Thank you for sitting down with us – our readers really like learning about unique crafts and people who make these – such as meads and your meadery! Could you please tell us how did you get started with meads? And why in Western Pennsylvania?
Thanks for having us! We love talking about mead in general, and how it’s really taking off now. I have been a homebrewer for 20 some years and one of the only books available at that time was The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian. There was a chapter on mead and it sounded pretty interesting and I thought, maybe someday I’ll make one! Here I am years later and I have made more mead than anything else. I have been making mead for about twelve years or so and in that time, we have won numerous awards – the one that we are most proud of is a Gold medal in the 2015 Mazer Cup for our Traditional Mead. When we started Laurel Highlands Meadery in 2010 we were the second meadery in Pennsylvania, and the first in Western PA. We just wanted to share our love of mead with the great people of the area. Mandy and I are both from Western Pennsylvania and wanted to stay local.
How challenging was it to open your meadery, especially in this area of Pennsylvania? What were the unique challenges that you had to overcome? Where do you get honey for your meads, by the way?
The number one issue when we started was that there were very few people that even knew what mead was; we spent far more time on educating people than anything else. We have seen a huge change in the last three and especially in the last two years on that front. It has changed from not knowing what mead was to now they have heard of it, but have never tried it. I credit that to a lot of people in the industry working so hard to promote and make mead. It’s going to take some more time, but it is definitely moving in the right direction!
When we started we were super small. We had three 55-gallon fermenters and a single head filler. Even small batches took a long time to bottle. We have grown and our equipment has grown with us. One hint for anyone who would like to open a meadery someday – start as large as you can afford. You’ll be glad you did.
Consumers’ tastes are constantly changing as well. We offered four meads when we opened and now we try to offer around fifteen or so – both in still and carbonated varieties. People are excited about trying new and different flavors and we love to accommodate!
We get all of our honey from a great apiary near us – Bedillion’s Honey Farm. They are about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh. We have both grown together and we love their honey. They are just about the only local producer that can keep up with us. We don’t use anything but pure honey, and we are using a lot of it. Mark & Sara are great people and share our excitement for mead and our meadery.
How did you establish your loyal customer base? Has it been organic or did you actively engage social media in order to drive the foot traffic and sales volume?
Word of mouth is huge for us and we are always excited when someone says that one of their friends told them they had to visit us. Currently, we do little advertising but when we do it is mostly targeted to Facebook and Google. We do get occasional articles in print publications as well. We are a small meadery on a side street in Irwin, PA and we have had people tell us they walked or drove past us and they didn’t realize we were here but are super happy when they do find us! Our local business association is wonderful because they put on at least one event a month that draws hundreds to thousands of people into town. We also have a lot of “regulars” who are spreading the word of mead, too. Our mead can be found in a number of brewpubs in and around the Pittsburgh area and we get a lot of great response from that as well. We are working on a fairly large expansion project and when we complete that, social media, as well as more traditional advertising methods, will become a much larger part of the plan.
What would you say to the visitors who are in Irwin, PA for their first time and are contemplating to visit your meadery – why should visitors stop by your tasting room?
When you visit 99.9% of the time visitors will talk with myself or my wife. We can answer any questions about the mead, the honey, the process, the history of mead, and more. We are always frustrated when we visit a tasting room or an event and you ask even simple questions and you get a response of “I’m not sure, I just work here.” We won’t do any event where at least one of us won’t be on hand; we feel that if someone is coming to try your mead you should make it as fun and educational as possible. Plus, I think we make some pretty fine mead! We have anywhere from ten to eighteen meads available, ranging from Traditional to Chocolate to Maple to Habanero in both still and carbonated varieties. People can usually always find something they love. In addition, we sell local craft beer, honey, and crafts from local vendors. We have a lot of board games and have people who stop in and play games with friends while having a glass or two of mead. It’s a very relaxed environment.
What makes your mead different from others (besides the obvious!)?
We do try to age all of our mead at least eight months to a year before being sold. We make batches ranging from six gallons to two-hundred and fifty gallons and take a very hands-on approach with each one. We ensure the fermentation progresses smoothly and that the mead is taken care of during its creation. We carefully watch each batch and make sure it is as tasty as possible. We like talking with our customers and just sharing our love of mead. We encourage people who make mead to contact us with any questions or if they need any help and always encourage sharing. The more good tasting mead that can be made helps everyone.
Would you consider expanding your mead offering geographically? Why or why not?
Right now we are focused on the Western PA area. We do ship through Vinoshipper.com so we are available in about 38 states. As we grow we would like to offer more mead to more places.
What makes the town of Irwin special? Why did you start here, and not somewhere else?
Irwin is an amazing little town. Unfortunately, quite a few people don’t know there is an actual downtown area, but rather think of it as just the businesses along the highway. They are amazed when they finally find downtown. There are so many small boutique shops selling almost everything. As I mentioned earlier, the local business association does these wonderful events, the first one my wife and I attended was a cookie tour in early December. There were at least 25 businesses in town serving cookies and beverages and inviting people in. The town was packed with holiday shoppers and families enjoying the cookies and holiday cheer. It was just such a beautiful thing to see this small-town thriving, we both knew we wanted to be a part of the community.
What do you think of local craftsmaking in general, and are you a fan of other crafts/craftsmakers – which ones?
Pittsburgh has had an explosion of craft breweries opening, as well as distilleries, cideries, and meaderies. It’s an exciting time to be involved with the craft market. We have had some amazing stuff from all over. It’s just so cool to see all of the unique things people come up with and create. The best part is seeing people living their dream and sharing their knowledge and amazing products with us all.
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