UCC graduate crafts honey wine to open Douglas County’s only meadery
Mead: Vikings drank it, kings drank it, even all the people in Game of Thrones drank it, but what is it? Short answer is it is honey wine; more specifically, it’s the world’s oldest alcohol made of fermented honey, not fermented grapes.
When Lily Weichberger began school at the Southern Oregon Wine Institute, here at UCC, students and instructors did not know what to make of her interest to make wine of honey. “I was a bit of a black sheep. But we make wine with grapes,” Weichberger says with mock confusion and a smile.
Weichberger, although seeking education and refinery of her craft, was not new to mead making. She began as a “home brewer” when, after living in the U.K. for some years and being exposed to some of the best of mead craft, she was disappointed with the choices of readily available mead here in the U.S. As she gained experience, she began making her own in progressively larger batches.
After Weichberger spent over a decade as a stay-at-home-mother and found herself in need of a career change, friends encouraged her to make mead professionally. “I kept going back to the ‘Got Wine?’ sign advertising the wine institute here that I had seen when we were on a family vacation here in Roseburg. I hadn’t even known you could go to school for that,” Weichberger says.
Weichberger soon overcame that first bit of reticence to making wine out of something other than grapes and began her official training as a vintner and eventually a mazer (mead maker). She then started her path to her associates of science in viticulture and enology.
“Eventually they came around,” Weichberger says. “The head of the department at the time, Chris Lake, was always very supportive.”
Weichberger began at UCC in 2013, starting with traditional winemaking and then switching to a focus on mead in her second year. After taking a year sabbatical to help start a meadery in Wales, Weichberger came back to finish her degree and start her own meadery, Oran Mor Artisan Mead, in 2016, walking the UCC graduation line the first week of the opening in Roseburg.
The biggest challenge in her first year was introducing the Douglas County community to mead. “People didn’t know what to make of us at first. This being a wine centered community, there’s a lot of wine snobbery,” Weichberger says with a laugh. “We would have people come in thinking it was wine and turn around as soon as they found out it was mead before they even tried it. That’s changed a lot since we started.”
Eventually the business found its niche, and a loyal customer base developed. “Mead is the fastest growing sector of the alcohol industry,” Weichberger says.
After just a few years in business, things were going well, and the tasting room had a steady stream of events handled by the late music and event producer, Shasta Ray. The lineup of meads had gone from just three to twelve, and the festival circuit was very welcoming.
“At a festival we can sell in a weekend what we can do in a month at the tasting room,” Weichberger says. “We were flying.”
Then in the spring of 2020, Weichberger like many other small business owners faced one of the hardest challenges to date, COVID-19.
“The last couple of years have been insanity. Everything we thought we knew about the world has gotten turned on its head by COVID. It was pivot after pivot, after pivot, adapt or die,” Weichberger says.
“How do you take a business that you have gotten to the point of really flying and then watch it all come to a screeching halt then try to figure out how to keep it alive while we go through the kind of changes we’ve been going through?” Weichberger asks.
“That was challenging, definitely some hard moments of wow, all of this hard work can suddenly go poof, and it wouldn’t even be my fault. That was oddly the hardest part. It was almost easier to accept it all falling apart from some stupidity of my own rather than the world flopping on its head,” Weichberger says.
“We really had to shift gears and focus more on online sales; how to reach people, how to people engaged. Thank God for our community here. I have to say our community has been a wonderful resource of support during that time. They kept us alive,” Weichberger says.
Fortunately, challenges weren’t the only thing to come out of the pandemic for Oran Mor Mead. In the summer of 2020, Weichberger received word of a long sought dream, a first place medal at the Mazer Cup, the world’s most prestigious mead completion. The 2019 Odin’s Eye, made of mesquite honey and cooking spices, often described as “tasting like Christmas,” placed first in the metheglin category (mead made with herbs).
Between changes to the business model, community support and COVID relief grants for small businesses, Oran Mor Mead, Douglas County’s only meadery, is still alive and thriving.
“We are not only back to where we were but ahead of it. We are shifting gears to focus on more production,” Weichberger says. “Honestly, we are selling out to such a degree that usually we have about 12 meads and are down to six in the two months that festivals have been open.”
The Oran Mor tasting room is open Thursday through Sunday. “Odin’s Eye” just went into production. For more information, go to oranmormead.com or visit the tasting room at the corner of Garden Valley and Melrose in Roseburg.
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