July 31, 2019 by
From our professional football team to cultural lore, Vikings play a leading role in Minnesota. But Josh and Dana Eckton believed it wasn’t easy enough to find the seafaring Scandinavians’ drink of choice—mead. To help change this, the Ecktons opened White Bear Meadery on June 29 in Gem Lake, Minnesota, with the goal of helping people “drink like a Viking.”
“There’s a lot of Norwegians and Nordic descendants in Minnesota, and, of course, this is Vikings territory. We thought it would be fun to tie that all in with our families’ history, Viking history, and mead-making history,” Josh says.
He wasn’t starting his venture completely from scratch. Josh had been homebrewing since the early 1990s and had often thought about opening a microbrewery. However, as more and more breweries opened in the Twin Cities, he recognized how difficult it would be to constantly differentiate from others. “There was an overabundance of great beer out there,” he says. “I saw a need for mead.”
The meadmaking process is closer to winemaking than brewing, Josh explains. The key ingredients—honey, water, and yeast—are poured into a fermentation tank along with any additional ingredients, such as fruit, hops, spices, or even coffee. Unlike with beer, no mash or boil is required; the fermentable sugars are readily available and do not require extraction. The liquid remains in the fermentor for two months before filtration and bottling, after which it sits in kegs or bottles for a couple of weeks longer before it’s available to enjoy or purchase off-sale at the tasting room.
Three mead varieties are currently available in the tasting room. Skål uses a dark buckwheat honey with safale S-04 yeast, which is typical for dry English ales, and adds Cascade hops at the end to provide a beer-like flavor. Spiced Eple uses wildflower honey with cinnamon-infused apple cider, providing sweet and spicy notes similar to apple pie. Valhalla is a traditional mead that boasts bold floral notes from its wildflower honey. Each has 12‒12.5% alcohol by volume; meads, in general, can range from around 5 to 20% ABV.
Patrons of White Bear Meadery’s tasting room have quickly grown excited about the range of flavors and varieties possible in mead, according to Josh. Their experiences mimick his own. In 2018, Josh visited his relative, Jimmy Frascone, in Texas to check out his meadery and winery. While watching how it was made and tasting the results, Josh discovered a passion for creating mead. “And 16 months later, here we are,” he says.
White Bear Meadery has eight 75-gallon and three 115-gallon conical fermentation tanks, which will allow Josh to produce several thousand liters per year. With this capability, he plans to rotate batches often and experiment with coffee, apples, berries, and maple syrup, as well as many different honey types, such as basswood or even caramelized honey, for his meads. Whenever possible, the Ecktons plans to use Minnesota-grown products. “We have a philosophy of supporting local business,” Josh says. “We get all of our honey right now from Gardner Bees in Sleepy Eye and we are sourcing as many products locally as possible.”
The Ecktons want to involve their four kids as much as possible in their new venture, and recently the whole family hand-picked honeyberries together at Farm LoLa in Wrenshall, Minnesota, for an upcoming mead. Their 20-year-old son, Jake, assists with graphic design, while their daughters—Zara, 10; Zaylia, 7; and Zoelle, 3—help with “security,” berry tasting, and overseeing the tasting room’s kids’ corner, which features Viking helmets, shields, and other toys for younger visitors to play with while they enjoy a craft soda from Northern Soda Company in Arden Hills.
Just like the meads themselves, the tasting room’s decor also pays tribute to Vikings and includes shields, helmets, blankets, and battleaxes. Honey-colored mosaic tile and a hexagonal backsplash honor the bees that provide mead’s main ingredient. Complementing all of this are more educationally focused features.
“We have some different mead variety posters, so you can learn the mead lingo for the different kinds, from cysers and traditionals to braggots. We also have a honey variety poster so that people can learn about the different honeys, because most people think that honey is the little bear that they get in the store,” Josh says.
To supplement their beverages White Bear Meadery serves cheese plates, snacks, and Heggies pizzas, including a gluten-free option. The meads are all naturally gluten-free, a reflection of the resources the Vikings had when they were making their own versions centuries ago. “The Vikings made meads for quite some time because they had a colder climate and they weren’t able to grow the grains and grapes like the southern climates could. […] What I tell people for a quick explanation is that you use grapes to make wine, you use barley to make beer, and you use honey to make mead.”
Head meadmaker: Josh Eckton
Meads: Three available now, including Skål, Spiced Eple, and Valhalla, with three others planned for release in the coming months.
Address: 1595 County Road E East, Gem Lake, MN 55110
Opened: June 29, 2019