Food For Thought: A sweet new addition: Mead comes to Ithaca

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Fifteen years ago, homebrewer Nathan Arnold was volunteering with the grassroots organization Free The Hops to change Alabama’s regressive alcohol laws to support the sale of craft beer. Today, he’s hunkered down at his adopted home in the Finger Lakes designing a 22.5-acre integrated farm and meadery. Arnold, along with business owners Mike and Lucy Rowell, has ambitious plans for Little Leaf Meadworks: a fruit farm, apiary, meadery, and tasting room to open on Ithaca’s South Hill later this year.


Arnold’s progression from beer activism in the south to permaculture farming and mead-making began innocently enough: online.


“I saw in all these homebrew forums … that everyone had a mead in their kegerator,” recalled Arnold. “I researched it, and so as I’m waiting for my water to boil on a beer, I made 12 gallons of mead before it boiled: I watered down honey, put in yeast, put fruit in one of them, and I said ‘I’m making 5 gallons of beer and I just made 12 [gallons of mead] in 14 minutes. Maybe I should re-think this.’” By 2007 Arnold had fully transitioned from brewing beer to producing mead.


Often referred to as “honey wine,” mead is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from water, honey, and sometimes fruits, herbs, spices, grains, and hops. It can be fermented up to 22.5 percent alcohol by volume, which results in a wine-strength beverage, with all the nuance and range of its grape-based counterpart. Anything beneath 9.5 percent abv is typically carbonated and served cold – more akin to beer.


Surprisingly, it was permaculture farming and not honey which drew Arnold to Upstate New York. Tired of the heat and humidity of his home state, he sought to expand his practical skills and applied for a work-trade arrangement at 60 farms across the United States. Simultaneously, he scheduled a permaculture design course at the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute (FLPI). Permaculture is a design discipline focused on sustainability and ecology. The closest farm to FLPI – and the only one to e-mail him back – was Spice of Life Farm in Odessa, NY.


As many of us locals know, it doesn’t take much to fall in love with this region. After just one summer Arnold was hooked; by March of 2013, he’d relocated to the Finger Lakes. He still desired to make mead, so he dove headfirst into the wine industry.


“I learned a lot about winemaking techniques I could apply to mead; a lot of art and chemistry at the same time. I was still making mead in my apartment and I could tell it was getting better, but just being immersed in the industry really helped me have a different lens on it.”


Finally feeling confident enough in his product, Arnold decided to create a brand in preparation for public sales: Lionskull Meadery. But soon thereafter, he met the Rowells. “We met at a low-key winter solstice party […] I brought three meads that were not great … whether Mike and Lucy thought they were good or not is beside the point. They started talking to me and saw how much I understood, how long I had been making mead, and how much passion was there. Later that night they asked if I wanted to start a meadery business with them. I was like ‘Absolutely, tell me why I should with you’.”


The ‘why’ came down to diversity of expertise. “Mike is a beekeeper who I think is more talented and in-depth about that than I am at mead,” Arnold stated. “And when I tell people that, they’re very surprised, but a good winemaker needs a damn good vineyardist, so it’s the same.” For the last several years Mike has sold seasonal honey blends as Ithaca Honey Works. Once the honey is harvested and the mead is made, Lucy’s degrees in Journalism and Wine Marketing completes the trifecta.


The three have since devised an ambitious plan. Mike and Lucy own a parcel on South Hill, directly adjacent to Thayer Preserve and just off of Sandbank Road. This is the future home of Little Leaf Meadworks. They’ll plant a range of fruit suitable for mead: sour cherry, apple, and shrubs and canes like raspberry, blackberry, and juneberry. Should they end up with a bumper crop of fruit, they hope to sell the extra to breweries, cideries, and at a farm stand. Legume trees will be planted to build soil fertility, lemon balm to protect apple trees from pest cycles, and meadow flowers like clover, goldenrod, wild roses, and asters will be allowed to run their course. And of course, there’s the honey. Mike currently tends 70 beehives, but this new venture calls for expansion to nearly 400 hives over the next five years.


I asked Arnold how much of what he learned at FLPI was being applied to the farm design. “Every single bit,” he emphatically replied. “I was given a very complicated piece of property to design. It’s five valleys, four ridges, and they’re all sort of small, never-drying-out boggy areas, [and] the creek that feeds Lick Brook [Falls]. So yeah, I have to use every single bit of knowledge I was given to do this right.”


As for the tasting room, Arnold and the Rowells envision a family-friendly, dog-friendly community space. They’re situated in a predominantly residential area, but they hope their proximity to Ithaca Beer Company and Ithaca College will encourage both visitors and residents to stop in. “We think it’s highly approachable because it will be more like a brewery at first,” enthused Arnold. “We’ll have eight flagships. You can get a flight, you can get a pint, we’ll have crowlers, growlers.” The Little Leaf Meadworks brand will be almost entirely draft meads, while Arnold will continue to craft wine and dessert-style meads under the Lionskull label.


Little Leaf Meadworks hopes to open this fall. In the meantime, Lionskull mead can be found at the Cellar D’or on The Commons, and Ithaca Honey Works seasonal flow honeys can be purchased locally at Six Mile Creek winery, FLX Athlete Retreat, and online at ithacahoneyworks.com.

Food For Thought is a monthly column highlighting the hidden gems of the culinary world across Tompkins County. Sarah Barden is a dedicated foodie who, along with her husband, shares her passion with neighbors and visitors through their business Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours. Find more information at IthacaIsFoodies.com.

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