The first time Greg Fischer tasted mead, he wasn’t entirely impressed. At the age of 12, he met a man who wrote a book on mead making, and he tried a little.
“It was okay,” Fischer says. “I mean, I wasn’t like, “Oh my God, this is great.”
Fischer went on to work in the wine industry for many years. He says mead wasn’t on his radar—it was perceived as a kind of “fringe, overly sweet” beverage. But when he attended a seminar on mead led by a cicerone (the equivalent of a sommelier for beer), the flavors blew him away.
“This is a delicious, wonderful beverage,” Fischer recalls thinking. “It took me about three seconds to figure out: I’m opening a meadery.”
Fischer is now the founder and president of Wild Blossom Meadery and Winery, located in Beverly right near the Dan Ryan Woods in an old baking warehouse. He started the business in 2000 as a home beer- and wine-making supply shop. They also produced their own mead, but couldn’t sell it, since Beverly was a dry community. Now, with the ongoing popularity of craft beverages, Wild Blossom has its own tasting room.
Mead is likely one of the world’s oldest alcoholic drinks since it’s made from honey, which can naturally ferment in the wild. It might date back as far as 7000 BC, with some evidence of a honey-based fermented beverage found in China from that time.
At Wild Blossom, which has its own bee hives, raw honey is mixed with water and yeast to ferment, turning the honey’s sugar into alcohol. Fruit and spices are added to the liquid in another fermentation tank, where it sits for a month. It then spends another month in a wine press before being moved to a settling tank, where the sweetness can be adjusted.
Although mead is its own class of alcohol, Fischer describes mead as “halfway between a beer and a wine.” A good mead, Fischer says, has similar qualities to a good dry wine—some fruit, some crispness, and a clean finish.
When it comes to those flavors, there’s a lot of room for creativity.
“That’s what I love about it,” Fischer says. And Wild Blossom does get creative. He has flavored mead with hot chili peppers, grapes, hibiscus, bananas, and gooseberries – which he compares to a sour beer. Wild Blossom has even used peanuts and concord grapes to make – you guessed it – a peanut butter and jelly flavored mead. They also made bacon mead.
“It had this really nice smoky flavor to it,” Fischer says. “I'm almost to the point that I don't have to figure out what to make, I’m just trying to figure out what not to make. I don’t know that mushroom mead would be a good seller.”
What’s his favorite at the moment? “Usually what's in my glass,” he says.
Because mead has a reputation for being overly sweet, Fischer has some tips for first-time drinkers. Just like anyone trying wine or beer for the first time, figure out what you like.
“A lot of people say, ‘I tried wine once, and it was too sweet, or it was dry or bitter, and that’s why I don’t drink wine,’” Fischer says. “There’s so many different varieties of mead. You have to know what you like. Do you like dry? Do you like sweet? Do you like tart? Then there will be a mead that you’ll probably fall in love with.”
Fischer says that, as far as production goes, mead is environmentally friendly, and it can be made in a hyperlocal way that Fischer describes as “hive to glass.”
Since the base of mead is honey, part of its production involves beekeeping. As a child, Fischer’s family had an apple orchard, so he started beekeeping at around six or seven years old.
Wild Blossom has over 100 colonies, including a few in its own backyard (though not too many, since it’s also an event venue, and bees and weddings don’t always pair well together), with others scattered around the Chicago area, including in a rehabbed natural area in Pullman, at the Morton Arboretum, by Lake Michigan, and outside Kankakee.
“I’m amazed at how much honey I get, just outside my own back door,” Fischer says.
Wild Blossom’s bees are pretty well-traveled – especially for bees. In the fall, they go down to Florida in trucks to escape the bitterly cold Chicago winters, from which the colonies sometimes have a hard time rebounding. In the spring, the bees travel to Michigan to help pollinate some of the blueberry farms there.
For Fischer, supporting honeybees is a big bonus to drinking mead.
“It's really the most sustainable wine on earth,” he says. “It really gives back to nature, because every time bees pollinate, just to make one bottle [of honey], the bees will pollinate two million flowers, and that pollination will turn into like 40 million seeds, which produce that many flowers. So you can feel good about drinking mead because it’s really helping the environment.”