St. Ambrose Cellars in Benzie County is Literally Buzzing

From Sleeping Bear Farms to St. Ambrose Cellars, Kirk and Sharon Joneses’ farm, fields and packaging facility are buzzing with activity. Their busiest workers? Honeybees, of course.

Who would have thought you’d find a Renaissance man in the woods in Benzie County? Or a Renaissance woman, for that matter? Yet there they are, Kirk and Sharon Jones. Their farm, fields and packaging facility are all buzzing with activity. That’s literally buzzing because the busiest workers on this farm are honeybees. The Joneses have turned their interest in honeybees into a series of related, successful businesses—from Sleeping Bear Farms (purveyors of multiple honey products) to BeeDazzled (candles, soaps and body care products) to St. Ambrose Cellars (mead and wine) and Brose Brewing.

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At first meeting, Kirk’s unassuming manner immediately puts you at ease. His ever-present smile crinkles his eyes, setting off his white Fu Manchu mustache. Sharon is equally warm and engaging. Their infectious enthusiasm for everything they do makes perfect sense once you understand their humble beginnings and genuine gratitude for the honeybee communities, which have made it all possible. You feel a sense of respect and reverence when they speak of their bees. Without a doubt, the bees’ intrinsic rhythm—working hard and prioritizing community—has rubbed off on their caretakers. “We’ve been beekeepers for 40 years,” says Kirk, and that passion led them to craft their business in the middle of the woods. But we’re getting ahead of the story.

Their story started when the two of them met in Traverse City in the ‘70s, when the back-to-the-land movement was first motivating people to look to the world around them for sustenance and sustainability. Kirk and Sharon were already doing their part—she was living in a teepee and he had just bought a log cabin, complete with an outhouse. They found in each other a natural fit.

Kirk and Sharon first started collecting maple sap and making it into syrup. It didn’t take long for their interest to shift to something similarly sweet and sticky. “We bought a couple of beehives and we found bees and honey was our thing,” says Kirk. This was a rekindled passion for Kirk, who had an interest in bees as a youth while growing up in Louisiana.

Now, though, the bees were more than a curiosity: They were a business and the Joneses were in it together. “I was his muse,” says Sharon with a laugh—and business partner and fellow laborer. Kirk took his hives to area farms, one after another, to offer much-needed pollination. When the hives were heavy and full of honey, the Joneses collected it and Sharon used the beeswax to make candles, hanging them on the clothesline to dry.

“We took everything the bees gave us,” says Kirk. “We worked together. Sharon carried a 60-pound bucket in each hand.”

With loads of local honey on their hands, the Joneses found their first customer for their honey business in Traverse City’s Oryana Community Co-op. “By the third year, we became Oryana’s primary supplier,” says Kirk. “Now we had a purpose. So we got more bees.”

That’s the story of their businesses: Follow the honeybee, and the rest will follow, though not always easily or in a straight line. Take for example their choice of a vehicle in which to transport their buckets of honey. Unable to purchase a good truck, they made the best of their limited resources, which in this case meant an old Dodge Dart from which they removed the backseat.

Honey wasn’t the only thing they were transporting. They took the honeybees from farm to farm as well, where the bees would pollinate the crops and add to the bounty of honey. It was backbreaking work—the hives grew heavier with each move as they filled with nectar.

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Some 40 years on, some things have changed, while others haven’t. The Joneses are still in the bulk honey business, but they’ve also developed more honey products: comb honey, raw honey, Tupelo honey, wildflower honey, orange blossom honey, lemon honey crème, raspberry honey, cherry honey, honey sticks, even several varieties of mustard (try the dilled honey mustard). Don’t forget Sharon’s BeeDazzled, a line of personal care products—candles, lip balm, lotions, facial care, salve, even insect repellent—all sold at her location on River Road in Benzonia, right next to Gwen Frostic Prints.

It wasn’t all easy. In the ‘80s, the bee population was decimated from an infestation of Asian mites. Over half of the Joneses’ bees died and they were hard-pressed to provide local farmers with bees for their orchards.

