In the US the growth of mead as a category is starting to resemble the craft beer market, with one of the world’s simplest and oldest alcoholic drinks diversifying into a wide range of styles. In the UK, mead is also undergoing a revolution with a new bar opening in London that aims to show the breadth and complexity of this honey-based drink by serving seven meads on draught and 20 different in can. We take a look at how mead is transforming itself with one foot in its legendary past and the other striving towards a thoroughly modern reinvention.
“Mead is a very versatile creature: It can be sparkling or still; it is gluten free, contains no sulphites, meanders happily from 0.5% up to 12% +, and can have all the complexity and elegance of a top white wine,” writes Ponsonby.
Modern ‘craft’ breweries, move over. Mead is muscling its way back in.
Buoyed up as a ‘category’ by that most superlative of footballers, Beth Mead, the world’s oldest alcoholic drink is shaking off the shackles of its ‘castle gifte shoppe’ past and embracing a modern future. No longer just sold in 75cl bottles at 10-14% abv (delicious and comforting as they can be), it’s on its way into the on-trade in brightly coloured cans and in 30 litre kegs at a gentle 4%abv.
The bar revolution has started and in September, Gosnells of London will open the first ever mead bar in Britain. The brand new tap room, at the top of the Bermondsey’s Beer Mile, will showcase the potential of draught meads, and its new Wildflower Mead at 4% abv on draught will rub shoulders with a flotilla of experimental and limited-edition meads, some aged in wine casks and many of them wild and wacky.
Seven meads will be served on draught and up to twenty in can and bottle alongside cocktails such as ‘mead-aritas’, ‘mead-acoladas’ and iced slush meads. The aim is to show that mead has breadth and complexity, and that it can rival the commercial potential of beer, cider and wine.
The world’s ‘oldest alcoholic drink’
Mead is by nature a simple creature. Though no legal definition as yet exists in the UK, most mead makers say it should be a fermented drink created simply by fermenting honeys in water with no sugars added as, though cheaper than honey, sugar takes away from the nuances of the nectars on which honeybees feed.
Historically, the yeast would have been drawn from the air; but most mead makers now prefer to control fermentations with a cultured yeast.
Being the world’s oldest alcoholic drink gives mead vast quantities of valued ‘heritage’. Tens of thousands of years ago, bees were already happily buzzing the globe, finding holes in big fat trees in which to lay their honey: And ancient wo/man, with no highly regimented fields of barley or of vines available, would sniff them out and mix nature’s bounty with water. It made that amazing stuff mead.
But mead is by no means just a European drink. Ethiopia and Eritrea have a great and on-going history with Tej made of honey, water and the leaves of the gesho plant for bitterness. And in America – the start of so many powerful trends – mead is seen by many as even more ‘crafty’ than beer or cider.
Mead is a very versatile creature: It can be sparkling or still; it is gluten free, contains no sulphites, meanders happily from 0.5% up to 12% +, and can have all the complexity and elegance of a top white wine. It provides an array of different flavours, according to the flowers on which bees feed and can reflect the location (‘terroir’) of its nectar sources be they trees, flowers, bushes or creepers – old ivy being a haven for honeybees in winter. It loves being spiced with hops, flower petals, sea salt and fruits, and goes amazingly well with cheeses, pies, seafood or white meats, marrying happily with the same foods as white wines.
Entering a new era
Tom Gosnell started his Meadery in Peckham in 2016 and is now one of the biggest suppliers of mead in Britain.
His newest launch, the Gosnells Wildflower Mead, is sold in 30 litre kegs. Stockists already include the Portobello Pub Group and Laines as well as a host of independent pubs wanting to try something with heritage, but decidedly ‘new’. It is being served by the pint, an elegant refresher, and a perfect alternative to lager or to cloyingly sweet fruit ciders with their lack (often) of elegance or heritage.
This new ‘dry’ mead is the colour of lager, and it uses a blend of honeys, which DNA testing shows are drawn from the nectar of 45 different trees, shrubs and flowers from across the world: This includes the likes of Brambles, Field Mustard, Cross leaved heath, forget-me-not, White clover, Wild cabbage, Privet, Black mustard and Blueberry.
As Gosnells’ mead volumes rise, they will look to own a greater part of their supply chain, by managing beehives in the countryside and by having more long-term contracts with producers with consistent nectar sources and traceability. That could be an exciting development for British honey producers and for mead.
Up till now, Gosnell has split production of his range between honeys whose dominant aromatics are from the orange groves of Spain, whilst using British honeys for his limited edition bottled meads. In his Postcode and Vintage Meads you can actually taste the ‘flowers’ of a particular British postcode area, a proposition which resonates especially with wine writers.
Environmental writers are also taking mead seriously, as mead uses much less water than does beer and is minimal in its need for the chemicals, artificial fertilisers or tractor movements needed by other drinks categories. Mead requires just a host of happy bees, which are vital for a productive environment.
With that in mind, Gosnells decided in 2021 to create its own flower-rich mead garden and to distribute thousands of sunflower seeds and plants across its inner city heartland. And this year, its Guerrilla Gardening campaign – in collaboration with Plastic Free Peckham – will go yet further by establishing plants in nooks and crannies previously devoid of colour, or indeed of their beloved bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies and moths!
“There are probably 25 commercial mead makers in Britain and I am hoping there will soon be more,” says Tom Gosnell. “They are making such a delicious spread from the elegant Krug-like bottles of Sparkling Rosé mead from Northumberland Honey Co, to the award-winning Afon Mêl of Wales, the stronger historic meads of Lyme Bay Winery in Dorset, plus the great examples from Marourde in Kent, Cornish Mead, Lancashire Mead and many more. I am hoping that by launching new variations in many formats, we can join together to excite consumers and retailers and grow the buzz for this historic but refreshingly modern drink.”