Just that morning, Diane Currier had hiked with her sister through a field of fireweed flowers in Alaska, a sea of pink around her and a bright blue summer sky above her. Now, here she was being offered a glass of mead — a drink she’d never tried before — made with the very wildflowers that she’d admired. “My sister took me to my first meadery, and they offered me a glass of the Fireweed,” Currier says. “And I was really struck by that moment because it was so connected — from that field of flowers to a glass was magical. I’d never had anything like it.”
When Currier returned home to Durham, North Carolina, she didn’t forget the experience. “I’d been homebrewing beer with my buds in Durham, but I came back from that trip to Alaska and said, “We’re just going to make mead from now on, because I want to learn everything that I can about this beverage.”
An ancient drink once referred to as the “nectar of the gods,” mead is often called honey wine. But the golden-hued beverage really exists its own category. Mead is made by fermenting honey rather than fruit, and, like beer, sometimes incorporates other fruits and ingredients.
Today, Currier, the founder, owner, and head mead maker at Honeygirl Meadery & Tasting Room in Durham, perfects the drink by using local North Carolina honey, fruit, and flowers with the goal of giving everyone the opportunity to have the a-ha moment that she had in Alaska.
“Our mission is to put nature into a glass and give you a unique experience that involves billions of bee visits to billions of flowers,” Currier says. “To bring in fruit and honey from North Carolina and ferment it together to really transform them into a magical beverage.”
Our State sat down with Currier to learn more about this unique beverage, the importance of the humble honeybee, and why simple is always best.
OS: How did you take the leap from homebrewing to opening your own meadery?
DC: I saw how much people enjoyed the beverage that I was making, and that first meadery that I visited in Homer, Alaska, became one of my visions for starting something in Durham. In 2012, I took one of our meads that I had made as a homebrew with my friends and entered it into the North Carolina State Fair, and to my surprise and delight, it won a ribbon there. This tiny little ribbon was the tipping point for starting Honeygirl Meadery, and the wheels started turning. From 2012 until we opened in 2014, I was continuing my search for information and knowledge. I met the owners of Starrlight Meadery [in Pittsboro] and bottled with them; I went up to a cidery in Virginia and participated in their bottling and apple pressing; and I went around to places with stainless steel tanks so I could learn on that scale. I also took some courses through the North Carolina Wine Growers Association to learn a little bit more about the science of mead. I really felt like I had the art side of it down and could put together fun and creative mead flavors as a homebrewer, but I knew that we were going to be making bigger batches and the risk would go up, so I beefed up that side — science of wine, chemical tables, apprenticeships — to continue to teach myself.
OS: What makes this beverage so unique and surprising?
DC: It’s utterly fascinating. When people think about fermenting with honey, their first thought is that it must be really sweet, but my favorite area is the dry to semisweet side of it. It’s surprising that we’re fermenting the honey sugars out, and we’re opening up all the nectar sources — all of the places the bees went. Lots of nuances are available when you’re making mead, because again, honey is our main fermentable sugar, and honey is not just one thing. It can be almost water-clear all the way through, or like molasses — really deep, dark, and rich. When you think about a clover honey versus what I described on the darker side, there’s every range in between. And when we have that honey available as our fermentation ingredient, we’re going to spend time really trying to tease out its best characteristics. What makes Honeygirl unique is that we want to use the simplest ingredients. We want to ferment with fruit; we want to really honor and feature the characteristics of the honey in as minimal and natural a way as we can.
OS: What are the ingredients you use to make mead?
DC: The ingredients we use are simple: honey, water, yeast, and sometimes flowers and fruits. That’s five ingredients, and it’s really important that those ingredients are as beautiful an expression of their time and place in nature as they can be. I like to think that there is a lot of vintage in mead especially with our approach of using fresh fruit. Each year, the strawberries are going to be a little bit different from the year previous, similar to grape growers who are always looking at nature and how much sun and sweetness is in their grapes and the contrast there. We are evaluating each harvest of strawberries and blueberries, determining what honey we think will best accentuate and bring out the gorgeousness of that fruit, and also how the fruit will play with the honey.
OS: Where do you source the fruits you use?
DC: We work with local farms. For example, we just put together a new batch of our strawberry mead. It’s made with Chandler strawberries, which are grown in North Carolina. They’re incredibly aromatic strawberries, very soft and very melty. They’re not grown to be shipped across the country — they’re grown to be enjoyed right here. At the very beginning, I used to pick all the strawberries for our batches. Now I have a farmer in Willow Springs who grows Chandlers. There are many farms that grow them, but I like to work with the same field and the same farmer and get to know a little bit about them and their place so that I have that sense of place coming in from the fruit. We’re very careful in our partnerships.
OS: Let’s talk about honey: Where do you source it and how do particular kinds of honey play into the type of mead you make?
DC: Most of our honey is coming from a small eastern North Carolina apiary: Sawmill Bee Farm in St. Pauls, North Carolina. [The keeper] has about 80 to 90 beehives, and he brings us honey that is really earthy. I talked to him about what grows on the land where he places his hives, because there’s always a really dark characteristic in a lot of his honey, and he said there’s buckwheat in the forage for his bees. So we use that honey when we want to bring out that real earthy characteristic in the mead.
Or we might be looking for more of a highlight coming from the honey, so we’ll use orange blossom honey for a little bit of a sweeter, more floral aspect. So that’s kind of the contrast that I mean, between a wildflower honey that’s more earthy and can be a mix of flowers, and an orange blossom honey, which was made when the beehives were placed in an orange grove. They’re there to pollinate, and they create this honey from all those little white flowers that bloom before the oranges come out. That floral aspect we know is present in the orange blossom honey, and then we work to bring it out and build it up if it needs a supporting star. For instance, we make our orange blossom traditional mead just about the honey: It’s just orange blossom, honey, water, and yeast. To fully develop it, we age it for at least a year. But with that batch, we also make a lavender batch using lavender from Sunshine Lavender Farm in Hurdle Mills. With that batch, the lavender and orange blossom play together really nicely. So that’s an example of how carefully we source and how much we’re thinking about while creating a beverage.
OS: How important are bees to what you do?
DC: A big part of our mission at Honeygirl Meadery is to share the story of the honeybee — how miraculous and amazing bees are and what they do in their lifetime, how hard they work, and what they create. The beauty of honey is knowing that a honeybee, in her lifetime, will create just one twelfth of a teaspoon. It really is magical. But we also want to tell the story of the challenges that bees face. By creating mead, we’re saying, “This is worth saving, honeybees are amazing, honey is incredible.” I like to tell people on our tours that there’s something that we all can do to help the bees, and that is to go home and plant a North Carolina wildflower that you like. Put that in your yard and you’ll be helping.
OS: What is the ultimate philosophy behind Honeygirl?
We would sum up our philosophy as “drink the field,” to put it really simply and concisely. We are going to take the most beautiful ingredients that we can find — fruits, flowers, herbs, and, of course, our honey — and we are going to treat them very simply and gently. Our goal is to transform them, transform an already amazing thing — honey — into mead with minimal intervention. Wait for it, be patient. We never work to hurry a mead along. It sometimes needs a year to fully mature or develop, so our philosophy is to drink the field and bring those elements of nature — bees visiting wild flowers in the field, fruit growing in the field — together, ferment them, put them in a glass, and offer that to you.
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