Mead Maker: Interview with Starrlight Mead's Ben Starr

Ben Starr Becky Starr Starrlight Mead Pittsboro.jpg

We continue on with our exploration of mead, aka honey wine, during our own personal #meadmonth. After talking to many mead makers around North Carolina and Virginia, we have decided that we might try making our own mead sometime in the near future.

Until that time, you can read up on our interview with Starrlight Mead co-owner and head mead maker, Ben Starr. He was kind enough to chat with us on a busy Sunday afternoon inside the production facility. Check out some excerpts from our conversation below.

Related story: What you need to know about this popular honey wine!

Seems like a lot of mead makers got their start in home brewing. Is that how you got your start as well?

Actually, no. I’m one of the odd ones. My first batch of alcohol was mead.

When did you get your first sample of mead?

Becky and I first tried mead at a renaissance festival. When I was 12 years old, I was a bee keeper, so I always loved honey. So when I had the mead at the renaissance festival – you know honey and booze – it was very hard to go wrong with that combo. I had friends at home that were making mead, and of course, this is over the years, I wasn’t 12 anymore.

Oh, we just thought you had some very cool parents or something like that.

Yeah. Ha-ha. But Becky bought me a mead kit, and then I read this book about wine making, and it told you everything you can do to screw it up. And that’s the way they presented it. And it scared me. So I set aside the equipment for about a year, before I got Ken Schramm’s book, “The Compleat Meadmaker.” I started reading that, and he explains the ‘why’s’ and the ‘not just do this,’ and then it started making more sense to me, and we decided to just go for it. So we made our first batch of mead, and that was around 14 years ago.

Related story: Interview with Ken Schramm of Schamm's Mead in Michigan

So at that time, what were you making as far as gallons? Somewhere between 1 to 5 gallons?

Yeah, we started out with a 5 gallon batch, but we’ve also made some 3 gallon batches, and I had some 1 gallon carboys to try some different things.

What type of honey were you using back then?

We used all different types of honey. We used mesquite honey, actually the very first batch we used, we did a clover honey. This is not my favorite honey to use, but I didn’t know any better at that point.

And how did all these lead to eventually coming up with Starrlight Mead?

We were making so much mead that we ended up giving it away. After about two years we entered a competition with the International Mead Festival in Boulder, Colorado in 2006. We ended up taking the gold medal in our category and the best in show trophy out of the 212 meads.

And that was the point when we decided that we shouldn’t be giving it away, and we started playing around with a business plan. Shortly after, Becky got laid off and then she got a job at Chatham Hill Winery. She worked there for a few years, and shortly after that is when we opened up this place.

When did Starrlight Mead come into the world?

We opened up in 2010. In September will be our 8-year anniversary. And that’s when we’re hoping to move to the new place.

You’ll be in the same area as Fair Game Beverage and Chatham Cider Works, right?

Yeah. We’ll be right off Lorax Lane. Before you get to them you’ll see a huge industrial looking building. That’s where I’ll be make the mead. Actually, the square footage of that is the same square footage of our entire building here. And then right behind that, you’ll see a beautiful, huge, blue building. That will be our tasting room. And that is a little bit larger than this building.

Related story: Interview with Williamsburg's Silver Hand Meadery

Being in that compound with Fair Game and Chatham Cider Works, we can probably look forward to some collaborations in the near future, right? Some barrel-aged meads, and some cysers?

There may be a fortified mead in our future. Using some of the distilled product from Fair Game and adding that to the mead. And with Chatham Cider Works, there’s some collaborations in the works with them as well. Honey and apples go well together, as you know.

There are so many different mead styles – from cysers to melomels, and metheglins to the basic traditional. Do you have a favorite?

I really don’t. I enjoy complexity. Especially when I can take something like our spiced apple – where it’s not just a melomel. It’s not just a cyser. It’s not just a metheglin. It’s a combination of all them together.

We’ve talked to other people making mead here in North Carolina. We recently talked to Diane Currier at Honeygirl Meadery in Durham and Dana Acker at Windsor Run Cellars in Hamptonville. Both had very kind words to say about you. It’s a testament to what you’ve done for mead here in N.C. Is that in part to you being the first meadery here?

Actually, we’re the third. Fox Hill Meadery was before us, and so was Desi Dew, but they closed before we opened. Fox Hill is near Asheville and they distribute, and they make some great stuff.

Thanks for spending a few moments with us. We hope to see you and Becky when you open up your brand new location.