Written by Shawndra Russell | Photos by Anthony Harden
For many, the concept of a traditional retirement of leisure is either unattainable or uninteresting—or both. For head mazer Ivar Schloz of Bee & Bramble, our area’s newest meadery, he often vowed to retire by 50 from his work as a metallurgical engineer so he could escape cube farms. This specialized field tasked Schloz with optimizing aluminum processes and minimizing waste for companies that convert metals into everyday products, but when the economy took a nosedive, Schloz’s six-figure job went with it.
Then, “The company I was contracting with got rid of my whole division, and I didn’t see any more consulting jobs coming up,” he explains, since he mostly worked with construction and leisure activity companies, which still haven’t fully recovered. As his self-declared retirement age of 50 loomed only a few years away, he turned down several job offers in other cities because he wanted his teenage daughter to be able to finish high school in Fairview, North Carolina.
Luckily for him, a few consulting gigs resulted in a windfall of money around that time totaling $60,000, but “I knew I’d burn through that in a year or two,” he says. After years of dabbling with home brewing and mead making, Schloz decided to finally listen to his friends’ insistence that he launch a mead business. He credits his professional background as helping him get a leg up as a head mazer; “Even though I don’t use my knowledge of process engineering as much for aluminum work anymore, it translates very well in other procedures. Wine production is a complicated process as well, and the tools and techniques I learned in aluminum processing were highly instrumental in developing my mead-making methods.” He experimented with 30 different yeasts and boatloads of recipes until he landed on the perfect Dry Mead, Metheglin, Melomel, and Cyser products, the latter being a mixture of a hard apple cider and mead that isn’t widely produced in the United States.
Being a numbers guy, his goal was to create a self-sustaining business from the get-go. In fact, he has taken on zero debt to open the business and plans to grow organically and strategically so he never has to. “I needed to start making money right away for my family and not have to worry about paying other people back first,” he explains of his slow-and-steady business plan. This controlled growth approach has already paid off; only six months after opening Bee & Bramble for business in November 2014, it already covers his overhead, carrying costs, and bills.
He joins about 225 other mead makers in the United States, but many of these also brew wine, beer, or liquor, with only about 150 producing only mead like Bee & Bramble. This relatively low number—in comparison to around 3,500 craft breweries and 8,500 wineries in America—is surprising when you consider that mead is deemed the oldest alcoholic beverage. However, 2014’s first annual Mead Industry Report declares: “The world’s most popular beverage throughout most of recorded history nearly died out after the Middle Ages but now counts as the smallest but fastest growing segment of the American alcohol beverage industry.” Seems like Schloz’s gamble was a good one as mead sales more than doubled from 2012 to 2013, with no sign of slowing down. Schloz says, “Microbreweries and microdistilleries seem to be topping out. Ciders and meads are getting a lot more attention. I predicted some of this, but was very pleasantly surprised at the timing—right as I was rolling out my product.” Some have speculated that mead is the ‘Next Big Thing’ for the craft industry, but Schloz emphasizes he and his fellow mazers have their work cut out for them, since misconceptions about mead being only a super sweet beverage prevail. Another factor he thinks might help meads rise in popularity is that it’s very clean and therefore may be less hangover-inducing than beer and wine for some people—at least for him personally and according to feedback he has heard from consumers thus far.
Part of Schloz’s no-debt game plan meant renovating a run-down building that already existed on his property in Fairview, which he designed himself. “I found a builder who was willing to let me do a lot of the work myself and even work alongside him, which saved me a lot of money,” he shares. He hired acquaintances as subcontractors whenever possible, including fellow musicians (Schloz plays the fiddle.) As an insurance policy should the meadery fail, Schloz converted the second floor of the barn-like structure into an apartment space. So, if necessary, he could rent out his modest house and live above the meadery operations. “I had to think on different levels because I didn’t want to be put in a tough situation again, and I want to be able to stay here.” Driving by his small plot of land, you’d never know a budding craft business resides on this curvy, residential Fairview street. His other passion, music, is well-represented in the barn’s apartment, with several fiddles hung with care next to bookshelves crammed with mead making books that facilitated Schloz’s self-taught brewing education. He also relied on a rapport he cultivated with former Montaluce winemaker Maria Peterson, who now works in California at Scott Laboratories, a provider of products and expertise for the beverage industry.
