By Erin Van Rheenen | Special to The Tico Times
Michael Lindeman and Alejandra Arraya sit on their front porch in Alajuela, Costa Rica, singing the praises of honey wine. Their own wine, to be exact, made with honey from their very own bees. Michael’s blue eyes flash with enthusiasm; Ale smiles as she folds her hands across her very pregnant belly. Both seem happy but still a little bemused that after 15 years working demanding jobs in the U.S. that had nothing to do with bees, they’re back in Costa Rica, the proud owners of 20 beehives and a spare bedroom full of fermenting tanks, bottles and a brand new corker.
“The old one was like the Pinto or Edsel of corkers,” says Michael. “Our new one isn’t quite a Rolls Royce, but it’s a very nice model.”
Though this is a new venture for Michael and Ale, mead itself is the oldest alcoholic beverage known to humankind. All you need is water, honey and yeast. “So let’s say there’s a hive in the hollow of a tree,” Michael says. “Rain blows in, and so does a bit of wild yeast floating around. It all ferments, some caveman dips his hand in and voila: mead.”
Keeping bees and making mead isn’t just the couple’s latest passion; it’s also their new business. And they’re in good company as other handcrafted libations gain popularity in Costa Rica. Wine culture is growing, with a greater selection of imports every year and two schools in San José offering sommelier classes. Craft beer brewing is also on the upswing. In July 2011, a handful of microbreweries and a store that sells beer-making equipment banded together to form Costa Rica’s first craft brewing association.
Wine culture and craft brewing have been booming in North American and Europe for a while now, but international movements tend to arrive a little later in Costa Rica. The appetite for organic food, locally produced fare and a sort of backyard DIY ethic also hit later here than in places like the U.S. But Costa Rica, with its long growing season and mild climate, turns out to be particularly well suited to such efforts.
Beekeeping in the tropics is different as well. In cold climates, bees visit flowers and make honey during just a certain portion of the year, and the purpose of honey is to feed the hive during winter, when flowers aren’t blooming and little or no nectar is available for harvest. In warm climates, though, bees can collect nectar and produce honey just about year-round, so they don’t need to save honey (or have sugar provided by the beekeeper) for the long, cold winter.
Michael and Ale project that each of their hives will produce an average of 30 kilos of honey per year. “We’ve done the math,” says Michael. “With 20 hives we can make about two thousand bottles of wine per year.” They may also buy honey from other beekeepers to augment that number and to experiment with different flavor profiles.
Mead tastes of the flowers the bees have tapped for the honey. Coffee flower honey, for instance, produces a brightly flavored mead with mild stimulant properties, while honey from tropical flowers like maracuya (passion fruit) creates mead with a heady fruitiness. Michael explains it in terms of terroir, the French term often associated with wine that can also be applied to any agricultural product; it refers to how the soil and weather of a particular place interacts with the plant’s genetics and is expressed in everything from wine to coffee to chocolate to honey.
“The U.S. is so big, they have lots of single-source honeys, whether it’s orange blossom, clover or honey from the tupelo flower in Florida and Georgia. You also get multi-floral honeys like the wildflower honey you see on supermarket shelves. But in Costa Rica, it’s so small and everything’s so diverse and dense, you can’t get a honey that’s just, for example, from mango flowers. The bees travel in a five-mile circumference, they forage.” And in a place as wildly diverse as Costa Rica, the bees encounter many different kinds of flowers. The only single-varietal honey in Costa Rica is from the coffee flower, since this country has so many coffee fields.
Taking care of business
“It will probably take three years before we make money,” says Michael. Meanwhile, they’re investing in equipment and filing all the paperwork needed to do business in Costa Rica. They’ve got plans for a sparkling mead for weddings; honey wine used to be the traditional drink for both weddings and to keep bride and groom happy during the aptly named honeymoon.
They’ll sell their honey and their mead at farmer’s markets, and hope to have a tasting room at nearby Ark Herb Farm, where they keep their bees. Ale also makes goat cheese; Michael says that a little honey drizzled on goat cheese goes remarkably well with a glass of mead.
