love honey, you know Winnie the Pooh and all of that, I thought it was really great fit.
MB: What has been the primary inspiration for your mead names and themes? There's a lot of nature, a lot of animals, each one has a story.
Maciej: Yeah. I super care about stories. I could have called this place "Maciej's Meadery" if I wanted to, or just called my bottles what they are - "strawberry mead" or this and that. I am lazily obsessed with folks tales and fairy tales from around the world. I always start off with 'what are the main ingredients in my meads?' Say, Black Stripe. It's been evolving, so it doesn't necessarily work like this anymore, but I'll think 'well, there's strawberries in Black Stripe so what kind of animals eat strawberries?' So I'll go and research that. Chipmunks sounded like a cool thing. There were a few other animals in contention; they all lost. I found a folk tale called How the Chipmunk Got His Black Stripes. I think there's a bear in the story that scratches the chipmunk's back which is how he got his black stripes, trying to get away from the bear. I asked my friend who designs the labels if he could draw me a chipmunk. I knew he was an artist, but didn't know he was this amazing. He drew the chipmunk and started designing the label. Obviously Queen Bee was the first one to go - I started with bears. I wanted my flag ship mead to somehow relate to bears. That's how it works. I pick an animal that relates to the fruit, I then come up with a folk tale that in some way or fashion is related to that fruit or animal, and connect it to the mead. I've used everything from Aesop's Fables to One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, folk tales from Guatemala, Native American folk tales, Grimm's fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, I mean all over the place. As long as it has some kind of fairy tale element.
MB: That is very cool. This is a more serious question. What are your thoughts regarding the current issues with honeybee colony collapse, especially as it pertains to mead-making?
Maciej: I am not a scientist, however I do believe that pesticides are the biggest reason for bee colony collapse. I think they're weakening bees, causing the parasites to gain easier access to killing them and they're dying or becoming crazy from the neonicotinoids. If I understand correctly, we're getting closer to having all those things banned. The EPA is finally acknowledging the fact that they're killing bees with the pesticides, so I think it's done. It's the same thing with climate change, right? Even if climate change isn't real, air quality and such could still be better by implementing whatever technology you need to improve the environment, so why not improve it? The same with pesticides. You don't need pesticides to grow all of these different crops. As a matter of fact, we have so many extra crops being made that we waste a lot of food, so why not just try to do it naturally? Why throw all of these disgusting chemicals on food that we consume and also kill all the animals?
MB: Yeah, there shouldn't have to be a villain involved for us to want to improve things.
Maciej: Right. Then again, without villains, there can't be any heroes. *laughs*
MB: What are some of the challenges mead makers face which don't typically apply to those who produce beer, grape wine, or spirits?
Maciej: Consistency in labeling seems to be really difficult. I understand the system now to where I pretty much get my labels done in one shot. I don't mind that I can't put "this has this much sugar from honey and this much sugar from fruit" and all of that. I don't need to get super detailed about it, it's not my priority, but there are some mead makers out there who think it's extremely important to put how much residual sugar is in their product so they can describe it better. In Europe a mead can have a super high abv percentage - 16%, 18%. Anything above 14% alcohol in the United States is no longer considered mead; you have to put "honey wine", which is the definition of mead, so I think "What's wrong with you guys?" I've had some labels approved that they let me call "mead" and some that they won't. I'll have two similar meads and one person will say I can call it "mead" and the other person has a different idea of the rules so they say "No", so you have to change stuff. So I've pretty much taken the guidelines of the strictest person I've had to deal with, and then conformed the rest of my labels so they can be consistent.
MB: So you'd say that's the biggest point of frustration which other makers of alcohol don't have to deal with?
Maciej: Yes. Another issue is with braggots. A braggot is a mead made with malt, but if you're making anything with malt you need a microbrew license. They're so closed-minded right now. It's wine makers, micro brewers, and distillers. I think if it relates to fermenting honey, where honey is the major sugar in the process, then it should be a meadery license. I'm willing to pay double for a meadery license that also covers my braggots. I just hate that I have to do the license twice. What's the point? It's going to be the same stuff, the same exact information I've already had to give to them, I'll need the same types of clean spaces, ventilation. It doesn't make sense that I should have to get two separate licenses.