On the bottom floor, several polyethylene Flextank vessels line one wall, which is where his mead ferments and can be stored. His labeling and bottling stations sit across from these tanks next to boxes of mead piled high and ready for delivery to local wine shops. Each Flextank only costs about $1,500, and Schloz can easily scale his operation as demand grows using his current inventory of equipment. When and if needed, buying a few more Flextank’s can up his production volume instantaneously. “One of the challenges with a business like this is sizing everything. How big of a fermenter can I manage? It becomes a calculation. I can run a whole batch in a day’s work. I can bottle an entire batch in a day’s work. I can label it in a day’s work. If I want to add capacity, all I have to do is add another fermenter. I don’t have to really change anything or buy a bunch more equipment.” He currently does this 3-day cycle of work once about every twelve weeks, which equals about 400 cases per year. He hopes to reach full capacity in the next few years, which would produce 1,800 cases.
At first, he was suspicious of these plastic, egg-shaped tanks, but a winemaking buddy in California assured him that Flextanks were the way to go. “I did some research on my own, too, and they are really taking over the wine industry because people are seeing how valuable they are,” he says. Schloz’s perception about the tanks quickly shifted when he found out that a fellow engineer—this one of the aerospace kind—designed the tanks. Their permeable casing allows for a small amount of oxygen to seep through, making the wine age and ferment simultaneously. What really drove home their value for Schloz was comparing his mead from glass containers to those produced from the Flextanks. “I was afraid of an odd flavor with them,” he shares, “but it actually turned out better than what I was making in glass.” Not to mention the savings in comparison to stainless steel tanks, which run about $8,000 fully outfitted. Plus, they are extremely light when empty, relieving Schloz of the need for additional equipment to move them around—crucial since it took three tries before he got his workflow layout just right in the small space. A floor corker also sits wedged between his tanks, and he pays someone $15-20 an hour to cork bottles on bottling days. Bottling takes about five hours for him now, with Schloz “bottling so fast that my corker has trouble keeping up,” he says with a laugh.
Every other aspect of the mead making process he does almost entirely on his own, including delivering his products firsthand to his partner wine shops and restaurants, and he’s not in any hurry to change that. “Maybe in 3-5 years, I’ll be able to expand my operations, maybe buy a bigger plot of land,” he muses. Although he says this in his unassuming way, there’s little room for doubt that Schloz will do just that. His laser focus, careful planning, numbers crunching, and dedication to his craft all point to a lot more mead being part of his so-called retirement.
Being basically a one-man show suits Schloz, who loves getting to talk with his partners on delivery days and educate consumers at festivals. “I don’t get a charge out of seeing my name in print. I like to talk to people individually and just talk about my products.” Being a self-distributer helps in other ways, too. “As a licensed distributor and wholesaler, and direct shipper, I am able to avoid ‘entangling alliances’ that affect our bottom line. This is a big reason that our product is priced as competitively as it is.” His 750ml bottles currently run between $13.99 to $16.99 each, but he does anticipate increases in his prices over the next few years as honey prices are projected to escalate. One of Schloz’s favorite places to share his mead are music festivals, like the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in West Virginia that he was heading to immediately after our interview. He’s also received a lot of positive feedback at mead offs, hanging out at a recent event in Durham, North Carolina, with the president of the American Mead Makers Association, who complimented his dry mead making approach.
A few yards from the meadery entrance sit four simple beehive boxes that give Schloz the capability to use his own honey—even if it’s just a fraction of the total amount he actually uses to complete a batch. “I like being able to say that my honey is in every bottle,” he says with a grin. In the future he hopes to grow his honeybee operation enough to use it exclusively—or at least a higher percentage. For now, he gets his honey from high in the mountains because he prefers the taste and finds them to be more complex due to the higher density of brambles (hence the name) and more varied vegetation which all lead to greater complexity. Schloz relies on a variety of local honey makers in addition to local farmers, designers, and printers. However, he makes a clear distinction about quality over some pre-set number of maximum miles he’s willing to travel to get his ingredients. “I’m not artificially limiting a certain radius of where I’ll get products from. If there is a blueberry farm next door, I’ll go there first and try their product. But if there’s another one 20 miles away, I’ll try theirs too, and the best tasting one that can also supply what I need wins.”
