A 21st Century Approach to an Ancient Brew

From the epic of Beowulf to viking feasts and medieval courts, mead has been a staple of European culture and folklore. But instead of being stuck in the pages of history, the brew is on its way to becoming a commodity in Altavista.

Jerome Snyder first began to dabble in the realm of mead when he was involved with a Virginia Tech chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The club is home to all sorts of medieval fare, such as combat and chivalry, arts and sciences, heraldry and more, according to their website.

“The education is just a byproduct of being interested in various medieval arts and sciences and crafts, brewing being one of them,” Snyder said.

After attending a class on honey’s effects on mead, Snyder’s passion turned into action. He began trying to brew mead with friends and admits that his product did not taste very good until years later.

Snyder honed his brewing craft in Lynchburg by participating in the Hill City Home Brew Club, a collective of local brewing enthusiasts who promote and fine tune different techniques. Then, dissatisfied with his career as an engineer, Snyder set out to open a Vahseer Meadworks. In 2015, he participated in Altavista On Track’s Pop Up Altavista entrepreneur empowerment event and was awarded 10 thousand dollars to help with startup costs.

“To have such a specialized and rare type of beverage in our town is something that separates us apart from other communities;
there are only about 12 meaderies in the state of Virginia,” said Emelyn Gwynn, Main Street Coordinator for AOT.

The name of his meadery stems from Norse folklore. In the tale of the Mead of Poetry, a wise man called Kvasir (pronounced vah-seer) was created when the gods spit chewed berries into a vat to form a post-war truce. The fermented brew became Kvasir, whose name meant fermented berry juice. Kvasir was renowned as the wisest man ever. One day a pair of dwarves invited Kvasir to their home, killed him and made mead using his blood. The legend says anyone who drank the Kvasir mead would become as wise and poetic as he was.

Although a dark tale, Snyder says the only thing his mead replicates from the tale is the namesake and Norse aesthetic. In fact, he says the spelling change from the original Kvasir to the current Vahseer Meadworks was to make the name phonetic and easier to pronounce. (It was also due to his inability to get the trademark for the original spelling.)

Mead mixing is not a new process, but according to Snyder, it is a “resurgent and growing industry.” He says while the ingredients and brewing of mead are relatively standard across the board, there can still be a great variety of flavors among mead makers. This is due in part to subtle differences in processing.

The process is fairly straightforward. Take the major ingredients—honey, water and yeast—let them ferment, filter and then bottle. Synder says a traditional mead uses just those ingredients, nothing more.

“The three big, determining factors of overall flavor are the honey you source, the water you use and the yeast you choose,” Snyder said.
The water used in the brewing process has the second biggest effect on honey, according to Snyder. He believes the good quality of water in Lynchburg and Altavista improves his product.

Snyder prefers to support Virginia businesses, when he can, so most of the unprocessed honey he uses comes from Hungry Hill Farms in Nelson County. He is currently preparing a batch using honey that is approximately 30 years old. Snyder believes it will give the meads a “unique flavor profile.”

Despite honey as a major ingredient, not all meads are sweet. Snyder says the mead flavor spectrum can have a wide range, like wine. Currently, Vahseer Meadworks is home to about five flavors of mead, with more in the works.

Undorn is the traditional selection, with its focus being on the flavor of the honey. Jarl’s Bee combines earl grey tea with honey and lemon. Vahseer’s Hadegi variety adds black cherry to the mix and is considered a drier variety. Freyr’s Blend is mead infused with lavender and vanilla. Lastly, Nattmal adds ginger to the mix, giving the final product a sweet and spicy finish. Out of all his flavors, Snyder says that Undorn is the best seller.

Moving forward, Snyder’s first major goal is to have the equipment and capacity to be able to produce the 5000 gallons a year that his license permits. And while mead is more of a niche market right now, especially compared to wineries, he wants Vahseer Meadworks and other meaderies to work on engaging the community in a meaningful way.

“It’s less competition and more collaboration. We are just trying to educate the community on what we have to offer,” Snyder said.

By Jeremy Angione