I entered Valhalla
At some time in my 20s, at a house party, I drank honey wine made by a Renaissance faire fan. It was nasty.
A few decades and three-quarters of my way into a mead
flight later, I'm drinking Heimdall's Reserve, named after the Norse god
who was the son of Odin and nine mothers (I'm not sure how that worked).
It's sweet, but not too sweet, with a bit of apple. It is good, magical, mysterious. The honey flavor of typical meads isn't there. I wouldn't know what it was if I wasn't told. It's not cider, not beer, not wine.
Valhalla has a BYOF (Bring Your Own Food) policy.
It is 14% alcohol, like all the meads of Norse Nectar Meadery. After the Holy Grail (sweet, dark, raspberry) and Dark Angel (their award-winning mead of complex blackberry/ginger), the Heimdall was causing visions of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny as Siegfried and Brünnhilde in "What's Opera, Doc?
"Heimdall's was the magic mead that Odin was in search of," Hunter Dodge, CEO of Norse Nectar Meadery, says.
Dodge gives a summary of Norse mythology, and why his tasting room on Miller Road is his Valhalla.
"Valhalla was where the dead Vikings go to from the battlefield. Valkyries were the non-human female form that carried the dead Vikings off to Valhalla," he says.
Dodge gives a hearty "Welcome home!" to everyone coming in the door. His servers are called Valkyries, who guide people through the many selections of mead.
The Valkeries (servers) can answer all your questions about Valhalla's variety of mead.
"You walk in, dead to the outside world, and my Valkyries carry you to Valhalla, where you become immortal and drink with gods. That's our sales pitch, that's our schtick," Dodge says.
"Time stands still" in Valhalla, he says. Eventually one can leave (depending on how quickly you're slamming down a mead flight). When you exit, "if you don't feel something different about Kalamazoo because of Valhalla, we've done something wrong," Dodge says.
I finish the Heimdall's, move on to the last glass, the glass of Odin. Judging from my voice on the interview recording, I am clearly going through the flight too fast.
"Odin was in search of the magic mead. You drink it and it's supposed to give you intelligence, wisdom, endurance, virility," Dodge says.
I mutter, "Oh, it's not doing that."
Journey to Valhalla
Dodge grew up in Augusta, graduated from Galesburg-Augusta, class of ‘88, and considered joining the Marines. That didn't happen because, “I never dealt well with authority screaming orders at me,” he says.
He went on to "25 years of automotive manufacturing, from the shop floor to human resource." Dodge then became a trucker, driving an "18-wheeler, coast to coast for 10 years. I came off the road due to diabetes, and there was a bunch of bouncin' around," as he looked for another occupation.
He struggled with his vision. Dodge became "technically blind, both retinas disintegrated, and then they kind of fixed it with laser surgeries."
He has some vision, but not enough to legally drive.
You can find Hunter Dodge, CEO of Norse Nectar Meadsry, at Valhalla most nights, greeting customers and welcoming them home.
Dodge got an offer to work as a sales rep. for American Brewers, Inc., at where Norse Nectar is now, 3408 Miller.
C.J. -- a current employee who does a bit of everything, and who wants to be referred to as "just C.J." -- also worked at the old brewery. They were making beer when they decided, "Let's try something new. Let's try mead," C.J. says. "And they came out with some pretty damn good stuff."
C.J. says that some at the brewery wanted to get further into mead. "We wanted to be serious, we wanted to make a business out of it."
So, "a bunch of us spirited folk" bought the brewery in 2018, Dodge says.
He wants to emphasize that Norse Nectar and Valhalla are “not about me.” It’s all about “the magnificence of the team who has the same passion for what we do. I have the best team a guy could ask for, sacrificing themselves to create a great experience. A place for everyone to call home.”
Mead in a beer town
The meadery also makes and serves beer, their City Union brand. "We lose about 15% of our potential business because people walk in, they find out we're mead, and they don't want to try it," Dodge says.
Kalamazoo is dominated by craft beer and brewpubs -- how do you sell honey wine in a beer town?
"Honestly, you just have to talk to them about it," chief operating officer, event coordinator and Valkyrie Jessica Bogema says.
The Valkeries (servers) can answer all your questions about Valhalla's variety of mead.
Many people have no idea what mead is, or they've had one bad experience, she says.
Bogema gives a quiz for the mead noob: "Have you had wine before?... Do you prefer sweet or dry?...."
Dodge gives his preferences, "Anything that leaves a scar is my style. Bourbon, Scotch, moonshine -- I grew up on Tennessee hill moonshine."
Mead is not wine, not beer -- it's in its own category, according to Moonshine University
. Like beer and wine, there are many varieties of mead. It can range from 6% to 20% alcohol. At 14% Norse Nectar's mead is stronger than most wines in alcohol content.
The "magic" happens in Valhalla, but the "adventure" is in the brewery part of the building, says CEO Hunter Dodge.
Their meads are "melomel," fruit-based meads. Fruit blends and various forms of barrel aging give unique characteristics to each. If a customer doesn't want it straight, they have a few "meadtails" on the menu.