Self-described as “obsessively locavore,” Bee & Bramble also dedicates itself to differentiating from the super sweet meads that most people associate with honey wines. Schloz’s creations are drier, with the intent of being an adult beverage that people can enjoy multiple glasses of at a time. “I want a product where people can finish the bottle and say, ‘I want another bottle of that!’ The sweet meads, ports, and sherries don’t appeal to me as a business model.” This approach he hopes will also translate into his meads being something that people turn to regularly instead of sporadically—“My style is meant to be drank more often than just at Renaissance fairs or holidays.” To aide his cause, Schloz’s next focus will be on reaching out to bars and restaurants about mead cocktail recipes he’s been working on. Currently, Ben’s Tune-Up has Bee & Bramble mead on tap, and Schloz promises, “You’ll be seeing a lot more mead cocktails in the near future around here.” Even Bee & Bramble’s logo and design were created by an UNC Asheville design professor, whom Schloz first discovered through a glazed pottery cup he purchased featuring a small printed bee years before he even thought about launching his mead business.
Schloz’s obsession with high quality presents itself in his chosen mead process, also. “I ferment all the way to dry. Most meaderies will run a lot of residual sugars, so their mead is sweet, but when you do that, you have to kill all the yeast off,” he explains, “and you have to put a different kind of fining agent in, and you have to run it through a filter, so you’re stripping out anything that might add to the character of the wine. What you end up with is something that you might have to add a sugar back in to give it a little more flavor.” In his opinion, only a few of the larger meaderies and cideries are striking the right balance: Starrlight Meadery in Pittsboro, North Carolina; Moonlight Meadery in Londonderry, New Hampshire; Noble Cider in Asheville; and Foggy Ridge Cider in Dugspur, Virginia. He aims to create more complex meads like these established businesses and avoid what he refers to as one-dimensional honey wines that lack aroma and depth. “There are a lot of horror stories about making sweet meads because they have to add all these extra steps and ingredients in, upping their chances of failure or issues,” he explains.
Although it may seem like Schloz had a slightly charmed path, it has been anything but to get to where Bee & Bramble is today. “I had my power shut off a few times because the companies I did the windfall jobs for stiffed me for six months, but I’d already started building the meadery and was pouring all my money into it,” he says with a touch of pride now that he’s on the other side. “It was a real nightmare.” Panic set in each time, but Schloz took everything in stride and kept moving forward steadily. In addition to the 24 inspections it took to get his facility built, a 9-month back-and-forth with the federal government for label approval slowed things down, too, along with the multiple permits required. However, he does praise the North Carolina Alcohol Beverage Control Commission as being very helpful from the perspective of a wine maker. “I can do things that I didn’t think I could do until I talked to the state. They gave me permits I didn’t even know I could get, like self-distribute and sell at events. It helps that they are trying to grow the wine industry in North Carolina, and anytime I have a question, they’ve been Johnny-on-the-spot.”
Another hurdle in Schloz’s path is his dislike of marketing—“I hate that stuff. I figure, and this is probably a naive position, that the product should sell itself. I take a more organic approach to business development and like to float with the current rather than fight it, allowing the market to pull my product along versus me pushing it.” Yet, he’s all about building relationships as evident by his shelf space at Appalachian Vinter and Divine Wine and Beer, not to mention his latest retail partner, Whole Foods, who will stock him locally and move out from there. He’s also now stocking at Earth Fare’s Westgate location and Greenlife too. “These agreements took me calling over and over to the point of feeling like I was bugging them” he explains, “but they told me to keep in contact because they’re so busy, so I did, and it paid off.”
While he’s undoubtedly excited about the local interest in mead, he notes that retailers should always use wine margins instead of beer margins as he encountered at one store. But as with any obstacle he has encountered along this journey, Schloz shrugs off the problem. “I’ve figured out how I can make enough money to support myself. I won’t be rich from this, but as long as I can work locally and continue to put out what are personally my favorite meads, then I’ll be happy,” he says.
So if riches aren’t his end game, what is? Schloz’s calculating engineering brain doesn’t like to get too far ahead of itself, but he does share his dream to get the product in more peoples’ hands and perhaps adding a taproom if he’s able to open up a bigger production facility down the road. He explains, “If demand outstrips supply, we will look at pricing as the solution, rather than increased volume. We want to be the best, not the biggest.” He might even take a stab at microdistilling whiskey five or ten years down the road. “We’ll see if the numbers work out,” he says with a knowing grin.
While no business comes with a guarantee, Schloz’s methodical, debt-free, no-investors-ever attitude hints that he’ll have a happy semi-retirement making his wines by hand for years to come. If you’d like to give Bee & Bramble meads a try, order it online, try some at an event, or pick a bottle up at several local retailers, and look for mead cocktails like the one on page 53 at Asheville bars in the near future.
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