Here’s a tip for budding entrepreneurs: If you are looking for space at the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, it might help to ply management with some great-tasting adult beverages. Just ask Greg Heller-LaBelle, co-founder and CEO of The Colony Meadery.
He likes to joke that it was a sample of his company’s “Mo-Me-Doh” lime-and-mint flavored mead that convinced AEDC Economic Development Specialist Anthony Durante that he and partner Mike Manning had a legitimate startup with a strong chance for success.
We probably should clarify that he is joking, at least regarding his entrée to the Bridgeworks.
“As a craft beer drinker and a bit of a wine snob, I have had the opportunity to taste a few meads at various festivals. Most of what I had tried to that point was horrible,” explains Durante. “So, when Mike and Greg first came to me with the idea, I thought they were crazy. But after tasting a few of their test batches, I was thoroughly impressed. I gave Greg’s business plan a good read through and decided they were really onto something.”
The growing popularity of mead – an ancient alcoholic beverage most commonly associated with the Viking raiders of the Middle Ages – is no joke. As American consumers continue to develop a stronger and more educated palate for craft beers and wines, Heller-LaBelle and Manning are looking to capture a part of that market with a tasty treat that is quite different from most beverages already on the market.
“All of our marketing up front has to be education,” said Heller-LaBelle, who has spent several years watching and writing about the craft beer and homebrewing trends. “Most people don’t know what mead is, and if they have had it, chances are it was bad. The reality is that it doesn’t taste like anything you had before. It really is new. It’s only like 5,000 or 6,000 years old.”
Mead is fermented much like beer and wine, but it is a honey-based – and gluten-free — beverage and archeologists have actually found recipes and samples that are thousands of years old. Like beer and wine, it is fermented with hops, grains, spices and fruits to add varying tastes, and The Colony Meadery is specializing in bringing various blends to market.
Because of his background as a beer blogger, Heller-LaBelle initially eyed the Lehigh Valley as a great place for another craft beer brewery.
With more than a million people, nine major colleges or universities and only two real craft breweries at the time he considered the region underserved. After a bit more thought, he realized that a meadery would open a whole new market and approached Manning, a fellow member of the Lehigh Valley Beer Society.
“Mike is the virtuoso,” says Heller-LaBelle, explaining that Manning brings the fermenting skill and experience. “Mike and I are an excellent team. We both have our areas of expertise, but ultimately it’s just a matter of putting in the hours.”
Making a labor-intensive process even more intense has allowed the partners to dramatically shorten the typical 18- to 24-month fermenting process for mead. “On a chemical basis, yeast doesn’t particularly like honey,” he explained. “That’s probably why, as we industrialized, mead didn’t get made as often as beer or wine. It’s just not that easy.”
The Colony Meadery uses a controlled fermentation process, and constant adjustments have helped the partners reduce the fermentation and conditioning time to weeks instead of months.
They began planning and seeking the permits and licenses – The Colony Meadery is actually licensed as a winery by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board – and moved into the Bridgeworks this fall. They now have a retail front on Harrison Street where they can sell their product but they are also targeting craft beer bars as the primary points of sale and their opening celebration is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 29 from 6:30 to 9:30 at Strange Brew Tavern at S 5th Street and Emaus Avenue in Allentown.
“The Colony Meadery is a great example of how wide the spectrum of manufacturing really is,” says Durante. “With more than 8,000 wineries and 2,500 craft breweries in the U.S. – and both industries forecasted to grow over the next five years – these types of ventures are solid prospects for our business incubation program.”
“The craft beer market tends to be adventurous. They want new things and they will go out of their way to find them,” Heller-LaBelle says. “There is good wine, good beer everywhere. What people want is the experience.”