Rather than abandon their calling when their bees died, the Joneses abandoned Michigan, at least for the winter. They headed to Florida, where their bees could recover and pollinate the plentiful citrus crops. It was a back-to-the-land adventure. “We lived in a tent for a few winters to take care of our bees,” says Kirk. The couple was able to rebuild, but even today, he says the mites continue to be the largest challenge to the health of the bees.

Eventually, Kirk and Sharon bought a 40-acre farm in the Florida panhandle. Kirk had become fascinated with the writings of earlier century beekeepers who gathered rare and esteemed Tupelo honey there. Tupelo gum trees grow profusely in swamps and along riverbanks in northwest Florida. Today, the Joneses split their time between the north and south.

In their seemingly endless quest to use everything the bees provided, a mistake led to another business outlet. “Mead started from a mistake,” Kirk says. In the early 2010s, to their chagrin, they discovered the moisture content of a batch of raspberry honey crème was too high and couldn’t be used. While Kirk railed against the waste of so much honey, Sharon had one of those lemonade-from-lemons moments. Kirk recalls: “Sharon said, ‘Just make some mead.’”

Their “why not?” spirit resulted in another business success.

“We should make this all the time,” Kirk remembers thinking. So they did. The result was St. Ambrose Cellars, named for the patron saint of bees, beekeepers and candlemakers.

Today, St. Ambrose features nearly two dozen different varieties of the beverage made from fermented honey. The mead from St. Ambrose is now distributed in six states in addition to Michigan: Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina, Tennessee and Colorado.

That mistake became so popular, Kirk had to bring in some winemakers to keep up with the growing demand. You can guess what happened next. “When you get winemakers, they want to make wine, too,” Kirk says, smiling. So, St. Ambrose Cellars now offers a line of wines as well.

It was only natural that the beautiful farm setting was the perfect site for wedding receptions and other events, which led to another unexpected undertaking. “We brewed beer for weddings, etc., so we asked ourselves, ‘Why not get a beer license?’” Kirk says. The state’s burgeoning craft beer industry soon had another entry: Brose Brewing, named by the locals as shorthand for St. Ambrose.

When patrons asked for food to go along with their beverages, Kirk and Sharon obliged, inviting a local food truck vendor onsite. Unfortunately, that food truck folded, so Kirk searched Craigslist for a replacement. When he went to see the potential new truck, he found it parked in a beet field with a dead battery and a broken clutch. He managed to get it running, put a bungee cord on the clutch pedal and drove it home.

“People loved the food so much—every call was, ‘Is the food truck open?’ The food truck was such a hit, we decided to invest in a full kitchen with a large wood-fired pizza oven and extra seating,” Kirk says. He’s hoping to invite local chefs to do some special events, pairing their food with the mead, wine and beer made onsite.

Kirk is happy to stroll the grounds with visitors, trekking from the meadery across the field to the barn, then to the packaging facility on the next lot. Here, the buzz of business is literal. Employees nonchalantly wave away the bees that gather round while they filter honey, fill the jars, mix products and move them to storage areas. Kirk beams while showing how and where the products are refined, packaged and stored, all the while keeping up a running commentary.

As he recollects the details and tells the story of the businesses’ unanticipated growth, Kirk exhibits a sense of wonder at it all. “It had a life of its own,” he says numerous times. There’s been hard work aplenty, and they’ve had to make do with tents, Dodge Darts and more. That—combined with their entrepreneurial spirit and connection to both nature and their community—is at the heart of their success.

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The Joneses work with Grow Benzie, a thriving area nonprofit that features a bevy of programs and events. Located on M-115 between Benzonia and Frankfort, Grow Benzie has gardens and greenhouses, a commercial kitchen, hoop house and sewing studio, and offers a variety of programs and projects for both adults and kids.

“When I started at Grow Benzie, I was tasked with using the space,” says Grow Benzie Executive Director Josh Stoltz. That meant connecting with local businesses, especially those close to nature. “Sharon teaches an apprentice program for upcoming beekeepers and started the bee guild. She’s the queen bee of the community.