Bogema predicts I'd love the Heimdall, "barrel aged, very whisky forward, absolutely delightful." But her favorite is the Holy Grail, their sweetest option.
Adventure with bees
Mead is basically just honey, water, and yeast, Dodge says. The "magic" happens in Valhalla, but the "adventure" is in the brewery part of the building, he says.
Norse Nectar Meadery has the capacity to brew 12,000 gallons of mead at a time. They regularly go through 500 gallons of honey, "roughly $13,000 worth of honey," Dodge says.
"A bee makes roughly three-quarters of a tablespoon of honey in its life cycle." It takes a lot of bees to fill a honey tote, the bulk container used to ship around 3,000 pounds of honey.
When it comes to honey, "Volume is the sticking point," C.J. says with no apparent awareness of his own wordplay.
C.J. has developed a tote heater, because honey doesn't flow easily, even at room temperature. "We need to heat them up for bettern' a month in order not to destroy our pumps," Dodge says.
They get bulk honey from Dutch Gold, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Dodge would like to get honey locally, maybe from bees that keep to the flowers of local fruit growers. But they need volume, and specialty honeys cost more.
Once they did brew a batch from Guatemalan bees that pollinated a coffee plantation. The result was mead with "the aroma of a latte," Dodge says.
Sunday night open mic, with Betty on the accordion
Valhalla is open Thursdays-Sundays. There's no food on the menu, but they allow BYOF.
They are located in an area of Miller, on the border between Milwood and Edison, that's not known as a hotbed of Kalamazoo's nightlife. Dodge did hope to get a space downtown, in the Social Drinking District, but that fell through.
Trivia Nights are popular at Valhalla.
"Most of our mature regulars were happy that we didn't because you didn't have to worry about the liquid courage crowd.... This is a sophisticated social drinking beverage," he says.
The tasting room opened in 2020, so it was rough at the start. But Valhalla found its vibe, with events and a dedicated customer base.
Dodge says they treat customers like family. They're very inclusive; "All are welcome, LGBTQ, Black, white, Asian.... We have two rules: You walk through those doors, you leave politics and religion outside." He will give everyone a "'welcome home,' as they walk in the door. You walk through the door, you're part of our family, and that's when the adventure starts."
Friday nights are trivia, Saturdays are devoted to board games, and Sunday is open mic night.
"We've got an accordion player, Betty," Dodge says as Valkyries at the table exclaim, "Miss Betty!"
There are two instruments that people love, or maybe hate, he says. "The bagpipes, I love them, always had. But you can't play them inside, they'll make your eyes bleed. And there's the accordion, there's no way to describe my initial feelings." We assume they weren't positive.
At their second open mic night, Dodge says he heard a "kathunk, kathunk," behind him, the sound of an accordion case opening. "And there's this little old lady, she ain't but five-foot-nothin', gotta be in her late 70s." Her accordion was "as big as she is."
Dodge thought, "this is going to be an absolute train wreck. She gets up there, and, there are no mincing words with her -- 'This is 'Such and Such' by John Denver.'"
She banged out a '70s soft country-pop hit on the accordion, as Dodge describes it. "Bang bang, bang bang, bang! And a standing ovation!"
Sunday nights are Open Mic at Valhalla.
Betty became the foundation of their Sunday nights. "If she's not here, the rest of my musicians lose their minds. 'Where's Betty? Is Betty okay, do we have to dig her out of a snow ditch?'"
(Betty was recovering from health issues the following Sunday, Hunter later emails. But they did have a visit from another regular, “the Druid. He’s a Tribal drummer, putting on a complete show, dressed in furs and performing on a set of war drums. Fantastic!”)
Valhalla has hosted events such as those with the Kzoo Whisker Crew
-- Dodge shows off the 2023 Whisker Crew calendar (sold out) of bearded beefcake, where he's on one month as, of course, a bearded Viking.
"Fellowship of Odin" potluck dinners happen monthly, where customers can bring a dish to pass, "or not," Dodge says. There's no cover, and one doesn't need to contribute to eat.
Again, he says, he wants to create a family atmosphere. Their long tables are meant to be communal. Strangers are encouraged to sit together, and when leaving after a few meads, "they're hugging and kissing like they've known each other their whole lives."
Dodge shows photos of what he's planning for the space, a Viking hall with wooden longtables. Vikings weren't just about pillaging, they were actually about family. At the end of the table "the head of the family sat, and everybody gathered around."
CEO Hunter Dodge says, "You walk through the door, you're part of our family, and that's when the adventure starts."
In his Viking hall, "you're welcome at anybody's table." Some new customers might not be comfortable with that, "but it doesn't take long" for people to relax with a tankard of mead.
At the end of most busy nights, when only the regulars are left, "we do a call-to-arms, and everybody gathers at the longtable, and we verbally abuse each other another hour and a half," Dodge says.
Bogema modifies that: "Light on the abuse, heavy on the fun."