WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Greg Fischer likes to say he has 80,000 workers — most of which show up every day without pay.
Fischer owns Wild Blossom Meadery, Winery and Brewery in Beverly. The unpaid employees he's so proud of are his honey bees. Fischer has more than 100 hives and uses the honey to make mead.
Mead is an ancient alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and sometimes referred to as "honey wine." Nationwide, sales of mead increased 130 percent between 2012 and 2013 and there are now about 200 meaderies in the U.S.
Fischer operates the only meadery in Illinois and some of his locally-produced honey is also used to brew beer as well as add flavor to traditional wines, ciders and more.
Fischer plans to open a 9,450-square-foot production facility in September at 9030 S. Hermitage Ave. in Washington Heights. The sprawling headquarters sets up Wild Blossom to boost its output and host tasting events in its foyer adjacent to the Dan Ryan Woods.
"We sell our mead all over the country," Fisher said Friday. "The whole craft beverage scene is just taking off, so the potential here is really great."
Wild Blossom debuted in 1995 at 10033 S. Western Ave. in Beverly. The unassuming storefront also operates as Bev Art Brewer & Winemaker Supply. This arm of the business sells wine- and beer-making supplies.
Fischer is undecided about whether he'll keep his original store open when the new headquarters makes its debut. That said, he's also planning to sell supplies from the new office as well.
In fact, Neil Byers, owner of Beverly's Horse Thief Hollow brew pub and Tim McEnery, owner of the Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant chain were both Fischer's customers before launching their own successful businesses.
Wild Blossom's new headquarters for will also have a classroom where would-be brewers and wine-makers will learn how to make fermented beverages. Fischer has introduced countless enthusiasts to his craft through such classes.
Indeed, Fischer makes about 4,000 gallons of mead, wine and other beverages each year in Beverly. His Wild Blossom products are sold at Binny's Beverage Depot, a downstate liquor chain called Friar Tuck and other independent and chain stores.
But Wild Blossom cannot sell direct to customers in Beverly because of its location on the east side of Western Avenue, where alcohol sales are prohibited. The new location does not have these restrictions, and Fischer believes that will boost his business.
He expects to increase his annual volume to nearly 20,000 gallons at the new facility near the 91st Street/Beverly Hills Metra station. The new building, greater capacity and the ability to invite customers into their shop should also raise Wild Blossom's profile in the craft beverage niche, Fisher said.
"If I produce a really cool place, it is going to be great," he said.
Fischer said he's modeling his business after 3 Floyds Brewing Co., which also began as a production-focused facility in 1996. The Munster, Ind.-based brewery has since added a brewpub and become a destination for craft beer enthusiasts thirsty for tours.
The mead-maker envisions a similar path for Wild Blossom. He's already building a catering kitchen designed to keep prepared food warm. This could possibly evolve into a full-fledged kitchen and restaurant, but meanwhile he's lining up food trucks to feed visitors, Fischer said.
"Right now, I want to concentrate on our wines and beers," he said.
That said, the new facility is far more than a sanitized manufacturing warehouse. A vaulted ceiling, complete with large windows, brings ample light into a foyer that will feature the small store stocking home beer- and wine-making supplies along with the classroom area and a bar for tasting.
Interior windows look out into the production facility, so students can see their wine barrels and those sampling Wild Blossom's beverages can view the steel tanks where the beer, wine, cider and other products are made.
The main entrance of the facility faces west. This allows visitors to sit in the outdoor patio and look out upon the Dan Ryan Woods. Fischer is also planning to landscape this area with native flowers and a walking path.
"You could be in the middle of the Adirondacks, but you are in Chicago," said Fischer, who launched a Kickstarter campaign Tuesday to help pay for Wild Blossom's landscaping and other outdoor improvements.
The plants in Wild Blossom's gardens and patio will also be used by Fischer's bees. The hives will be kept on the roof when the new facility opens, but he's actually had bees on the property since 2011.
"The honey here is phenomenal," said Fischer, tasting a bit of the sweet product by pressing his finger into a fresh honeycomb that bees made on the property.
He said neighbors ought not worry about the bees, as his workers are quite docile unless provoked. In fact, he said those living nearby could see larger flowers and greener plants as a result of the buzzing neighbors.
Indeed, Fischer estimated that some 2 million flowers are pollinated from the honey needed to produce just one bottle of mead.
That said, the hives on Wild Blossom's new headquarters are hardly enough to supply the entire operation. So Fischer also has hives on the rooftop of the Marriott Downtown Chicago Magnificent Mile Hotel, The Morton Arboretum in suburban Lisle, along Chicago's lakefront where the U.S. Steel South Works site once stood and elsewhere.
He even has to buy some honey from other local beekeepers, saying about 90 percent of his honey is made in Illinois while a select variety of honey is also are harvested in Michigan where bees help to pollinate blueberry farms.
Fisher looked out on his new headquarters Friday as workers strode about the site that last operated as a construction company office about a decade ago. He often stared into the nearby woods, seemingly captivated by the trees.
"We are all about people experiencing nature," he said.
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