A drink fit for a Nordic King

Helderberg Meadworks opens Viking-themed tasting room in Esperance

Bottles of mead are shown on display at Helderberg Meadwork’s tasting room, located at 6144 Route 30 in Esperance. (Photos courtesy of Peter Voelker)

ESPERANCE — According to the legendary sagas of the Norse, when Harald Fairhair set out upon the rugged hills and icy coastlines of ancient Scandinavia over 1,000 years ago to lay siege to its scattered kingdoms and become the first king of a united Norway, it was to a meadhall he would retire to celebrate his victories. More than a millennium later, a descendent of that very king is carrying on the Fairhair saga of unity and triumph in Esperance. And through what else? — a meadhall.

“Our family history [has been traced] back to the first king of Norway — King Harald Fairhair. We have a true Viking lineage,” said Peter Voelker, owner of Helderberg Meadworks.

Since 2010, Voelker has been producing his award-winning meads wholesale under the Helderberg Meadworks brand to a growing faction of enthusiasts for the ancient beverage.

After almost a decade of producing its Viking-adorned bottles of mead, and after taking home numerous awards from the 2018 Great Northeast Wine Competition for a special cherry-vanilla mead– including best New York wine, best fruit wine and the double gold award — Helderberg Meadworks now has a place for patrons to taste the ever expanding selection of craft beverages. Helderberg Meadwork’s newly-opened tasting room, located at 6144 Route 30 in Esperance, features 11 different varieties of mead, including several that are not available in stores, as well as its own hard cider and an old farmer’s drink called switchel.

“Distribution and doing wholesale gave us the solid foundation of customers to where this is not a gamble,” Voelker said. “So this is a solid investment. Even in our soft open phase, we’re doing very well. We’re doing well and we’ve paid off everything and we’ve built our business up. Everything we’ve made, we’ve reinvested. And the point where we are for the production facility, I can’t expand production any more. We’re at pretty much our maximum. So the next step is, I can’t push more out wholesale that way so let’s take a look at retail.”

Peter Voelker and his wife Kirsten, co-owners of Helderberg Meadworks, pose for a picture in the newly opened tasting room in Esperance. (Photos courtesy of Peter Voelker)

Helderberg Meadworks tasting room opened on Dec. 13 and hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a grand opening celebration on May 10 and 11 respectively. Located on a picturesque hill in view of its own grape vineyard, the meadhall, according to a press release, is “far enough off the beaten path that customers can enjoy a peaceful sunset yet still easy [to] find.”

The tasting room is rife with allusions to its Nordic inspiration. Heavy metal music tastefully fills the room in which Viking swords are elegantly mounted on the darkened walls that surround an oak-barrel and barn wood bar. Decorative skulls, nordic drinking horns and numerous other Helderberg Meadworks merchandise are neatly displayed for sale on a top-lit showcase.

Voelker said that while the Vikings are known for their meadhalls, the origins of the beverage are actually much older and its popularity, compared to more commonly known drinks like beer and grape wine, may have been more widespread than history has shown.

“The origins of mead, as far back as we’ve been able to find it, are I think 5,000 to 7,000 years ago in China,” Voelker said. “But the Vikings were known to make mead. There was a translation — and right now it’s sort of being researched — but there seems to have been a translation error where some of the terminology would have been translated to a honey wine like this but it got mistranslated as ale. So there’s some research going on that it might actually have been mead that they were talking about.

A wine of fermented honey, the basic ingredients of mead are quite simple — honey, water and yeast.

Peter Voelker, co-owner of Helderberg Meadworks poses for a picture in the newly opened tasting room in Esperance on May 7. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

Voelker uses raw local honey from Ole McDonald’s Honey Farm in Fultonville as the basis for his product.

“I buy honey by the 55 gallon drum, and it’s completely raw,” said Voelker. “So we get our honey, we mix it with water. I don’t heat it at all. I’ll warm it just so it will flow better, but when you heat honey, you drive off all of the aromatics from the flowers that the honey comes from and you don’t want to do that. So we take it and we mix it with water and we add some yeast to it. And from there it will ferment away.”

Voelker, a 1992 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in nuclear engineering, began producing mead soon after a failed attempt to brew beer.

“The beers I made weren’t that good, and I knew if I wanted to make good beer, I would have to go all grain. And you could, even back then, get really good beer in the store. So I had to think of what else I could make,” Voelker said. “Wine was an option, but there’s so much wine out there, I didn’t want to do that. I’m not allowed to distill so I didn’t start down that path. Mead was what was left.”

Now in it’s eighth year of commercial production, Helderberg Meadworks has steadily grown, with a projected production of 1,000 cases of mead in 2019 — proving that in a world of beer and wine drinkers there is a market for less common products like mead. Yet Voelker says that the purported “mead explosion” as some have referred to it, is relative term.

Crossed swords adorn the dark walls of the Helderberg Meadworks tasting room in Esperance. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

“I think that mead is always going to be a small market” Voelker said. “Beer is going to be a huge market, it is a huge market already, and I think that’s going to keep going for a little while. Likewise, cider. Mead is just a little bit further off the beaten path. It’s going to grow [… but when] they talk about the explosive growth, we’re so small right now that any growth is explosive.”

Nevertheless, Voelker admits that he has seen a great influx in people interested not only in his product but mead in general.

“When we made our first batch which was 180 gallons, it was all my personal investment, all my time. I didn’t hire any lawyers, I did all the paperwork myself, and when it came time to sell it, of course I went to the biggest store in the area,” Voelker said. “They loved it, they carried it and I didn’t even know what to expect. I didn’t know if any customers were going to like it. I know I like it. It took me 10 years to evolve the recipe, all the little minute details, and I was very surprised to find that all kinds of people absolutely love it. And here we are in a tasting room with a vineyard and everything else that I did not expect to be here.”

Helderberg Meadworks tasting room is open Fridays from 5 to 9 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. For more information visit www.helderbergmeadworks.com or www.facebook.com/helderberg meadworks/.

Drinking horns emblazoned with the Helderberg Meadworks logo are shown on display. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

Peter Voelker, owner of Helderberg Meadworks sits before a table which holds various animal skulls inscribed with Helderberg Meadworks artwork. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

Medals won by Helderberg Meadworks from various competitions for its award winning mead are shown draped over a sword which is mounted to a wall in the newly opened tasting room on May 7. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

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