This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!
All photography by Todd Zawistowski
It all goes back to the honeybees.
“They’re the backbone of our whole organization,” Kirk Jones, winery and meadery operator, beekeeper, businessman and musician, explains during an early-summer tour at Benzie County’s Sleeping Bear Farms.
It’s a humid, late-May afternoon, the sun is strong, and a leisurely walk around these 15 acres slowly builds to a sticky-hot trek. “This is the kind of weather when plants secrete nectar,” Jones says. “This is really good honey time.”
At least 6,000 hives—there are 40,000 bees in one hive—are involved in Sleeping Bear Farms’ operations. Sleeping Bear’s bees are traveling insects; after pollinating in Michigan in late spring and summer, they spend late fall in Florida, then move on to California around February to help with the state’s almond trees.
Here in Northern Michigan, Sleeping Bear’s beekeepers have been working the apiary throughout May, in the evening mostly, when bees are in their hives.
A little bee background, for those of us who might not be up on how exactly they work their buzzing magic: bees enter blossoms in search of nectar, and when they do they also become covered in pollen. As they move on in their search for nectar, they inadvertently pollinate other blossoms, which then grow fruit and vegetables.
As for honey-making, bees produce the sweet stuff within their hives as food stores for the colder months, when nectar isn’t readily available. The flower nectar is broken down into simple sugars and stored in honeycombs. The unique design of the honeycomb, coupled with constant fanning by the bees’ wings, causes evaporation to take place, creating the thick, sweet liquid we know as honey.
Working with bees—inspecting the hives, extracting the honeycombs—isn’t for the faint of heart, Jones says. “Three months of the year I’m in bees, on my knees, working hives,” he says. (His wife, meanwhile, breeds the queen bees.) “It’s hard work. It’s romantic but it’s hard and gritty.” The best beekeepers train themselves to rely upon all of their senses to gauge the health of a hive—the smell of the hive, the sound of the hive, the look of the hive.
Understanding bees so intimately has led Jones on a journey that began with just a few hives and grew to a business that today includes not only honey-making and honey distribution throughout Michigan and the United States—Sleeping Bear Farms raw honey is available in all Meijer stores, and Williams-Sonoma is a customer—but also pollination services for area orchards, a line of beeswax home and health care products called BeeDazzled, and St. Ambrose Cellars, where along with red and white wines, honey and fruit meads are crafted, bottled and on draft.
Thinking back to the earliest days, Jones says, “I thought maybe someday it would grow and people would find us—and they did.” A key moment in the company’s evolution: hiring beekeeper Dave Nesky of Bingham, Michigan, more than 20 years ago. He was “a game-changer,” Jones says.
The, ahem, buzz, about the business as it’s evolved the last 30-some years is something special for Jones and his team: “I’m amazed. I think we’re all amazed.”
“Our goal is to make more bees for Michigan honey-making and to build up stock with queen bees.”
The start of something sweet
Kirk Jones’s interest in bees originated far from Northern Michigan: in the Deep South.
“When I was a kid, I lived in Louisiana. I spent my time in the woods, crawfishing,” he says. “I kept seeing bees in bee trees—I was intrigued by bees living in hollowed trees. These were wild bee hives.”
In 1972, he rode a motorcycle north, ending up at Crystal Lake in Beulah. He re-connected with a high school buddy, now a sales manager for Sleeping Bear Farms, and together they explored Northern Michigan, including the Upper Peninsula’s Keweenaw Peninsula. “I love Michigan,” says Jones, whose grandmother left the U.P. copper mines to live in southern Michigan.
Fast-forward to 1980, when Kirk and Sharon Jones, then in their 20s, lived in a log home in Honor. Committed to growing their own food and organic gardening, the couple made maple syrup and explored beekeeping and honey making.
They began working with Oryana, the food co-op in nearby Traverse City. “We used to take the rear seat out of our blue Dodge Dart and put honey in it,” he says, “and Sharon would drive to Traverse City.”
So much has come after—adding hives, hiring people, expanding product offerings, taking care of the bees and the local environment—and all of it is about building a strong business in the area they and those who work with them chose to call home. “It’s about everybody in our organization … it’s a lifestyle. That’s what it’s about,” Jones says.
St. Ambrose Cellars: Wine & Mead
Off a rural road amid scenic farmland, St. Ambrose Cellars treats visitors to a variety of wines and honey meads, some flavored with fruits.
You’ll first notice the rusty-red 1800s post-and-beam barn, a venue used for special events. The tasting room, at the end of a short dirt road behind the barn, features 12-foot-tall stained-glass windows from the Traverse City Playhouse (which was formerly a church), and a locally made 17-foot-long cypress plank table created from a single tree hundreds of years old. The communal table seats 18 people. The fermentation area is viewable through vintage windows behind the bar.
St. Ambrose, with fermenting taking place in tanks ranging from 50 gallons to 2,200 gallons in its new Beulah facility, offers estate meads and draft meads as well as white and red wines made from regionally grown grapes. “People come in and it’s rare that they leave without something they liked,” says Kirk Jones, St. Ambrose founder.
St. Ambrose meads have garnered plenty of attention in recent years, earning medals at the prestigious Mazer Cup International Mead Competition in Colorado. This is the biggest mead competition around, and St. Ambrose received medals each of the past three years.
St. Ambrose has slated six of its 12 draft meads for bottling, and Jones expects them to be the “rock stars” of his lineup. He credits winemaker Matt Frollo with helping raise the bar in developing new products. “It just tastes so good,” Jones says.
In August of 2015, the draft mead Evil Twin was bottled, flashing a robustness born of Montmorency cherry and ginger flavors.
Crafting top-of-the-line meads—the Evil Twin is considered top shelf—is important to St. Ambrose. For example, using fresh ground and frozen ginger from California in the meads costs more, but yields more citrus notes and a smoother finish. “Let’s go all out on quality and don’t worry about profits. People will pay a little more if the quality is good,” Jones says.
Connecting With Your Honey
Kirk Jones enjoys connecting with Sleeping Bear Farms and St. Ambrose Cellars followers on social media—he’s on it every day, he says, and enjoys posting updates and videos about the operation. “We’re building community. People are looking for a connection to nature and food and wine, and with the farmers, the mead-makers and the wine-makers.” Find social media links on the St. Ambrose website.
Bonus: Jones is a musician too. Catch Kirk Jones as he sings and performs French-Creole music with his band, K. Jones and the Benzie Playboys, at locations throughout Michigan, including the annual winery event “The Crush,” in September. Details at benzieplayboys.com.
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