Story and photos by Claire Hoppens
Dutch Creek Winery is rooted in the Athens hills, just 15 minutes outside campus. For roughly a year proprietors Paul and Cindy Freedman have produced honey wine in a green-roofed barn between two sloping hills. It's a small operation but a mighty one, driven by a passion for hand-crafted products from simple, seasonal ingredients like honey, arguably the most important component.
Paul took up beekeeping with his experience as a Park Ranger and affinity for the outdoors as his guide. He keeps eight colonies of bees on the farm, a short ride from the production and bottling room. When we ride to the top of the hill to check on the bees on an unusually hot day, we can actually smell the hives – a strong honey aroma – from a hundred yards away when the wind shifts in our favor. It’s a mesmerizing scent, especially coupled with the low hum of thousands of bees hard at work.
Each honey harvest yields a slightly different flavor and color of honey depending on where the bees collect their pollen. When I visit in late September the goldenrod is explosive, but in early spring it's the trees that flower first, so honey could take a more amber hue or a sharper taste, depending on it's source. Because of the volume of their production, Paul and Cindy have to supplement their own honey with other local collections, ensuring each source achieves the same quality of honey wine.
Honey wine is a simple and ancient recipe, typically made from fermented honey, water and yeast. It's also referred to as mead, and has the connotation of being a syrupy sweet beverage, served alongside dessert. But Paul and Cindy are striving to change minds and welcome more varied palates. The honey wines Dutch Creek Winery's portfolio are drier, crisper and oriented toward wine drinkers and food pairing.
Dutch Creek Winery has perennial offerings like Royal Affair, a honey wine brewed with earl grey tea, and American Mead, more of a classic take. Seasonal varieties include Autumn Harvest brewed with Laurelville apples and Winter Spice made with apples, oranges and warm spices.
Each batch of honey wine ferments for at least 6-9 months until flavors are ideal and levels of sugar and alcohol are tempered. Throughout the aging process, Paul and Cindy test each batch for flavor profiles. In the case of Commonwealth's Revenge, a barrel-aged honey wine, they ensure that soft caramel and smoky flavors are not outweighed by that of lingering bourbon.
It's clear that Paul and Cindy find inspiration in their land, made up of 100+ acres pieced together over the years. It's their gathering place, their weekend retreat, their solitude and the heart and soul of their business. Cindy says the land, their cabin -- those things feel like home. And while the couple maintains full time jobs and a residence in Clintonville, they spend at least two days a week in southeast Ohio, tending to their business, to the bees and to the land. The next few years will find Paul and Cindy relocating full time to Athens. For now they embrace it as true weekend warriors.
Paul and Cindy hope to open a taproom and event space down the road from the production facility, on a piece of flat, expansive land hugged by the curving road on one side and Dutch Creek itself on the other. They imagine live music, even weddings, plus food pairings and a place where the public can interact, taste honey wine and settle into the hills where it all began.
You can find Dutch Creek honey wines at a number of stores in Columbus and Athens. Find a full list here.
Visit Dutch Creek Winery's website.