When Blair Housley opened Dahlonega’s Etowah Meadery in 2017, he had enough pawpaw to create 40 gallons of mead.
If you’re a little confused, you’re not alone. Pawpaw is an uncommon fruit native to the eastern United States, and mead is an alcoholic beverage made from honey that is enjoying renewed popularity in the United States. Honey wine is one of the oldest beverages in the world.
Despite the fruit’s funky name, Housley sold out of his pawpaw mead stock within the first two months. Though a popular fruit in some circles, pawpaws are seldom sold through most mainstream markets or even recognized by a fair bit of the population.
It’s the largest fruit native to North America and was enjoyed by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, who grew it in his orchards at Monticello, and George Washington. It still grows wild in Georgia and other states.
According to Housley, pawpaws’ particular nature makes them a difficult fruit to grow and maintain, which has hindered its market viability and taken its renown along with it.
“The problem is you can’t pick it off the tree like an apple, take it to market where it lasts a couple weeks and gets ripe,” Housley. “A pawpaw actually has to ripen on the tree and when it falls then it’s ready, but then it only lasts a couple days — like two or three days.
“Even when you put them in a refrigerator to maybe give it a few more days, you’re talking about less than a week's time. So to actually have a commercial viability, being able to cultivate, harvest them at a certain time and try to get them to market within a week is gonna be hard to do.”
When a pawpaw is ripe it has a vanilla custard flavor, but Housley says the process of caring for the fruit and cultivating it as a crop means few people have the patience or know-how to grow them to their peak. For Housley, this process began after attending a pawpaw festival in Ohio.
“I had brought fruit back with me and a couple of seedlings, and I started to plant them on my farm that I have about four miles from here, and I have some buckets out here that I’ve planted the seeds with,” Housley said. “All research says if you can get one seed to come up out of 100 you’re doing really good because they’re very particular, you have to put them in a cold environment like a refrigerator, you’ve gotta store them for 90 days, then you gotta warm them back up and then you plant them in the right temperature then you may have some luck. Okay, sure.
“So I did everything like I thought I was supposed to do. I put a bunch in buckets and said ‘if I can get one or two get going I’m good.’ I wound up having a couple hundred that actually came up. So, I planted, oh I don’t know, 20 or maybe 30 trees planted so far on the farm here, and I’ve got probably another 10 planted at my house in Forsyth County.”
Housley’s oldest planted pawpaw trees are seven years old, which is the point the trees typically bear fruit, but unfortunately he hasn’t seen any yet. He’s still hopeful he’ll see some next year. While Etowah Meadery gives Housley an outlet and backing to maintain these trees and the pawpaw fruit, he says if the average person is persistent enough the finicky fruit is a viable crop.
He’d like to see more locals growing their own to help the market, and is more than willing to help speed up the process by selling trees to spread the pawpaw around.
“I’ve only got so much property where I can plant them, but I’d like to actually sell some in the fall for other people to plant,” he said.
He might even buy the fruit off of your trees.
“I know there’s a guy up in Ohio and that’s what he does every fall,” Housley said. “He sells the trees and pays people to go out and find them in the woods. Because the best time to have planted a pawpaw tree was, you know, eight years ago. It’s a long-term investment.”
In the meantime, Housley says he’s mainly concerned with making the De Soto’s Quest mead every year. But in the future, he’d like to help educate people on pawpaws to help raise awareness around a fruit people may see every day but just not know what they’re looking at.
“We’re thinking about once our fruit starts coming in a more regular basis that (we might) have a pawpaw fest here in Dahlonega,” Housley said. “Maybe we might just get a booth for Trailfest and start introducing it that way. People that go to Trailfest are already kind of outdoorsy and they might be hiking on trails and being able to educate them like, ‘Hey, if you see this tree it’s a pawpaw tree and the fruit is edible.’”
Etowah Meadery’s pawpaw mead is named for Hernando De Soto, a Spanish explorer who made expeditions through Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.