Making Mead

As a new entrepreneur in a unique field, Greg Heller-LaBelle ’10G quickly realized the fruitlessness of trying to tell people what he did. Either they didn’t understand him or they didn’t know the product—even though it is one of the oldest beverages ever made.

“Now I just say that I make alcohol out of honey,” he says with a laugh. “It’s easier, and then I can explain it to them.”

The growing popularity of mead—an ancient alcoholic beverage most commonly associated with the Viking raiders of the Middle Ages—is no joke. As American consumers continue to develop a stronger and more educated palate for craft beers and wines, Heller-LaBelle and partner Mike Manning, owners of The Colony Meadery in Allentown, Pa., have begun to capture a part of that market with a beverage that is quite different from most others.

Mead is fermented much like beer and wine, with hops, spices and fruits to add varying tastes, but it is honey-based and gluten-free. Archeologists have found recipes and samples that are thousands of years old.   Making a labor-intensive process even more intense has allowed Heller-LaBelle and Manning to dramatically shorten the typical 18- to 24-month fermenting process for mead. The Colony Meadery uses a colder fermentation process, and constant adjustments have helped the partners reduce the fermentation time to weeks instead of months.

Because of his background as a beer blogger, Heller-LaBelle initially saw the Lehigh Valley as a great location for another craft brewery. With more than a million people and only two craft breweries at the time, he considered the region underserved. After more thought, he realized a meadery would open a new market. He approached Manning, a fellow member of the Lehigh Valley Beer Society.

The partners quickly sold more mead than they expected after opening The Colony Meadery in December 2013 and expanded at their location inside a former Mack Trucks factory. In summer 2015, they opened another tasting room at the historic Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Pa., where customers can try, and buy, the different meads.

A Pittsburgh native who grew up in Bethlehem and attended Moravian Academy, Heller-LaBelle earned his undergraduate degrees at the University of Pittsburgh, where he majored in art history, religious studies, English and psychology. He spent a couple years working for a nonprofit economic development organization in Pittsburgh before realizing, he says, “I needed some letters behind my name. “ He chose Lehigh for his master’s degree in business administration (MBA), a decision he says he never regretted.

“I thought I was going to get my MBA and apply it to the nonprofit world,” Heller-LaBelle remembers. “That probably started to change the first day of the program when I met Dale Falcinelli (’70, ’72G, ’98P), who ran the VENTURESeries at the time.

Falcinelli introduced him to Jeff Glassman of Fire Island Beer Company, who was presenting in one of the Vseries classes.  “Jeff was the one who told me, ‘Don’t you realize how lucky you are. You know what you want to do. Do you realize how many people spend years in a cubicle trying to figure out what they need to be happy?’ I think about that conversation, a lot. It means knowing you are never going to be happy under the wrong circumstances.  But it took me a while to realize he was right.”

Heller-LaBelle praises Lehigh’s MBA program, which he said provides a unique hands-on approach that envelopes its students in the process of not just starting, but running, a business.  He has returned to Lehigh for the orientation of a new MBA class, where he shared flavors of his mead with students, and he was featured in Lehigh’s 2012 Mountain Talk series. A recording of his presentation, “Marketing Yourself: Why Personal Branding Matters,” can be viewed on the Mountain Talk Archives.

“I had the perfect education for small manufacturing,” says the one-time Lehigh Valley ex-patriot who has returned home to build a new life.  “I never thought I’d be back,” he says. Yet in the last several months, Heller-LaBelle has bought a house, gotten engaged and performed two major expansions to the business. He was married in October at the Charles A. Brown Ice House, the same venue where he performed in countless theatrical productions as a youngster.

“There is a lot of change right now,” he says, “but I love being back here.”

Story by Joe McDermott