Bees Are a Sweet Link Between Mason and the Community

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It’s early summer and warm, but the humidity hasn’t kicked in yet. For this part of Virginia, where the air is swampy most of June, July, and August, this feels like a gift. The sky is clear and clouds high and thin. Dennis Kelly (BA English 2012, MS Technology Management 2015) sits in a wrought iron chair on a shady patio overlooking a grassy hill that slopes gently toward a stand of trees. “The hives are just down there,” he says. “Sometimes I think about clearing some trees so we can see them.”

Amissville, Virginia, just west of Warrenton, is about a 90-minute drive from Washington, D.C. Interstate 66 is the Achilles Heel of area commuters, but the silver lining is that it leads here—to this bucolic setting and to Hinson Ford Cider & Mead. Dennis Kelly, his wife Mary Graham, and business partner Dave Shiff opened Hinson Ford in September of 2018. “We noticed a growing market for mead,” Dennis says. “which we’d been making for ourselves for years. But people are so aware now of the plight of the honey bee—and how it affects humans. It makes them want to support bees and beekeepers, which created a market for all honey-related products—including mead. So, the timing was perfect.”

Dennis Kelly started Hinson Ford Cider & Mead.
Dennis Kelly at Hinson Ford Cider & Mead

The small tasting room at Hinson Ford is cozy, like a ski lodge. The walls are wooden and, on this sunny day, give the space an amber light. There’s a small, beautifully handcrafted bar in one corner and several sets of tables and chairs. Like the cider and mead, this room is a labor of love. “This used to be Dave’s garage.” Dennis says. “He just cleaned it up a little and built the bar himself.” On the walls are canvases of apples and bees and the Hinson Ford logo, which Mary designed. Bottles of cider and mead, all jewel tones of gold and garnet, line the top of a small cabinet. Everything is shiny and clean. It’s a space you’d want to sit in and stay for a while.

A short hallway leads into the production room where the mead and cider are fermented. Here, the cozy feeling gives way to one of light and air and openness. There are tall stainless-steel tanks along the room’s back wall, large fermenters in the center, and open shelving lines one wall. A bourbon barrel, once home to 53 gallons of port wine for ten years, now holds an experimental cider as it ages.

Dennis points out they made every effort to be green in designing and building the facility, including preparations for eventually installing solar panels to cut energy demand. Sunlight pours in the windows. “The air has yeast in it,” says Dave “It used to be that ciders and meads were fermented with just that—the natural yeast floating around.” He smiles. This is clearly a subject he loves. The trio came to this operation with a passion for their craft. And the passion proved necessary—it powered them through the early days of backbreaking work.

“We got approval from the Alcohol Beverage Control to start production at the end of October of 2017. That’s late in the apple season,” Dennis says.

“We rushed to find what we needed locally, and ended up with a flatbed truck of apples on Veteran’s Day weekend. There’s a press out back and the three of us with help from a couple friends just washed and ground and pressed apples for the first batches of cider. It was 22 degrees, so the best job was washer because you could have your hands in warm water. Otherwise we froze.”

Dennis calls the fermenting room “his happy space” and says, “It's amazing. I come up here when we have three or four things fermenting. It smells wonderful and I can...well, you can feel the energy; the trillions of yeasts doing their thing and you can literally walk in and smell if they're happy.” Yeast needs a certain level of nutrients, he explains, and when the level is off, they get stressed and release sulfur compounds. Dennis says, “one morning I walked in here and the smell of things wasn’t right. I could tell the yeast was off. But as long as you don’t kill it, you just have to recalibrate and it adjusts back. Yeast is a living thing.”

