It was Christmas 1997, and Mark Simakaski was looking for a gift
for his wife Nichole Wolfgang. Her beloved pet beagle, Sage, had
just died, at age15, and Mark had an idea. Why not find her another
pet, or, better yet, tens of thousands of them? Bees.
He would not have guessed it, but his gift would set the couple
on a new life course; in a few years they would scrap their
careers; leave their home in Chester, N. J., a wealthy town just
west of New York City; join the Peace Corps in South America, and
find their way to Vermont, where they would open a meadery, one of
the few if not the only one in the state.
The Christmas Day present was actually two "stacks of wood" that
Mark had to assemble into two hives. The bees, some 80,000,
including two queens, arrived later in two packages, three pounds
"This all came as a surprise to Nichole, but she pretty much got
on board," says Mark. "It was just one of those wacky ideas that
It is now 15 years later, and on a late-summer day, Mark and two
helpers, Kirsten Murch of Groton and Hilary Bumgarner North
Haverill, N.H., are hard at work inside the meadery, Artesano,
filling 1,800 bottles with honey wine.
Today's process is quite simple but time-consuming: First,
nitrogen is pressure-shot into each bottle to remove the oxygen
that would reduce shelf life; then the bottles, two at a time, are
hand-held under a tube dispensing the mead, and finally the bottles
are held under a machine that compresses and then punches corks
into each bottle.
The three are a team, busy workers in a human hive.
Nichole, who handles sales and marketing, is home this day with
the couple's two kids, so it's Mark who is minding the shop - the
white clapboard building on Main Street that until a few years ago
was the Groton General Store.
A flag outside with the single word 'Open' flutters in a breeze,
inviting visitors to enter and sample.
As Mark describes things, the bees that he bought in '98 were
more of a catalyst than the determinant. Nonetheless the two,
graduates of Drexel University, both with degrees in chemical
engineering, had been "doing the corporate thing" for 12 years,
were sick of it yet coping by, among other things, embracing their
new-found hobby of beekeeping.
By 2005 they had had enough. They joined the Peace Corps and put
their knowledge of bees to charitable use. They went to Paraguay,
to a small town, San Antonio, where farmers scratched out livings
growing beans and sesame plants and wanting to learn about honey
The couple spent a year in Paraguay, and then another year in
Argentina, where Mark studied at a culinary school, learning about
food science and safety and the joys of experimenting with
Newly returned to the U.S., the couple considered living in the
Pacific Northwest or Colorado, but Vermont also was on the search
list, and on a cold, blustery November day, they passed through
Montpelier and were impressed by its friendliness. They bought a
house in West Groton in 2008 and began seriously considering bees
as business partners
"We had made mead in jugs in Paraguay, using peaches (as
fermentation agents), and it wasn't bad, so we figured if we could
find some good equipment, we make something nice," says Mark.
They began their business-planning that year, as the recession
hit, which actually worked to their advantage: A manufacturer gave
them a deal on the stainless-steel fermentation tanks (designed by
Mark), which are among the most expensive pieces of equipment at a
After four years of operation, Artesano Meadery has a spot on
the "Vermont Wine and Vine Trail," the guide established by the
state's Grape and Wine Council for tourists. So one could say Mark
and Nichole's meadery is now on the map.
Artesano produces some 16,000 bottles of wine a year,
distributed in person by the couple to more than 50 stores, food
co-ops and farmers markets. The meadery offers several varieties of
honey wine: sweet (traditional), dry, spicy and fruit-flavored,
including raspberry, cranberry, blueberry and blackberry.
When pressed, Mark says his favorite is blueberry mead,
something concocted quite simply by dumping berries into the honey,
water and yeast after fermentation.
Artesano mead is sold in elegant 500 ml bottles with a logo,
somewhat abstract, of a bee, or perhaps a hummingbird, approaching
a swirl that suggests a flower. The label is simple and cheerful,
which the couple would argue reflects what's inside.
Not surprisingly, Mark suggests their mead wines are right for
all occasions, whether for sipping or as a meal accompaniment. The
former culinary student suggests braising a pork shoulder with
mead, or to adding it to home-made mustard recipe.
"It works great in a vinaigrette," chimes in Hilary Bumgarner,
while holding bottles at the corking machine.
Mark and Nichole still have bees behind the house, three hives
facing south on a slope, but the bulk of Artesano's honey comes
from commercial hives in Bridport and on the Champlain Islands.
Mark, tall and lanky, drives a U-Haul to pick up the honey in
55-gallon barrels. Back in Groton, he pours it into the tanks,
one-part honey, four-parts water plus a brick of yeast. The mixture
ferments for about three weeks, then is stored for nine months of
Mark expresses pride in his product, admits the couple had luck
from the get-go finding the right recipe. He also credits the bees
and the landscape.
Without invoking the French word "terroir," so fashionable in
the food circles these days, he says his honey reflects the
region's flora, the clover and wildflowers that grow in the
He also says he always feels "we're not there yet" with
Artesano's mead, so he spends days "tweaking and perfecting, which
is the fun of this."
He mentions this while standing next to a stack of bourbon
barrels, most recently used by a brewer in Maine. Artesano
purchased them to further age and flavor a small batch of mead,
which will be sold in a few weeks as "Poet's Mead."
That mead got a little extra dose of raw honey, explains Nichole
on the following day at the shop. "And, it should have a higher
alcohol content and turn out Port-like, presenting a good dessert
Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance writer and