MB: You're essentially a pioneer with regard to offering nitrogenated meads on tap. What kind of difference would one notice between a mead on nitro vs. Co2?
Maciej: I was actually surprised to hear that I was the first. Actually, another mead maker was upset that I came up with it first. He visited during my grand opening and was upset because he wanted to be the first one to do it.
MB: And you're not going to name names?
Maciej: Right. *laughs* First off, I thought 'Man, how do I put mead on tap?' Some things can be carbonated and it tastes good, like Enchanted Horse or Red Bear. Dryer stuff, some really fruity stuff, all tastes great carbonated; but a traditional, sweet style of mead such as Queen Bee would be really weird carbonated. So I wondered how to put it on tap so I don't have to keep pouring it out of bottles and nitrogen came to mind, which is the way stout is poured. I didn't know for certain what the effect was going to be. I assumed I might get that same creamy Guinness look to it, which happens, but it looks really weird because it goes from white to clear gold. So I bought some nitrogen, started playing around with it, tapped some Queen Bee just for myself, and it changed it in such an awesome way. The flavor is still there but now it's creamy and the texture feels really nice. I don't sound like a politician right now, do I? I'm answering all of your questions?
MB: *laughs* You're good. Your tasting room offers a "mixology" option - what's your favorite combination thus far?
Maciej: That's a good question. I've got to say it's Prince o' Pumpkins. I just think it has the best taste, mixing Fairy Godmother and the coffee of Cricket Song. I mean coffee - who would have thought it would work so well with mead? But then mixing a pumpkin pie flavored mead with a coffee mead? It works really well! It's probably the cinnamon and spices, because a lot of people do that with their coffee. Pumpkin lattes and stuff like that.
MB: Yeah, I really like Prince o' Pumpkins a lot. Which Arktos mead would you first recommend to someone who has never tried your products?
Maciej: Queen Bee. It will always Queen Bee for me. To some degree I'm a traditionalist. Before anyone tries my products I want them to know what my view of a tradition mead is. To me, a traditional mead is a sack mead that's really basic.
MB: So if someone walks in, has never tried mead before, that's usually your go-to.
Maciej: Yeah. If I do a flight or something it will always be 'try this one first.'
MB: What's one thing you feel sets Arktos mead apart from the competition.
Maciej: Well, I'll be a bit of a politician here. First I wanted to compete because I like competing, but every meadery is so different that it's hard for me to compare what I do to anything anybody else does. No one makes the exact same product. I guess I'd say I do more of a European style of mead making, which is more intuitive. I'm not a chemist and don't ever pretend to be. Although, I do plan to have a lab in my new facility just so I can do better measurements for things. I don't know, it's a tough question.
MB: One thing that stands out for us, with all of the different meads that we've tried, is that you seem to try to do everything more naturally, without the sulfites and such; you maybe try to do things more organically?
Maciej: It's true. When I can get a hold of large quantities of fruit that are organic, I'll do it. I'm totally against hangovers and I think the less chemicals you add to the product, the less chance of a hangover you have. I'm not going to say 'my mead doesn't give hangovers' because I'm sure a few people have had headaches, especially if you don't drink enough water. But somebody came in the other day and said "I drank six glasses of your mead at home and I thought I would wake up completely hung over, but woke up with an extra step in my foot." *laughs* I was like, "What?!" She said, "I didn't have a hangover or even a headache. I was up and ready to go."
MB: That's a good marketing point right there!
Maciej: Right! "Arktos Mead, for that extra step in your foot!" But you've got to be careful. I mean, I had the same experience. I drank two bottles of Queen Bee at a wedding once and I woke up the next day feeling fantastic and didn't even hydrate that much. But I always recommend drinking lots of water because I've had headaches due to complete dehydration the next morning. So yeah, the natural stuff. That's a good one.
MB: Aside from your own, what are some of your favorite meads?
