Beekeeper and mead maker Greg Fischer
The first time Greg Fischer made mead it was 1975, and he was 15 years old. "It was not very good," he says of the alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey with yeast. "It tasted like rocket fuel. I said, 'I'm not going to try that again.'" He'd been making wine since he was 12, learning the craft from his grandfather. "I made everything from dandelion wine to sassafras and wintergreen," he says. "I was intrigued by the fermentation process." He was more interested in making wine than drinking it, though—until he turned 15. "I was like, oh, I got alcohol here! I started getting a lot more friends."
Fischer also learned beekeeping in his teens, while working in his uncle's 300-acre apple orchard in the Hudson Valley. He liked it so much that he decided to make it his profession, studying soil science in college and working for beekeepers all over the country during the summers. After college, though, he was drawn back to wine. He worked at Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World wine school in the World Trade Center, then got a marketing job with Seagram's that brought him to Chicago.
In 1990, 15 years after he'd sworn off mead making forever, Fischer tried it again. He also began working on a plan for Bev Art, the wine-making and brewing supply store he'd open in Beverly in 1995. He continued to experiment with making mead there, and so did his customers. "We made all kinds of stuff, and customers made all kinds of stuff," he says. "They'd bring it in, 'Here's our peppermint-chocolate cookie mead.' And sometimes it would be like, 'This is so good.' And sometimes . . . it wasn't."
Mead was popular in ancient Greece but has fallen out of favor over the last few millennia. In 2001, when Fischer got his license for Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery (located in the Bev Art space), it was the first meadery in Illinois and the first winery in Chicago. In fact, it's still the only meadery in the state, though there are a few wineries that make one or two meads. Wild Blossom, by contrast, makes two dozen, along with several wines.
Fifteen years ago, Fischer says, most people didn't even know what mead was. Those that did "thought it was syrupy pancake stuff, and it was kind of a hard sell." But his products got picked up by the Hopleaf, Clark Street Ale House, and a couple other places, and by 2004 business was good. In more recent years the popularity of mead has exploded in the U.S., with the number of meaderies growing from 60 in 2011 to nearly 300 last year, according to the American Mead Makers Association.
Fischer attributes the recent interest partly to the growing popularity of cider. "We say cider is the gateway drug to mead," he says. He also credits the farm-to-table movement, noting that it's hard to find a product more local than mead. Wild Blossom's is made entirely with honey produced in or near Chicago, much of it from the 125 bee colonies that Fischer owns and tends with the help of two employees. He has hives in the Morton Arboretum, Schaumburg Forest Preserve, on top of the Marriott Hotel downtown, and "at the end of 87th Street where the old steel mills used to be."
Now Fischer's problem is a good one: he can't produce enough mead to keep up with demand. The solution, of course, is to expand. In 2015 he bought a 9,000-square-foot former warehouse, also in Beverly, and he's spent the last couple years rehabbing it and getting the necessary permits to make and sell mead there—the second of which he can't do at his original location because it's in an area that's zoned dry. It'll allow him to increase production from about 3,000 gallons of mead per year to 30,000, at which point Fischer hopes to expand to national distribution.
Fischer is already brewing in the space, and he's moved Bev Art's brewing and wine-making classes from the old location to the new one. On March 3, he'll open a tasting room there, a prospect he's particularly excited about because it'll allow him to educate the public about mead. Despite the rise in demand for the beverage, Fischer says, there are still misconceptions about it. For example, while three to four pounds of honey go into each gallon of mead, yeast converts most of that sugar to alcohol. He compares it to a wine like cabernet sauvignon that starts out as sweet as mead does but ends up bone dry. Mead can be just as dry—like Wild Blossom's Blanc de Fleur—though most of Fischer's have some sweetness. Or it can combine the honey with fruits, herbs, tea, or chile peppers to create flavor variations. Some of Wild Blossom's meads, known as cysers, are made by fermenting the honey with apples and then carbonating it; one is aged in bourbon barrels; another is hopped with Nelson Citra hops.
"Mead makers are finding out how versatile mead is," Fischer says. "The future's looking really good. The only thing that would kill off the mead industry is if all the bees die. But if the bees died, the whole world would end too. So I don't think we have too much to worry about."
Wild Blossom Meadery & Taproom 9030 S. Hermitage, 773-233-7579, wildblossommeadery.com.