11 Apr Kentucky’s Hive & Barrel Meadery Puts the Buzz in the Barrel
TOURISM NOTE: This article originally appeared in The Alcohol Professor, an online “homeroom” to learn about all things bibulous – wine, beer, spirits and cocktails, along with travel tips, book reviews, bar reviews, recipes and videos – on January 13, 2021. Hive & Barrel Meadery is a team of three owners: Chris Brian, Lacie Monno and Joel Halbleib. Brian and Monno have extensive business experience and acumen from their other ventures, including Six Row Events in Louisville and Backside Grill, located in Oldham County. Halbleib is owner, head mead maker, and director of operations. To some he is better known as the face of Goodwood Brewing in Louisville, KY where was COO/Brewmaster for 14 years. Halbleib has a long history of brewing award winning beer at the commercial levels and making award winning beer and mead at home for over thirty years. He adds a wealth of knowledge through beverage production technology, distribution, marketing, quality control, inventory control, and client relations.
January 13, 2021
The Alcohol Professor
About 20 miles outside of Louisville, Kentucky, sits a small warehouse full of aging barrels. Of course it’s not out of the ordinary to find such stashes of barrels in this neck of the woods — after all, it is Kentucky, where 95 percent of the country’s bourbon is produced. But these barrels aren’t maturing whiskey anymore. They’re housing something much sweeter and simpler in their second life, a spirit that dates back thousands of years: mead.
Hive & Barrel Meadery has been producing barrel-aged mead for 3 years now at its Crestwood, Kentucky, headquarters, which shares space with 3rd Turn Brewing and its expansive outdoor venue called Oldham Gardens. Joel Halbleib, an acclaimed veteran brewer formerly of Louisville’s Goodwood Brewing Co., leads the production helm as head mead maker and director of operations.
Halbleib credits brewing for changing his life for the better, and the path that brought him to mead is like the cherry on top, he says. Nearly two decades ago, he was in the IT world, pecking away on keyboards all day long and making a hobby out of homebrewing at night. He realized brewing was such an important, creative drive for him, he took the risky leap to pursue it full time. He quickly worked his way up the ladder in Louisville’s bustling brewery scene and spent 14 years as head brewer at Goodwood. And when the opportunity to dive into mead presented itself 3 years ago, he took the leap — mainly because he loves learning and welcomes a challenge. “This is my happy place. It really is. I’ve found it, and it excites me to do creative stuff,” Halbleib says. “I still do administrative stuff to keep my busier than I want to be on a computer, but it makes me happy to be creative.”
Halbleib joined the Hive & Barrel team full time in 2018, about a year after he and 3 partners helped get the company off the ground. His current title as owner, head mead maker and director of operations allows him the creativity to make any style of mead he so chooses, and as of late, the company also is getting into cider and winemaking as well. Currently, there are 13 Hive & Barrel meads available by the 375mL bottle at 3rd Turn Brewery, online, and at select Kentucky liquor stores, and Halbleib is always working on new flavors to present as one-offs for his devoted customers who visit him at Oldham Gardens. His best-sellers include Hibiscus Mead, PB&J Sammich, Mango Chipotle, and, of course, his line of barrel-aged products.
As one might imagine, the world of mead — basically “fermented honey” — is vast and varied. Some can be sugary sweet and others dry like a glass of pinot gris. Halbleib’s happy place is right of middle — if the mead spectrum went from sweet to dry — which he attributes to his brewing background.
“I’m not a fan of overly sweet, which is hilarious coming from someone who works at a meadery,” he explains. “I come from a wine and a beer side, so I enjoy things I can enjoy by the glass. I think most of my products are on the semi-sweet and dry side of the spectrum of meaderies.”
Aging mead in used bourbon barrels was a no-brainer for Halbleib, and he’s even reached outside of Kentucky for experiments with rum and wine barrels. And since bourbon distilleries are conveniently located nearby — Kentucky Artisan Distillery, which makes Jefferson’s Bourbon, is literally a stone’s throw away — he likes to forge partnerships whenever he can. In fact, Halbleib has a few new products he’s working on, which include aging his mead in barrels from Angel’s Envy, Jefferson’s, Spirits of French Lick, and Copper & King’s American Brandy, to name a few.
Halbleib is a fan of aging mead and believes wood is about the best way. His current bourbon barrel-aged products age for about 2 to 3 years in used barrels. “Mead stays in the barrel as long as it takes,” he adds and reports that bourbon takes the longest of all to pull flavor out of the barrel. Says Halbleib “It took two years to get some flavor out of the barrel, whereas the rum was only a matter of months.” Halbleib’s most sought-after product is a mead he aged in a barrel for 10 years (an experiment he began long before Hive & Barrel), and it is every bit as rich and decadent as you’d imagine. It retails for $89 a bottle since the supply is dwindling.
Recently, Halbleib has been experimenting with cider as well as white and red wine, mostly for the customers at Oldham Gardens who want options other than beer and mead. Also, immersing himself in other spirits and methods of production is fun for him and keeps him on his brewing toes. “It’s been exciting for me to be able to branch out a bit just beyond mead,” he says. “Mead will always be our No. 1, but if we can make a bunch of cider and that allows us to be more comfortable with what we’re doing and expand some, then we will.”
Hive & Barrel is located at 6302 Old LaGrange Road in Crestwood, Kentucky. Some products are available online and in select retail outlets in Kentucky.
The author of this article, Sara Havens, is a Louisville, Ky.-based freelance writer and editor who has covered the bourbon scene for over 15 years. Her work has appeared in various local, regional and national publications such as WLKY-TV (Louisville, KY), Leo Weekly, Kentucky New Era, Columbus Monthly, Alcohol Professor, The Messenger (Madisonville, KY), and The Bourbon Review. She pens the popular nightlife column, The Bar Belle, and has authored two volumes of “The Bar Belle.”