Tucked away on Industrial Park Road next to the North Georgia Premium Outlets, Derek Piper is busy as a bee.
A sixth grade science teacher at Vickery Creek Middle School by day, Piper spends his evenings crafting an assortment of meads at The BeeCraft Mead Company.
What began as a homebrewing hobby 20 years ago has blossomed into a fledgling meadery hidden in the north Georgia hills.
“It’s pretty rare to have a meadery around,” Piper said, filling a small glass with mead in his tasting room.
In fact, BeeCraft Mead Company was the third meadery to open in the state of Georgia. There are now seven meaderies across the state.
Mead is the oldest known alcoholic beverage in the world and is commonly made with honey, water and yeast. Evidence of fermented beehives dates back 21,000 years while evidence of deliberate mead making dates back 9,000 years.
Throughout history, mead was the drink of choice for royals and gods in Greece, Rome and Egypt. In Irish lore, a river of mead runs through heaven. As for the Vikings, it was the only thing the Norse god Odin drinks. Even the term “honeymoon” comes from the Irish, and possibly Roman, practice of parents gifting newlyweds with a month’s worth of honey wine to promote fertility.
In popular culture, the beverage is featured in The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the Bud Light “Dilly Dilly” commercials.
“We kind of hit it just right [around] Game of Thrones. It’s kind of fun people relate to that,” Piper said. “The ‘Dilly Dilly’ commercials were a huge help because people started wondering ‘what’s mead?’”
Piper began home brewing beers and meads in his Colorado home in 1998. His passion continued after he moved to north Georgia 13 years ago.
As he became more serious about his craft, Piper began offering samples of his craft creations to his friends who were quick to encourage him.
But it wasn’t until 2010 when Piper began entering his mead in state and national competitions, searching for constructive criticism and feedback from judges so he could make his product better.
“I made one mead back in 2010. My first one I ever put in [to competitions] was all my garden’s stuff in there and I thought it was wonderful, and my friends were telling me it was great. I realized two lessons learned: everybody likes their own stuff, your friends like free alcohol,” Piper said. “A judge ripped it. They were going ‘Oh this tastes like salad dressing’ and I got a 17 out of 50… that’s when I started realizing you’ve really got to get things in competitions otherwise you’re going to be doing nothing but making people homebrew.”
Piper continued to hone his recipes and entered numerous competitions including the National Homebrew Competition, the Georgia Trustees Wine Challenge, the Domra’s Cup, Meadlennium International, the Peach State Brew, and the U.S. Open where his Dark Pearls – a blueberry and black currant mead wine – took home Best in Show in 2015.
After finding success in the competition circuit, gaining credibility and using judges’ feedback to improve his mead, Piper opened up The BeeCraft Mead Company in Dawsonville in 2017. It will celebrate its second anniversary in September.
“I think we were a year or two early and now we’re just starting to hit the stride,” Piper said.
Interest in mead has swelled across the nation in the last few years. In 2013 there were only 40 meaderies in the U.S. Now there are more than 400.
At Piper’s meadery, he offers a traditional mead, a ginger spiced mead, a blueberry and black currant mead wine as well as meads made from wildflower blooms and a mead infused with citrus and habanero.
“I try to choose products that have two ingredients that are competing,” Piper said. “Probably the two things about our meadery that set us apart a little bit is that we make sure that the honey is forward. You always taste honey in our mead. Even our spice mead, the ginger mead, you can tell is a honey mead. And usually most of the time we try to get a little bit of complexity where there’s two ingredients balancing each other some way, so like blueberries and black currant.”
Piper is currently working on some special flavors to release later this year for the fall and winter seasons.
A lot of work goes in to creating mead for a mead maker, but even more work for the honey makers.
In one honeybee’s lifetime, it will produce about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey. According to Piper, in one bottle of mead you’ll find on average the life’s work of more than 1,300 honeybees that have traveled thousands of miles to up to a million bloom visits. That’s why BeeCraft Mead Co.’s slogan is “a million blooms in every bottle.”
“Literally the bee in somebody’s backyard could be making their mead,” Piper said.
Of course working with honey can be nerve wracking, Piper said, because it’s not something you want to mess up.
Honey is expensive, and depending on the type of honey and if it was a fruitful or unfruitful year, the price of honey can climb. For instance, next month BeeCraft Mead is preparing to launch its Tupelo honey based mead – one of the most expensive honeys because of the flower’s short bloom season.
“That’s going to be our next ‘wow’ mead,” Piper said. “That’s going to be our award winner. We can tell that already.”
Dawson County was an easy choice for Piper to set up his meadery and tasting room. The emphasis on agritourism businesses, the availability of local beehives and access to the Etowah River were all factors that made Piper choose Dawson.
“As we grow we definitely would like to have more hives
here,” Piper said. “There’s a lot of land that can’t be used for anything else.
It’s too hilly for houses. It’s too hilly for residential areas, but bees will
The BeeCraft Mead Company is located at 30 Industrial Park Road in Dawsonville and is open from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 1 to 6 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.