Mead, Not Just for Vikings Anymore

Mead is one of the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages. Archeologists have found pottery vessels from as early as 7000 BC whose chemical signatures suggest they once held the fermented honey drink. About 60 CE, Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and naturalist, penned what might be the first written recipe. His version involved years-old rainwater mixed with honey and fermented in the sun for 40 days. Around the world—in nearly every culture where honey is available—some variety of mead is also found. The Masai, in East Africa, drink fermented honey “beer,” and Tej, Ethiopian wine, is also a honey-based mead variation. References to mead have been found in Vedic texts from 1700 BCE, Celtic hymns from 500 BCE, and Old English writing from about the year 1000 CE. In early Celtic and Germanic poetry, mead was more than just a drink—it was seen as a source of knowledge, an elixir that would turn any who imbibed into a scholar. Over the years, other drinks derived from fruit and grains proved cheaper to make and so rose in popularity. Eventually mead fell out of favor and, for many in the United States, was seen as an overly sweet, odd-tasting drink you might buy at the Renaissance Fair—a novelty that most people wouldn’t go out their way to find.

Kelly recalled his first brush with mead, over four decades earlier as a teenager visiting Ireland's Bunratty Castle with his parents. "It's hilarious because we get a surprising number of folks coming here for ciders. They’re scared off of the meads because their first and only experience with mead was at Bunratty, and what they pour there is strong, it's sweet, it's still, it's syrupy, and it's part of the whole Bunratty experience. The tourists love it, and from what I've heard, the folks who make it also make some really great meads. They just don't necessarily sell them there."

The Honey Bee Initiative

Honey is, of course, the base ingredient for mead. This is where George Mason University, Dennis and Mary’s alma mater, comes in. “I read about the Honey Bee Initiative before we opened Hinson Ford,” Dennis said, “and it struck me how cool an idea it is. Especially the interdisciplinary aspect of it.” George Mason’s Honey Bee Initiative (HBI) is a collaboration between the School of Business and the College of Science that “works on honey bee sustainability by providing an innovative education, conducting collaborative research, and establishing community partnerships in our local Northern Virginia region.” The HBI supports education in beekeeping, research, and entrepreneurship, and develops novel ways to improve the security and sustainability of the Northern Virginia ecosystem. The initiative reaches farther afield, too, with community partnerships in Colombia and Peru that focus specifically on offering indigenous people a means of political and economic empowerment. In these places, the HBI also generates discussion about land management and conservation. In Colombia the HBI uses beekeeping to foster economic self-sufficiency among women entrepreneurs. George Mason students involved in the initiative have opportunities to visit the Latin American partners and work side by side on those projects. Colombian students, for their part, were able to visit Mason in March of 2019 through a grant from 10,000 Strong in the Americas—all of which adds a cross-cultural dimension to the interdisciplinary whole.

Creating Connections

But back to this little corner of rural Virginia. Dennis and Dave (Mary was at work—both she and Dennis maintain full-time jobs. Dave is a retired firefighter) speak about mead and cider and their business in a way that highlights their enthusiasm for all of it. They both were home-brewers for years before they came together to create Hinson Ford. Dennis and Mary moved to Amissville from the urban stretch of Northern Virginia that borders the District of Columbia. Once they made the move, Dennis said, they had access to really good, local honeys. Over time, his small-batch home-brews got better and better and, finally, became the impetus for Hinson Ford.

Bee Hives
Hives at Hinson Ford Cider & Mead

Dennis recalled meeting Germán at a Mason event in 2012, and shortly after Hinson Ford opened, dug out his business card and emailed him, suggesting they think about ways to work together. The timing was perfect. The HBI was just beginning to seek out community partners and the fact that Dennis and Mary are both GMU alumni seemed serendipitous. The HBI initially gave Hinson Ford about 80 pounds of honey to work with. Sales of the mead that will be made from that honey will go to support the initiative. As the HBI expanded, though more space was needed to establish new hives. Hinson Ford was game to host, knowing the bees would bolster the growth of the Tulip Poplars, Black Locust trees, the clover and the wildflowers. In turn, the honey would be hyper-local.

