A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

When western North Carolina’s apple trees bloom in late April and early May, millions of bee visitors come to press their faces in flower hearts. In the east, fairy bell-shaped

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When western North Carolina’s apple trees bloom in late April and early May, millions of bee visitors come to press their faces in flower hearts. In the east, fairy bell-shaped

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When western North Carolina’s apple trees bloom in late April and early May, millions of bee visitors come to press their faces in flower hearts. In the east, fairy bell-shaped

When western North Carolina’s apple trees bloom in late April and early May, millions of bee visitors come to press their faces in flower hearts. In the east, fairy bell-shaped blueberry flowers blossom as early as March, calling their own millions of guests for a nectar feast. At Honeygirl Meadery in Durham, Diane Currier is as busy as the six-legged ladies she celebrates, humming around concocting and infusing, steeping and fermenting and bottling.

Diane Currier has captured sweet magic in a bottle with Honeygirl Meadery’s Bourbon Barrel-Aged Wildflower Mead — the winner in the drink category of Our State’s Made In NC Awards. photograph by Stacy Van Berkel

Currier is a mead maker, an alchemist of wildflowers and fruit who brews honey wine. “These are simple methods,” she says, her small frame dwarfed by a large silver fermentation tank. “Simple ingredients, and naturally gluten-free.”

The ancient Greeks referred to mead as “nectar of the gods,” a melliferous dew sent from heaven. Ancient recipes call for mixing rainwater with honey and letting a month and a half of the sun’s rays turn a sweet treat into something truly divine. Today, the meadery is Currier’s hive, the silver tanks her honeycomb — but she only discovered mead 16 years ago without any history lesson to guide her.

After a morning spent wandering through an Alaskan field of fireweed flowers with her sister, Currier was handed a glass of fireweed mead. “I was just standing in those flowers, and now I’m drinking them,” she says. “It was a powerful experience for me.”

As soon as she returned to Durham, Currier decided she’d transform the fruits of her homebrewing operation from beer into something sweeter. She had little to go on, no time-tested techniques to try. “I was just kind of stumbling through,” she says.

Her first tries didn’t exactly taste like the clear, golden meads she remembered from her trip.

Currier uses a wine thief to sample aging mead from a 53-gallon barrel. Allie Miele Nelson, the meadery’s operations manager (left) helps taste-test the barrel-aged wildflower honey mead. photograph by Stacy Van Berkel

“The first mead batches as a brewer … I’ll call them rustic,” she says. Currier kept experimenting, refining, giving herself time, feeling her way back to the ancient method of making mead without heat. Over time, her mead went from cloudy to clear, rustic to refined. Her field began to bloom in the bottle.

“It became crystalline, and I wanted it to be,” she says. “It started showing off the colors of the fruits, the flowers — the nature of it. I wanted those to be glowing in the bottle.”

After a few years of making mead at home, she entered a bottle of her hibiscus lemon-thyme mead in the North Carolina State Fair and won a second-place ribbon. “That’s when I said, ‘I can do this. People like this.’ ”

•••

Currier left her job in marketing in 2020 to open Honeygirl, the airy east Durham meadery with a bar built from stacked, cheery yellow beehives. Prior to Covid-19, visitors could taste one of the 20 or so seasonal meads she had on tap or wander to the back to see where Currier and her team create the unique profile of each mead batch.

Honeygirl’s small kitchen looks more like a laboratory, with a steel-topped table and large refrigerators. Depending on the season, containers filled with fresh blueberries, strawberries, apple cider, or figs — ripened and picked in North Carolina — hint at upcoming concoctions.

It takes two million bee visits to flowers to make one pound of honey.

Honeygirl works with Sawmill Bee Farm, an apiary in St. Pauls where bees bounce across different plants each season, each year. “I think of blossoms in a couple of different ways. The first is through our honey,” she says. “The other blossoms I think of are actual flowers.”

Each large batch of mead uses 1,200 pounds of the bees’ deep amber honey. When a bee returns to her hive with a flower’s nectar, she does so with tiny bellyfuls, a few sips at a time. It takes two million bee visits to flowers to make one pound of honey, and the bees fly about 50,000 miles gathering nectar to make that pound.

Currier adds floral elements to the meads by selecting flowers from local growers. Hibiscus from Maple Spring Gardens at the Durham Farmers’ Market, lavender from the Baggett family’s Sunshine Lavender Farm in Hurdle Mills. “Their culinary lavender blend is mind-blowingly delicious.”

Each fall, Currier drives a rented truck to Perry Lowe Orchards south of Wilkesboro, where she fills a 300-gallon tote with 3,500 to 4,000 pounds of fresh-pressed cider that she combines with fall wildflower honey to create apple cyser. Apple sweetness depends on the amount of sun each year and the special blends of the earth from which the trees grow. “The cider is different every year, which I love,” she says.

This year, in addition to the usual bouquet of mead varieties fermenting in silver tanks and barrels, Honeygirl is experimenting with aging some meads in bourbon barrels, while other meads will be aged in wine barrels.

 

“I am blown away by barreling and what it can do,” Currier says. “We already have a fantastic, beautiful North Carolina wildflower mead. When it goes into the barrel, it is already aged two years, smooth and gorgeous. The things the mead picks up from the barrel — not just the oak characteristics, but whatever was in the barrel before — the mead becomes more layered and special.”

Every batch of handcrafted and hand-bottled mead is as unique as the meadows that produced it. Hibiscus Lemon-thyme, the color of a pinkish gold sunset, spreads over the tongue with the texture of a smooth wine humming along to the gentle tune of honey. The lightly carbonated session mead, Flower Power, blooms in the mouth with hints of hibiscus, jasmine, and rose petals. Honeygirl’s currant mead, the color of red wine, tastes like a holiday party.

You don’t have to sit beneath the apple boughs in spring and summer to breathe in their delicate blossoms, or to watch the eastern North Carolina blueberry’s bell-shaped flowers ringing with bees. At Honeygirl, you can pour these jewels of nature in a glass and taste the nectar of the gods.

honeygirlmeadery.com


Related: 2020 Made in NC Awards


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This story was published on Feb 02, 2021

Eleanor Spicer Rice

Eleanor Spicer Rice earned her Ph.D. in entomology at North Carolina State University. She is the author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City.