Maciej: Moonlight Meadery makes really good meads. I'm not good with names, but have had three or four of them and they're good. You may have to look them up and we could narrow it down.
MB: Moonlight Meadery has about fifty meads at this point.
Maciej: Oh right. Wow. Well Michael Fairbrother isn't just a good mead maker, he's a really good guy too. He showed up to my first Wine, Beer and Food Festival in 2014 and was telling people to come down and try my Fairy Godmother. People would say, "The mead guy upstairs is telling me to come down and try your stuff". I'm not going to tell you what I don't like. I'd be listing those for days. A few years ago I toured a micro meadery in Poland called Pasieka Jaros. I actually think they're Poland's only micro meadery. It's owned by Maciej Jaros and his two sons, Marcin and Bartłomiej, who are all really awesome people. They showed me how they make mead and weren't hiding anything. A lot of mead makers are like, "my secrets, my secrets" but no, not them. So after going and having that experience from them - if anyone comes an asks me for advice or whatever, I'll let them know. I won't tell them my recipes but will explain the process or what I'm using.
MB: We've overheard you being very open with that information and have, honestly, wondered at it sometimes. You'll explain to someone how you got rid of the "home brew" taste in your mead and we've thought 'Why would you tell them that?' But you're confident in your product.
Maciej: Well, I'll tell you why. Even if I tell somebody something, they'll never be able to produce what I produce. I screw up so much in the process, which is probably why my mead tastes good, that you can't reproduce my process. I can't! But it keeps getting better every time, so every mistake I make I just double up on it next time and it works. Which is me. But I like that aspect of it because it makes it more interesting and I don't get all technical - 'Oh, I've gotta add four drops of this, five drops of that', it's all just feeling.
MB: Do you have any exciting new products on the horizon which we can soon look forward to?
Maciej: Great Bear is our black raspberry mead and the label was just approved, so that should be bottled sometime in February and I'll start selling it in stores. I also plan on bottling our pyment, Red Fox. It's set in stone and I'm going to try to make a little bit of that every year. I just have to figure out how bottling carbonated meads is going to work for me and how I'm going to design the bottles, because I can't cork it. I'll have to cap it. I just made another 45 gallon batch, so it should be back in the spring.
MB: Where do you see Arktos in five years? Any big plans in the works?
Maciej: I'm currently looking for a new building, so we'll have to see how that progresses.
MB: We will definitely want to follow up on that later, so please keep us posted!
MB: Okay, here are some fun rapid fire questions. Just say the first thing that comes to mind.
Which bear is best?
Maciej: Kodiak grizzly bear
MB: Favorite band or musician
Maciej: Damien Rice
MB: How many hours of sleep did you get last night?
Maciej: Ugh. Five and a half…maybe? Maybe three.
MB: Favorite story
Maciej: Oh man. Hold on, give me a second. That's so hard. The Native American story of the Great Bear.
MB: What's the best thing about living in Grand Rapids?
Maciej: Socializing in the tasting room. I don't go out much and socialize, so meeting all the people in the tasting room is awesome.
MB: Yogi or Baloo?
MB: Favorite TV show of all time
Maciej: It changes so often now. Uh...Cowboy Beebop
MB: Vikings or Steampunks?
MB: House Stark, Lannister, or Targaryen?
MB: Most hilarious mispronunciation of your name
Maciej: There's so many! "Marci" isn't super hilarious. "Ma-keej"? I got that. I hate anytime someone called me "Macy"; that's not even trying. But I think that "Ma-keej" was probably the most hilarious. (Note: It's actually pronounced MAH-Chay)
MB: Alright, so the most important question. Can I have some Fairy Godmother?
Maciej: *laughs* Yeah.
We want to thank Maciej for taking the time to sit down with us and wish him the best of luck with expansion! We will keep you posted on future progress. In the mean time, be sure to check out the Arktos Meadery tasting room, located at:
1251 Century Ave SW, STE 200, Grand Rapids, MI 49503.
Or visit the Arktos website and have bottles shipped to your door!