Bill Larkin, co-owner of Arsenal Cider, has become fascinated with bees. After taking a class last year with renowned Pittsburgh beekeeper, Joe Zgurzynski of Country Barn Farm, he decided to start a small apiary as part of Arsenal’s business plan. His goal was to use the honey produced to make mead, adding a local touch to Arsenal’s many offerings. Traditional mead is simply honey, water and yeast, which ferments in a few weeks. Depending on the style of mead and desired alcohol content, it’s then clarified and aged before drinking.
Larkin is now six months in on the renovations to Arsenal’s new production facility in Penn Hills. Purchased last year, the building is a former school, complete with the old school bell tower. He is also five weeks into his first year of beekeeping there. The school sits on 2.7 acres and abuts another 100 acres, which are ideal foraging ground for the bees. Larkin hopes to fill his acreage with berry bushes, so Arsenal can make melomel: mead made with any fruit other than apples or grapes.
Five of the 10 hives house Russian honeybees, which are cold-hardy; the other five are home to Italian honeybees, which produce more honey than other varieties. Larkin’s efforts are helped along by Andy Rich, of Penn Brewery, and Ashley Fersch, a technician at Cornell University’s McArt Lab, which is dedicated to the study of plant-pollinator interactions. Fersch comes in every few weeks to check on the hives and teach Larkin more about honeybees. Larkin hopes to harvest 50 pounds of honey from each hive. With that yield, Larkin will get about 300 gallons of mead a year out of his bees alone. Harvest times are in fall and spring, but the first year will likely be experimental as Larkin and the staff learn more about beekeeping.
Also on the horizon are more changes for Arsenal as work finishes up on the production building. Over the coming months, showers, a laundry room, an exercise room, a break room and offices will be added. “We’ll be Google before you know it,” jokes Larkin. A new 30-barrel system is on the way which will hugely increase the amount of cider Arsenal can produce. (It is currently using a three-and-a-half barrel system.) Larkin is hopeful to have everything in place by late fall.
In the meantime, production continues at the original Lawrenceville location. After the Penn Hills facility is up and running, Larkin plans to produce just vinegars and sour ciders at the Lawrenceville spot. Arsenal has also started fermenting some scrumpies, a traditionally made, often pulpy, dry cider that originated in the West Country of England. Keep an eye out for the first batch in the coming year at Soergel Orchards and at the Lawrenceville location.