Five years ago, Greg Wilhelm, like many New Yorkers, started brewing beer at home. “I was interested in using as many ingredients as I could produce myself,” he said. So he began growing hops and fruit plants as ingredients for his beer brewing, but what turned the hobby into a serious business possibility was his decision to become a beekeeper and start making beer from honey. “I got addicted to beekeeping,” he said. “I’ve built it up to 30 hives and hope to grow it to 50 to 60 hives this summer.” The hives currently produce 3000 pounds of honey per year and he hopes to produce up to 5000 pounds in the near future.
Wilhelm, a senior in the BBA Weekend College program at SUNY Cobleskill, works full time as a designer for an engineering firm, but said he realized that his real dream was to own his own business. In pursuing his degree, he enrolled in Dr. Scott Ferguson’s Entrepreneurship class and told his professor he wanted to start a meadery.
“There are breweries everywhere and I knew I could not compete,” he said. But having produced mead, or wine from honey, in the past for personal consumption, he thought it would be a good opportunity to produce an alcohol product that could sell for a substantially higher price than raw honey would. “Since honey is essentially sugar, you can produce any kind of alcohol from it,” Wilhelm explained. “Honey is the fermentable sugar and you can add water, apple cider, or any fruit to it to add flavor.”
The class allowed Wilhelm to create a business plan for the meadery and when the opportunity arose, he entered his plan into the April 4th Mohawk Valley Region Business Plan Competition at SUNY IT. There, he won first place in the category of Products/Services, taking home a $500 prize and the chance to enter the state-level competition. On April 25th, he became the first competitor from the Mohawk Valley Region to place at the state competition when he won third place in his category, earning him a $1500 prize.
“Greg was the only one in his category to place who did not have an existing business or a patent,” said Ferguson. “Many of the entrants were not only in businesses already making money but many were at the Ph.D. level. So Greg was up against some tough competition.”
Wilhelm has been putting his winnings to good use in getting his business, Royal Meadery, started. To date, he has formed an LLC, had a logo designed, and developed marketing materials. A website is in production and he will apply for his producer’s license with the balance of the funds.
At this point, Wilhelm is scouting out facilities to house his winery, one of which is close to the College. “I spoke to the College about being a candidate for Start-Up NY,” he said. “It would work well with the focus on food, beverages and agriculture.” If negotiations for the facility are successful, Wilhelm says he can start construction within the month, after which he plans to file an application for the program.
His goal is to produce the first batch of three different wines by September 1 to be ready for sale in December. The first wine, New York Nectar, will be a traditional honey wine. Apple Pie Mead, made from apple cider, honey, vanilla and cinnamon, will be the second; and the third is called Ginger Mead, a traditional mead wine with ginger added that Wilhelm says would be “great for a hot day or to be mixed with liquor for cocktails.” Ginger mead martinis, perhaps?
“Most of the recipes came about from experiments I have done over the past five years,” he said. He has close to six five-gallon “batches” of wine in his basement right now, and says that once he obtains a facility, production can start immediately. Each 5-gallon batch requires 18 pounds of honey, and he says that the first commercial batch is expected to produce around 100 gallons of wine. While he will not be permitted to make beer at the same facility under New York State law, he hopes to also produce cider products and cyser, an apple cider and honey drink which is about 7-10% alcohol.
After researching the industry in trade magazines, Wilhelm decided to take a leap of faith and invest his own money into the business to get things started right away. “People I read about were saying they can’t make the product fast enough,” he explained. “The business plan competition gave me a lot of momentum to move forward—not only the money to start buying, but encouragement from the people who supported the meadery as a good idea.”
He credits the Weekend College program with having awarded him the opportunity to study business while working full time and Professor Ferguson with advice from his personal business experience as well as contact with local business people who could help Wilhelm get started. Wilhelm also has begun networking with other mead producers from surrounding states who have offered their support based on their experience in the business. And if the meadery is as successful as he hopes it will be, he could be helping other beekeepers in the area by being a new customer for their products.
Follow Wilhelm’s business progress and see how this story continues by liking Royal Meadery on Facebook.