A Need for Mead

4/6/2013 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

Md. Family Turns Ancient Recipe Into Award-Winning Passion

MIDDLETOWN, Md. — The Wilk family passion is mead.

And their passion was rewarded recently at the 2013 Mazer Cup International Commercial Meadery Competition.

Andrzej (pronounced Andre) Wilk, his wife, Marzanna, and their son, Andrzej Jr., have owned and operated the Orchid Cellar Winery in Middletown for the last several years. Two of their meads won silver medals at the international competition held recently in Boulder Colo.

Mead is an ancient drink, first made from fermenting honey more than 20,000 years ago and expanded throughout the world, although it has been widely supplanted by wine made from grapes in recent times.

“The first alcohol I ever had back home in Poland was mead,” said Marzanna, her eyes bright with the excitement of winning. “When we came here, I went into the liquor stores and found mead but it was not the fruity, spiced meads I was used to.”

“We were able to find meads but they are of a different style,” Andrzej said with a chemist’s analysis that he quickly simplified. “They are usually much lighter and less sweet. What we are making are very traditional and very heavy strong meads.”

Orchid Cellar Winery’s “Archer” mead won the silver medal in category 5a-Megheglin or spiced meads and their “Hunter” took a silver in category 8c-specialty (open category)-sweet mead.

“We are very proud to have won silver medals in this competition,” Andrzej said. “This is an international competition so we were competing against some of the best mead makers from around the world.

“A big chunk of meads that we make are traditional spiced meads,” he said. “They are well known in central Europe, but each of us has their own little secrets to change the flavor a little with the same recipe. You always make something unique and creative.”

Orchid Cellar Winery has been offering award-winning meads since 2009, when they won their first Governor’s Cup Gold Medal followed by silver awards in 2010 and a Gold Winemaster’s Choice award in 2012.

Andrzej learned the art of wine and mead making from his father, Czelaw.

“The whole family is from Ledz, Poland, and we came to the states 20 years ago,” Andrzej said. “I am a bio-organic chemist and we came here to do science. This is a family business and everyone is involved in the process, although my son does most of the heavy lifting.”

“We are all very proud and passionate about our awards and meads,” chimed in Andrzej Jr. “I started in the business full time when I was 21 and decided that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I have learned so much about making mead and I love to see people’s reactions to our product.

“Mead and winemaking is all about keeping things clean,” he said. “You have to stay clean and organized and that is how I am so it works well for me.”

The rolling hills of western Maryland work well for the Wilks’ traditional science.

“We enjoy the fellowship here,” Andrzej said, acknowledging the friends he has made here. “We were looking for good ground with drainage to plant our grape vines, sun exposure, slopes and we found it here. The design of the house lends itself to our small production and the view settled the matter.

“In Poland, making mead is a thousand-year-old tradition kept alive by monks,” he said. “Each group of monks keeps their own recipes throughout Europe. France made the switch to wine from grapes early on, but you can find these meads in Ireland, Germany, as most of Europe used honey for the sugars in their fermentation.

“Our premium meads age in 60-gallon oak barrels for two years or more, and the regular meads are 18 months,” Andrzej said, emphasizing the traditions and chemist’s differences between mead and wines. “The more aged the mead, the better it is and mead doesn’t spoil. Wines and meads are somewhat similar because it is a natural fermentation from a microbiology standpoint. However, wine starts with lower sugar content and the environment is very friendly to the yeast. In mead, the sugar is very high at the beginning and there is a higher alcohol content at the end so the environment is more difficult and the parameters are quite different.”

“Everything is natural and organic,” Marzanna said. “We try to stay with organic as much as possible, and since our recipes are over 600 years old there was nothing artificial then.”

They use about 500 gallons of locally purchased honey per year by volume, Marzanna said.

“The clover honey is best for mead,” she said, said explaining the delicate balances of the honey’s flavors with the spices and fruits that they blend to get their award-winning meads. “For me, I love mead much better than wine.”

Orchid Cellar meads have traditional spices — cinnamon, ginger, cloves and all-natural ingredients — and no extracts, Andrzej said.

“Some people have a preconception of sweet wines and are hesitant about trying it,” he said. “But even though the meads are sweet they are not the same as a grape wine, and all of them have different flavor. If they try one they will really like it.”

Mead is not the only fermentation going on at Orchid Cellar Winery, as evidenced by the rows of grapes growing on the hillside behind the house. The Wilks are scaling up their production each year and will produce more than 1,500 gallons of wine from their grapes this year.

They use the Geneva system developed at Cornell University to support their vines with high wire and dual vine supports, Andrzej said.

“We get about 10 bunches of grapes per vine of the Petit Verdot grapes,” Andrzej said, pointing to the red Bordeaux grapes. “They bring a lot of flavor and tannins to the wine. This French variety does very well in Virginia and Maryland. We also grow the Petit Manseng, a white grape which is excellent for dessert wines.”

The arbor intertwined with the growing grapes makes a great place for an event.

“Many people like to party in our vineyard,” Andrzej said with a smile. “We are small so we can’t have very large events, but the vineyard creates a calming charm in the summer when everything is green, but it is so ordered you can see the human hand and labor in it.”

Orchid Cellar products are sold at the winery, many liquor stores and restaurants throughout Maryland, according to marketing manager Karolina Gajdeczka.

“Facebook is one of our primary advertising mediums,” she said.

They also will be going to various festivals this year, including the Maryland Wineries Association’s Decanter Festival at the Pimlico Raceway April 20-21 and Wine in the Woods in Columbia, Md., May 18-19.

“I like getting constructive criticism,” Andrzej Jr. said with a big smile. “If someone doesn’t like something about our meads we want to know, and maybe we can make a change in the next batch.”

And there will be many more batches.

“They just delivered several 500-gallon stainless steel tanks, as up to now we have been making meads and wines by the wooden barrel,” Andrzej said with a bit of trepidation in his voice. “I thought going from the demijohn to my first barrel was a big leap for me psychologically, and now I am taking another leap to 500-gallon tanks.”


Orchid Cellar Winery: www.orchidcellar.com.

Mazer Cup International: www.mazercup.com

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