Sometimes a thoughtful gift can cause a chain reaction. A curiosity becomes a hobby that turns into a family business and eventually becomes a cornerstone of a community. When Aron and Jessica Wehr first moved from Pennsylvania to Robbinsville, North Carolina, Aron got Jessica a holiday gift that would change their lives.
“I bought my wife a few hives for Christmas in 2010 and I didn’t quite realize at the time that I bought myself a full time job,” Aron says.
Those two hives of bees turned into hundreds, and through plenty of hard work and strategizing, they turned their beekeeping hobby into a business called Wehrloom Honey. While this is a feat in itself, what’s even more impressive is the growth of this small business in rural county with a population of less than 9,000 people.
Wehrloom Honey now has a brick and mortar store on a bustling country road in one of the westernmost counties in North Carolina. This is where they sell their honey, mead, beeswax candles, and honey-based skincare products. Hundreds of their honeybee hives are scattered around Graham County, and in an effort to educate visitors, there are about 30 hives behind the shop, perched on a hillside.
It’s a chilly day, so there aren’t many bees buzzing around the hives, but there are a few brave ones flying in and out. “During the year, this is our honeybee observatory. This time of year, it’s a little bit too cold and we don’t want them to die, so we put them back in boxes so they can insulate,” he says.
The bees aren’t the only ones bundling up and working hard. In the back room of the shop, Wehrloom employees are making mead. “This is our meadery,” Aron says. “These tanks are our fermentation vessels and all of them are actively in use right now.”
Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey with water. A wide range of fruits and spices can be added for flavor. At Wehrloom, they’re especially conscious of which varieties of honey they use for making mead, and are proud to use sourwood honey, a regional delicacy, to add complexity to some of their beverages.
“This one is called Home Sweet Home that we make with sourwood. This one is strawberry lemonade. The third one is going to be apple. It hasn’t started fermenting yet. It’s just the juices in there right now,” he says.
Mead is one of the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages, and there’s evidence that fermented honey wine was enjoyed by ancient Greek, African, and Chinese people as far back as 5000 years ago. Mead has seen a resurgence in recent years, and is considered one of the fastest growing alcoholic beverage categories in the US, but even five years ago, you couldn’t find mead or any kind of alcohol in Graham County, North Carolina.
Graham is a dry county, meaning the sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited. Aron and Jessica worked with local officials to create an agricultural exception for Wehrloom Honey’s taproom. Now they are allowed to serve mead because it comes from their honey, an agricultural product that they produce themselves.
Wehrloom has found its niche in the community, not only as a place to buy honey and drink mead, but as an employer in this rural county. They currently have four employees and there’s a big expansion on the horizon. They’ll keep their production, retail space, and taproom in Robbinsville, and in 2020, they plan to add a second location in Asheville, a city that welcomes alcohol-based businesses.
“We’re going to be moving and opening a taproom and sales outlet right there in Asheville. So not only are we going to be having some jobs there, but all of the production will stay here in Graham County. We’ll be hiring on probably three or four people this winter,” he says.
The beehives behind the shop and around Graham County will remain in place, but Aron will need a larger supply of honey to make more mead. In addition to creating their own business in a rural community, they are also creating a market outlet for other farmers. He encourages nearby farmers to produce honey in addition to field crops. Not only do bees pollinate a farm’s fruits and vegetables, but honey is in high demand right now.
Aron remembers a recent conversation with a local food distributor who says farmers are always asking her what they should grow. “I told her, well, damn, I got an easy solution. Just tell them to grow honey because I’ll buy it all,” he recalls.
As Wehrloom Honey continues to expand, they plan to stay connected with customers in Robbinsville.
“We have a lot of tourists in the area. We get a lot of local traffic as well and people that live here know us pretty well,” he says. “Most people who come here, they think they’ve found some big secret and so they come back over and over and over again, which I understand. It’s a little bit like paradise.”
Learn more about Wehrloom Honey and other businesses that offer farm-fresh food and beverages in ASAP’s online local food guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: January 13, 2020