"You can grow grapes, you can grow hops, you can grow wheat, and you can grow potatoes to make vodka, but honey is something that’s up to the bees. It’s something sacred…mead is always going to stay like that."
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY Eva Rendle
“It’s easier to make than beer, it doesn’t make you fat, and it doesn’t give you a hangover,” Vince Carlson tells me while chopping tomatoes on his kitchen counter. He is a tall man, with shaggy blonde hair pulled back in a bandana. His hands are dirty from working outside and he talks openly and easily to me, like I’m an old friend. Freshly canned vegetables line the counter, pieces of cured pork hang from the ceiling, tonight’s dinner simmers in a slow cooker next to the sink, and a chunk of honeycomb sits in a jar near the stove. I’ve driven out to Vince’s farm in Eastern Washington to talk with him about his meadery, Adytum Cellars.
Vince has been keeping bees since he was a teenager, living on a Hawaiian army base. He stopped when he went to college and became an architect, but says that the bees seemed to follow him. “I’d go to a job site and there’d be a swarm of bees in the bushes, or someone would have a set of bees in their house I was remodeling. So I would get them and I was back to raising bees again.” He started making mead later, after a trip to the mountains with a group of home brewers. Someone handed him a Dixie cup full of a sparkling peppermint mead, and the rest is history. He began experimenting with small, five gallon batches until friends suggested that he should start selling it. Operating out of his property in Woodinville, Washington, he got a license and started Adytum Cellars. That was fifteen years ago. Since then, he left his successful architecture career and moved to a small farm outside of Yakima in order to spend more time with his family.
When he is finished chopping tomatoes and putting them in the oven to roast, Vince takes me on a tour of his farm. He has a pear orchard, chickens, ducks, turkeys, sheep, raspberries, a sprawling garden, and more pigs than he knows what to do with. We come across multiple bands of piglets roaming the property. He ferments his mead in a shed in the middle of it all, and ages it in a cellar under his barn. He explains to me that everything has a purpose here. The birds eat the moths so they don’t infest the orchard, the sheep eat the grass so it doesn’t overgrow, and the bees pollinate the pear trees and the raspberries, turning the nectar into honey.
Mead is easier to make than beer, but it is much more complex. Vince describes himself as a purist. He makes his by fermenting a mixture of honey, water, and sometimes fruit, then aging it for at least five years. Vince sources his honey from all over the state of Washington, depending on which floral source he is seeking for a given batch. “One year I got orange blossom honey from a farmer’s market in California,” He explains, “Oh man… that orange citrus oil is in flower, so it stays even when you ferment it. You can smell the orange and you can taste it. Just beautiful.”
He lets me try two of his meads. One is a light, plain variety and the other is made with cherries. The first is crisp and refreshing. It tastes faintly like honey, but it’s not sweet. The second is rich and balanced, like a red table wine. “Aren’t they beautiful?” He asks, drawing out the ‘u’ sound. They are. So why isn’t mead more popular?
Vince did well when he had a tasting room in Woodinville, because he caught a lot of the winery crowd. But he says that people would often hear the words “honey wine” and turn around. “It’s kind of funny, the snobbery,” he says, “You’ll notice when people describe grape wines… they use all of the things that I make as descriptors. So when you make this great merlot you’re trying to get hints of cherry, blackberry, or currant and it’s like, you know, that’s what we make. We are the orchestra.”
Honey is also more difficult to come by than other ingredients. It can only be harvested during a certain time of year, usually July and August, and can’t be procured on a massive scale. After the flowers bloom in the spring, the bees begin collecting nectar, which they eventually condense into honey. “You can grow grapes, you can grow hops, you can grow wheat, and you can grow potatoes to make vodka, but honey is something that’s up to the bees,” Vince explains. “It’s something sacred… I just think mead is always going to stay like that.”
I left the farm in the early afternoon. The butcher showed up and Vince had to get back to work. As I pulled off the dusty dirt road onto the highway, a huge semi sped past me. It was piled high with neatly packaged hops, ready to be delivered to the nation’s ever expanding collection of microbreweries. Their pungent smell flooded my car. The highway wound through Yakima’s dry, desert hillsides, which were speckled here and there with sprawling vineyards and orchards. Every few miles a sign would direct me to a different winery. I couldn’t help but appreciate Adytum Cellars a little more. Maybe it’s okay that mead stays small. A well-kept secret, dictated by bees instead of men. Maybe some things are meant to stay sacred.
Eva Rendle is a writer and photographer based in Seattle, WA. A lover of food, farming, and travel, her work explores the geography of food and aims to bridge the gap between farm and table. To see more, visit www.evarendle.com.