“You can say to people that, yeah, this honey came from these trees (pointing) right here and these flowers. That’s amazing to be able to tell customers and they love it.”

Germán Perilla, the co-founder, director, and beekeeper for the HBI, installed 15 hives on a small plot of land just down the hill from the Hinson Ford tasting room. It was a tough couple of years for bees in this part of Virginia. Two winters back there was a 60 percent loss in the bee population. Dennis is clear that he’s hands-off when it comes to bee care and honey harvesting but, because of HBI involvement, he doesn’t need to worry about ensuring bee health. “When Germán came out to set up the hives, he brought the group of Colombian students with him.” Germán and the students, all of whom are involved with the HBI project in Colombia, spent the day wooing the bees into their new homes. When they were done, they slaked their thirsts with their first ever tastes of ‘sidra’ and ‘aguamiel’ in the cool of the tasting room, leaving with several bottles for their trip home “It’s amazing to watch Germán work,” Dennis says. The respect in his voice is clear. “The calm and the grace he exudes when he’s working with the bees; it’s incredible to watch someone who really knows what they’re doing—and who clearly loves it.”

The little neighborhood of hives was painted bright Mason Green and Gold and protected by electric fencing to deter the many local black bears. On calm, bright mornings, the dull sound of humming indicated the bees thrived—no diseases or predators to threaten them. The Tulip Poplars and Black Locust trees bloom nearby, as do the clover and wildflowers the bees love.

Lisa Gring-Pemble is the co-founder of the HBI and also the co-executive director of the Business for a Better World Center. She met Germán, a Colombian, at the university, “when I met him and I found out that he was a beekeeper, it was sort of an instant idea. I said, ‘we need a honeybee field station. Absolutely. We're going to set something up.’” Things happened quickly after that. Gring-Pemble and Perilla applied to attend a conference on honeybees that was ten months away. Gring-Pemble remembers telling Perilla that, “at the conference we're going to tell everybody how we set up this field station and how we raised money for it.” She laughs and adds, “Germán looked at me like I had two heads and said, ‘we have no field station and we have no money.’ And I said, we have ten months to figure it out.” The two initiated a crowdfunding campaign with a goal $10,000. They made $12,000.

Lisa Gring-Pemble sees the HBI as an incredible educational opportunity. “This is everything higher education needs,” she says. “It’s problem driven, so it’s not about ‘what’s your major?’ it's about a challenge you want to solve and it involves the greater community—people like Dennis Kelly and experts who can work with students. That’s the kind of college experience we should be offering.” Her enthusiasm is infectious—both for the HBI and for the idea of social entrepreneurship—a notion the George Mason University School of Business takes seriously.

Inside every beehive are three types of bees. The queen, workers, and drones. Each has a role and each performs it perfectly and in concert with the others. They are connected to one another through their overall mission—gathering pollen and nectar to sustain the hive and its brood, maintaining the structure of the hive, and repopulating the hive. It takes a lot of honey to make mead, and being able to host the bees that make the honey-makes Hinson Ford’s mead hyper local, which small-batch consumers appreciate. But it’s also hyper local in the sense that it’s bolstered by deep community connections. As Gring-Pemble says, “We're focused on bees and we're focused on how sustainable beekeeping can empower communities. And it doesn't matter whether that community is in Colombia and it's a group of women or if it's the Covanta landfill over here. The point is that we're improving lives in communities.” Dennis agrees, “I immediately thought the HBI was a cool idea. It's a neat program. It's an interdisciplinary approach. And, frankly, I think it's nice to see the university doing something positive like that, and it’s a great to be a part of it.”

The bees—for logistical reasons no longer living on Hinson Ford land—were unaware of the role they played in connecting George Mason to the wider community but their legacy continues. As Gring-Pemble says, “We're focused on bees and we're focused on how sustainable beekeeping can empower communities. It doesn't matter whether that community is in Colombia or if it's the Covanta landfill. The point is that we're improving lives in communities.”