Amidst ancient, crumbling walls weaving through the meadows of Southwest France, an unlikely business is stoking a metamorphosis in the brewing industry.
La Ruche Ivre (“The Drunken Hive”) produces organic mead, or hydromel as it’s commonly referred to in France. Served in elegant wine bottles, and drank in a similar fashion, it is effervescent and complex. Whereas most traditional meads taste musty and strongly of alcohol, La Ruche Ivre is light and sweet. Unlike its one-note counterparts, this hydromel develops on the palate in a similar way that a fine glass of Champagne would. The recipe is designed for sipping and savouring. In short, it’s more at home in a chic wine bar than a dingy pub.
Parisians agree. Since launching in August 2016, La Ruche Ivre has been sold in some of the most celebrated bars in Paris, including the exclusive le Compagnie du Vin Surnaturel in St. Germain and the infamous beer bar Le Robe & La Mousse. The elixir is the brainchild of two recent best friends and entrepreneurs: Remi Ballot, a business graduate from a long lineage of French beekeepers, and Andrew Tape, a brewer from Vancouver who previously worked at craft establishments R&B and Steel Toad.
The duo’s business was birthed from a chance encounter and “many libations.” When holidaying in the Hautes-Pyrénées, Tape sampled Ethiopian honey wine for the first time, and his brewer’s imagination lit up with ways to make such an unusual drink more luxurious, more modern. Cue a meet-cute the very next day with Ballot, whose mother, Catherine Flurin, founded Ballot-Flurin: an international business offering organic honey and related food, medicine, and cosmetic products to stores across Europe.
The two fast friends soon committed to founding La Ruche Ivre, even moving in together in order to accrue as much investment capital as possible. They now live and work in the rambling, sleepy village of Lahitte-Toupière in the Occitanie region, surrounded by the hives and flowers at the heart of their work.
Ballot is steady, analytical, and silver-tongued—the strategic expert behind the venture; Tape is a charismatic, instinctual force who takes a whimsical, childlike approach to fresh ideas. “It’s pretty remarkable, really. We mesh really well on an interpersonal level. And Remi is great at making space and structure for me to throw myself into the experimenting without having to worry about every single last piece of minutiae,” explains Tape. “But our values align, as does our vision for the company. We respect the strengths each other brings, and that allows us to each focus on our specialty.”
Their symbiosis is required for success in the current market. While France is synonymous with the world’s finest alcohol, its beer industry is steeped in traditionalism. But an influx of craft breweries—many founded by Anglo immigrants—is changing the landscape, making it similar to what Vancouver’s now-thriving scene looked like seven or eight years ago. Still, while progress is being made, it has happened slowly, with many nano-breweries reluctant to try too much experimentation in a culture keen on ritual. And, although hydromel is better known in France than North America, it comes with a dubious reputation. In Bretagne, mead is colloquially described as vers pas trop (“don’t pour much”). “It’s known as something a little old, a little weird, a little dangerous,” Ballot says. “It’s prime for disruptors.”
The sui generis of La Ruche Ivre is cultivated, in part, from the finest ingredients, of which there are only three. Raw, organic honey from acacia and chestnut flowers in nearby valleys is combined with filtered water and yeast. Every drop is farmed using apiculture douce: a method of harvesting developed to minimize the impact on bees. No sulphites are used to stabilize the product, and nothing is boiled. “We’re staying as close to nature as possible,” explains Tape, who restrains from saying too much more about a brewing process that combines the traditional wisdom of Pyrenean alcohol grimoires with his experimental approach. The recipe was finessed over a six-month period, with a variety of controls, to create an incredibly precise product.
In 2016, the company produced close to 1,250 litres of hydromel. It plans to more than double production in 2017 to meet the demand of taverns in the capital. “We launched this from a lean start-up concept, so we’ve been expanding production as we have been finding a fit in bars and caves across the country,” says Tape. Meantime, the business continues to grow its offerings. Cuvees using different bee products will be on the market by the end of 2017, as will ciders made from heather honey. In partnership with Ballot-Flurin, La Ruche Ivre is also pioneering hydromel tisanes: small, curative elixirs based on the herbal teas traditional in the South of France. Ensuring the product can be stocked in more major cities throughout the country is a priority for La Ruche Ivre, as is international expansion.
Tape is particularly excited about the future. “Being able to turn heads in one of the most traditional, difficult markets in the world only encourages us to try even more possibilities,” he says. “The sheer diversity and potential of honey is a pretty amazing motivator. We plan to thrive.”
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