It is 9,000 years old, give or take a few sips, made purely from fermented honey, yeast and water, but it tastes new. Mead is making an unlikely comeback and is poised to become the next craft obsession among hipster drinkers from Shoreditch to Brooklyn. Last month, Tom Gosnell, London's first dedicated mazer, or mead producer, won the “booze hound” category at the Young British Foodies awards, held at Tate Britain. Impressively, the Tate, alongside a number of cool restaurants and bars nationwide, including The Clove Club, Dabbous, Tredwell's in London and Timberyard in Edinburgh already stock his brew.
Meanwhile, mead cocktails are creating a buzz, and mead is even being poured with tasting menus. Not bad for a tipple that was, until recently, associated with Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and medieval reenactment groups – though it dates back even further, to Ancient China and Greece, long before the cultivation of barley and hops.
Like many a revival, it started in the United States. The mead market there is now growing faster than that for craft beer, with close to 300 independent meaderies across the US. According to a study by the American Mead Makers Association, the mead business has expanded by 130 per cent since 2011, making it the fastest growing drinks category in the US. New York even has an Annual Mead Week, highlighting the most fashionable bars in which to enjoy mead and mead mixology. No doubt a London mead week will soon follow.
Gosnell first discovered mead at Maine Meadery while on a road trip, was hooked and started home brewing before stepping up nearly three years ago to produce on a more commercial scale. He now has a meadery in Peckham, south London, and is making 2,500 bottles a month – fermenting his mead for around three weeks – and has capacity for far more.
Gosnell is not alone in making mead in the UK. Other established companies include the Newlyn-based Cornish Mead Company, and the Lurgashall Winery in West Sussex has long produced sweeter versions of the beverage. What's different with Gosnell is that he is producing a pure mead with a more modern twist and flavour – lighter, dryer and far less alcoholic. The strength is a mere 5 per cent ABV, compared with the traditional 16 or 17 per cent. It fits with a growing desire for drinks that are lower in alcohol, Gosnell says, and increases its allure for cocktails. He adds: “Our mead is definitely more gender-neutral, with its light, refreshing finish.”
Tasting Gosnells London Mead at its Peckham tap room, I am impressed by the beverage's beguiling complexity. It is rounded and citrusy with lots of floral notes on the nose and botanical flavours in the mouth with hints of cherry, apple and wood, plus a fairly dry, clean finish. In another break from tradition, it is gently carbonated. Tom admits the fizziness was an accident in initial brews, yet “the fizz adds to the drinking experience and brings out the flavours, so we've stuck to it”. Gosnell's current brew uses Spanish orange-blossom honey. However, he sees huge scope to collaborate with London honey producers for bespoke meads.
Meanwhile, newer still in the business is a former brewer, Tom Newman, who set up Mabinogion Mead this summer in Caerphilly with a focus on local produce. Each batch of mead he produces will be based on a different Welsh apiary and he anticipates developing flavours based on individual honey characteristics. He's planning to make wild meads with unpasteurised honey and wild yeasts to ferment, too.
Aside from the obsession with fermentation and concern to look after endangered bees, it is a drink everyone has heard of it, yet not tried so far. Robert Simpson, who heads up the bar at The Clove Club, serves mead in a cool egg-white drink, “Give Bees a Chance”, with vodka, yellow chartreuse, honey and a sprinkle of bee pollen, as well as with gin, lime and honey and in mojitos, too. “We like the idea of giving intriguing historical drinks a modern spin,” Simpson says. He pairs mead with cheeses, especially goat's cheese and blues. At Edinburgh's Timberyard, Gosnell's is the biggest-selling bottled beverage and often recommended to accompany dinner. Come autumn, it is partnered with sea buckthorn desserts. “It is floral, yet not too sweet,” the chief bartender, Jack Blackwell, says. He also re-ferments Gosnells mead with elderflower and Timberyard's own wheat spirit for a unique brew.
For the winter, Gosnell is planning a higher strength mead. He's experimenting with hot mead toddies, mixing in star anise and cinnamon. More ambitiously, he plans to try a small-scale braggot, half honey, half malt brew, which will have a rich flavour still redolent with honey, yet balanced with the hops. He is bullish: “There's no reason why we can't experiment as much with mead as with craft beer. The potential for mead is limitless.”
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