The couple is also launching BeeCo Tours – a play on Ecotours – introducing visitors to that aspect of Costa Rica. Before getting their own hives, Michael and Ale took courses at the local university, visited apiaries all over the country and even attended international beekeeping conferences. Speaking from experience, Michael points out that “there’s a niche group of people who would like to travel to Costa Rica and are beekeepers, who wouldn’t mind doing a day or two of activities related to beekeeping. “There are regional beekeeping associations,” he points out. “Like for Nicoya, Atenas or Jicaral. There are also women’s beekeeping associations” in Costa Rica.
How it all started
When the couple met back in 1995, neither had bees on the brain. Michael was teaching English at the Costa Rican-North American Culture Center in San Jose; Alejandra was studied English there. “She wasn’t my student,” Michael clarifies with a smile. But the two fell in love, and when Michael had to return to Champagne, Illinois, to finish his ESL degree, Ale went with him.
“We arrived in Illinois on a cold, dreary, January day,” Michael recalls, “It was the first time Ale had experienced sub-zero temperatures.” For someone who’d grown up in sunny Costa Rica, it was quite a shock. But Ale adjusted quickly, enrolling in school, earning an engineering degree, and landing a good job with Caterpillar Industries. Michael secured a faculty position at the University of Illinois, now their shared alma mater.
Centro de Investigaciones Apícolas Tropicales (CINAT): http://www.cinat.una.ac.cr/
Costa Rica Meadery’s website in progress: http://www.beecotours.com/
“Then we had Sofia,” says Michael. “She rocked our world, in a good way.”
“We started re-evaluating,” says Ale.
After 15 years in the U.S., the couple and their toddler returned to Costa Rica in March 2011, excited to get back to Ale’s homeland and hoping to make a living in something related to sustainable agriculture and organic farms. In the U.S., they’d seen how Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) worked to bring fresh produce to the cities, and how Community Supported Kitchens (CSK) transformed that produce into healthy meals.
Their first business idea was a CSK adapted to Costa Rica. They would prepare and deliver gourmet organic meals to Central Valley expats and wealthy Ticos. But somewhere along the way that plan took a hairpin turn.
“We decided we hadn’t come back to Costa Rica to spend hours every day in the car,” says Michael. “Also, there was an infrastructure problem: how to get past the gates in gated communities. And there are a lot of expats on fixed incomes, looking to make their colones stretch.”
They’d had an interest in beekeeping when they lived in Champagne, but city ordinances prevented them from keeping bees. Once back in Costa Rica, the couple enrolled at the National University’s (UNA) Centro de Investigaciones Apícolas Tropicales (CINAT), the Center for the Study of Tropical Bees, founded in 1988. The couple took a beekeeping course that CINAT offers every fall.
“There were about 30 students, mostly Ticos,” says Ale. “The course culminated in visits to local hives,” which they documented in videos now posted on YouTube under Michael’s name. Then they enrolled in a honey winemaking course. “There were 20 or so students, “ says Michael. “All were beekeepers with between 20 and 200 hives. Some were at the hobby level; some were serious commercial beekeepers, looking for this value-added option.
You struggle to make a living as a beekeeper, like any agricultural or farm-related business. We met four times over two months; we basically made mead, went through all the steps. We were the only expats in the class, unless you count students from Mexico and Nicaragua who were in the masters program. The class was in Spanish, and it cost maybe $40 per person.”
Soon thereafter, Costa Rica Meadery was born. Michael and Ale’s bees are now buzzing away, their distillery tanks are full, and they’re busy designing labels for their “hidromiel seco” (dry mead). Keep a look out at farmer’s markets and hotels and weddings for a sweet new taste of the oldest alcoholic beverage known to humankind.
About the Author: Erin Van Rheenen is author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica; the fourth edition is due out on Fall 2013. www.livingabroadincostarica.com