Photo courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society
History has never been sweeter thanks to the Virginia Historical Society's History On Tap program, though the mead in your glass from the latest collaboration will be anything but saccharine. On Tuesday, Sept. 8, Scott's Addition's Black Heath Meadery will release The Queen Bee, a 7 percent ABV metheglin, or spiced mead, based on a recipe from 1802.
"It's a dry metheglin, and by dry, I mean there'll be no residual sugar," explains Bill Cavender, who owns the meadery with Jayne Heffner, his wife. Their mead, or honey wine, is the third concoction in a series wherein local businesses recreate historical recipes from the VHS library. Though meads are typically sweet, the sugar in this History On Tap mead fermented out entirely, allowing the spices to shine through in a dry, flavorful final product. "There's absolutely no sugar left," he laughs.
Cavender's new Scott's Addition meadery is neighbor to Ardent Craft Ales, the first organization to try its hand at a recipe through the program, and Cavender is a collaborator with Blue Bee Cider, the maker of History On Tap's second brew. After watching the first two trials succeed with flying colors, he decided to pitch his own involvement — only to learn that VHS had already been intending to ask him to participate.
"I think we were both were kind of thinking the same thing at around the same time," he says.
From there, it was a matter of choosing his recipe. After the initial meeting, the Society searched through its collection and found a number of mead recipes, of which they picked three and presented to Black Heath. Cavender settled on The Frugal Housewife: Or, Complete Woman Cook's recipe for metheglin, which appealed to him based on its seasonality as well as its exciting combination of herbs and spices, some of which he'd never used in mead before.
Familiar to Cavender were nutmeg, mace and ginger, though he'd never dabbled in rose hips and bay leaves. "It was something different," he says. "They seemed to be a good fit and I was just kind of intrigued by the combination of those."
But as both Ardent and Blue Bee have previously mentioned at their release events, authentically recreating a centuries-old recipe under contemporary constraints and with modern technology can be difficult.
Trying to follow the recipe as closely as possible, Cavender began the mead's primary fermentation in a stainless steel vessel, though the recipe called for fermenting in a tub (which most likely would have been constructed out of ceramic, porcelain or metal). Whereas most meads of the early 1800s would have been fermented with wild yeast, Cavender opted for a commercial Côtes du Rhône wine yeast to ensure a drinkable mead without the unpredictable final flavors wild yeast can yield. The recipe also called for aging the metheglin in a wooden barrel, so after primary fermentation (which lasted about one week), Black Heath's team transferred the mead into a 30-gallon charred oak barrel, making this effort the first wood-fermented experiment in the meadery's space. The team tweaked the recipe to fill the full 30-gallon barrel, which means good news for those unable to attend the Sept. 8 event: Due to brewing a larger batch, Black Heath can and will reserve about one-half to one-third of The Queen Bee, selling it at the meadery and potentially at the VHS gift shop.
For those who can attend the event, which begins at 6 p.m. at 428 N. Boulevard, a $20 ticket ($18 for VHS members) gets you one glass of Queen Bee, a glass of Black Heath's Muse mead, and hors d'oeuvres, plus three speakers. VHS President and CEO Dr. Paul Levengood will speak on behalf of the society and its collections, and Cavender will discuss mead, which he views as probably the least-known alcoholic beverage in the country.
Also present at the event will be state apiarist Keith Tignor, who'll be speaking on the subject of bees, local honey and how we can help sustain Virginia's agriculture. "As most people know, there have been some challenges recently with bee health and bee losses," Cavender says, "so we felt like it made sense to kind of expand our message and give an opportunity for someone who is a full-time beekeeper to speak a little bit to what beekeeping has been like in our area historically, and some of the challenges we've been facing," later adding of The Queen Bee: "It's going to be a different experience for people, which is part of why we wanted to do it. We're very happy with how it's turned out so far."
The Queen Bee release event is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 8, 6 p.m. at The Virginia Historical Society, located at 428 N. Boulevard. Tickets are on sale now.