Mississippi’s first meadery offers visitors “a sip of our backyard.”
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Queen's Reward
Credit: Blake McCollum

It's brave enough to become a first-time entrepreneur. Imagine becoming a first-time entrepreneur to sell a product never before sold in the entire state.

That's Jeri Carter, a former kindergarten teacher who opened Mississippi's first meadery. When she first opened Queen's Reward in Tupelo as a side project to her teaching career, most visitors hadn't even tried mead. They entered her tasting room somewhere between skeptical and curious. Now, four years later, mead is Carter's full-time job, and her biggest business challenge is making enough of it to keep up with everyone who wants it.

"It's been the most terrifying fun I've ever had… I came to this with zero experience in the business world," she says. "Now, we can't meet demand. If I'm going to have a problem, that's the one I want."

Before mead, Carter made wine. As she honed her process, she decided it'd be more fun to make a drink based on local ingredients—and Tupelo's climate isn't exactly suited to grape varietals. Instead, she used something that Mississippi makes beautifully—honey—and used wine-producing techniques and equipment to create a wine-like mead. Sometimes she pairs local honey with pinot noir grapes for a twist on a red wine, and sometimes she ages them with oak for a dry mead with depth. They range from dry to sweet, but they all have one thing in common: Mississippi wildflower honey.

"We made a decision to show off what's beautiful about our state," she says. "This is literally a sip of our backyard."

A New Trend for an Old Drink

Everything old becomes new again, an adage continually proven by fashion, music, and, now, by mead. It is the oldest alcohol in the world—this was the drink of ancient Greeks, Romans, and Vikings—and now it's the latest craft beverage trend. Mead is the fastest-growing adult beverage in the country, outpacing craft beer, wine, and liquor. On average, a new meadery opens in the United States every three days.

Mead can be dry, sweet, still, or carbonated. It's truly a drink rooted in place: The flavors of mead originate from the flavors of its honey, and honey tastes differently depending on the location of the bees and what plants they pollinated. Queen's Reward mead is a liquid postcard of Mississippi.

In the newly competitive world of mead-making, she's made Tupelo mead a star. About 80% of her visitors come from more than an hour away, and she's had visitors from all 50 states and 18 countries. People come for mead that shows off local flavors but stands up to international competitors; Carter has yet to make a mead that hasn't medaled in a national or international competition.

But more important to Carter than the medals is the joy she finds in her new profession. Her tasting room has the feel of a coffeehouse, a casual place where people enjoy a glass or they can sample several varieties. Outside, people play cornhole or sit on picnic blankets. And Carter gets to be at the center of it all.

"It's an opportunity to share our Southern hospitality... Plus, the more you pour, the happier they get," she laughs.

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"Exciting and thrilling and exhausting and wonderful"

Even as Queen's Reward helps Carter promote Tupelo, it's also made her fall more in love with her hometown. When she opened the meadery, local business owners offered immediate support. They shared tips on which local business could help her design t-shirts or make labels. They've offered advice on starting a business and connecting with other entrepreneurs. She says that she's learned the power of asking for help when she needs it and offering help when others do. Becoming a business owner has been a lesson in the power of community.

And becoming a business owner has been a lesson in her own potential, too.

"I found a passion and strength inside myself that I didn't know I had," Carter says. "I have a 14-year-old daughter, and I told her she's going to discover that she's so much stronger and capable of so much more than she thinks she is. I've learned that, and I'm still learning that in my journey… You just don't know until you jump in and try. And it's exciting and thrilling and exhausting and wonderful."