“Kirk’s a community guy,” Josh continues. When he approached Kirk about an afterschool program, Kirk jumped in, helping kids make bee boxes. He also welcomed the students to tour the property and learn how the environment and economy are impacted by what they are doing. “They just always want to help,” he says.

Josh’s initial introduction to the Joneses didn’t stem from any business or nature connection. “My dad plays rubboard, so I knew him (Kirk) from that,” says Josh. Mark Stoltz, Josh’s father, is one of the founding members of the popular Zydeco band K Jones and the Benzie Playboys—three guesses who K Jones is. Kirk’s boyhood in Louisiana finds release in the spicy mix of Cajun, creole and roots music that the band plays. He sings and plays both single row and triple row accordion, and has picked up fiddle as well, all paying homage to his roots in Louisiana.

“Mark and I lived a few miles from each other in Louisiana as young kids, but didn’t meet until 25 years later when we formed K Jones and the Benzie Playboys to spread the gospel of Creole/ Cajun music,” says Kirk. Laissez les bon temps rouler.

A lifelong musician, Kirk’s first instrument was recorder, followed by trumpet and guitar. “I taught myself how to play rhythm and blues on a tenor sax listening to records in my early ‘20s,” he says. Sharon, too, is a musician, playing flute, recorder and piano, and she also sings. After discovering Mediterranean-style hand drumming some years ago, she now offers tar, tambourine and frame drumming lessons at BeeDazzled during the summer.

Josh says Kirk’s ambition is reflected in his success, whether it’s music or business. “For me, he’s always been K Jones,” says Josh. “He’s got the personality of a front man and the tenacity to learn and work at his craft.”

K Jones and the Benzie Playboys headline the annual Grow Benzie fundraiser. Originally held in Frankfort as “Bayou on the Bay,” the event has moved to the St. Ambrose/Sleeping Bear Farm property and is now called “Bayou in the Barn.” In addition, the band recorded its fifth album, saluting Creole legend Boozoo Chavis, earlier this year in Lafayette, Louisiana.

St. Ambrose is also a welcoming venue for area musicians, another way in which Kirk and Sharon support, nurture and celebrate community. Artists perform Fridays and Saturdays at the tasting room, and summer Sundays on the lawn. There’s an open mic on Thursdays, and Kirk can often be found there as well. “As the night goes on, it gets more electric,” says Kirk. “I become the lead guitar player. It’s a nice outlet.”

While the workers (both human and insect) are all abuzz in summer, the pace doesn’t slacken in the fall. From spinning honey to using the giant mustard mixer, it’s all hands on deck. It’s not until the frost sets in and winter beckons that it’s time for warmer climes for the bees—and for Kirk and Sharon. They load up the bees on trucks and ship most of them to a bee broker in California, where they pollinate almond groves and other crops. The rest are sent to their farm in Florida. Kirk and Sharon follow them south at the end of January, joining their son, Travis, who manages their Florida farm.

While Kirk and Sharon are in Florida, the crew at St. Ambrose stays busy. They ferment mead year-round and repair equipment in preparation for another summer of honey production. The tasting room stays open seven days a week.

With the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Joneses have had to adapt. Fortunately, the property easily accommodates the numerous picnic tables they’ve purchased, enabling them to maintain social distancing while serving as many people as they did previously between the lawn, porch area and new space provided by the addition. In addition to the new seating, St. Ambrose offers music, with the performers on the small stage in the roomy barn, which opens to the lawn area.

It’s also meant changes in how they serve patrons. Rather than having them stand in line in the tasting room, St. Ambrose now offers table service. Kirk says people love it, and his staff has adapted well. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back,” he says.

The opportunities to work with family and friends while staying connected to nature have brought Kirk and Sharon success and rewards they never anticipated. “We both enjoy working with our awesome staff that makes all the wheels turn,” says Kirk. “We hope to have more surprises in the future and have our legacy endure.”

“We never could have imagined all of this in our wildest dreams, and we count our lucky stars,” he continues. “The honeybees have been good to us.”

Seems that goes both ways.

Ross Boissoneau is based in Empire and writes about culture and business for a number of print and online publications. [email protected] // Tony Demin is a replanted local from Montana. His photos capture the between moments in living wild. tonydemin.com