Hometown honey: the rise in British mead

 Far from a drink that exists only in history books, mead is having a renaissance in London and beyond. Molly Codyre dives in

I’m standing in an arch underneath a train track in Peckham, surrounded by tanks and pipes and boxes of mead. Every so often the train rumbles past overhead, briefly drowning out snippets of our conversation. “I like orange blossom honey,” says Tom Gosnell, before his colleague, head brewer Will Grublenik, chimes in: “I came across a honey from Finsbury Park which had notes of dehydrated mangoes and stewed apricot and stone fruit, and had a very acidic kick to it,” he says. “It was just so far away from where you expect a honey to be.”

In case it’s not obvious, this archway just so happens to be home to Gosnells, a mead brewery in the south east London suburb that is aiming to shake up and modernise the mead industry. And ‘modernise’ is the key term here. You’ve probably heard of mead, likely in the same breath as the Bible, medieval fantasy, historical Paganism or druids. Perhaps you came across it in a museum shop once upon a time. It’s likely that on all of these occasions, mead was sidelined as a beverage that stayed in the past for good reason. But this afternoon and in the weeks following my trip to Gosnells, I find there’s a new generation of mead makers hoping to prove you very wrong.

To define mead in layman’s terms, it’s an alcoholic drink made by fermenting honey and water, usually with the addition of yeast. It is not (although some mead makers in the UK may try to convince you so) honey-flavoured wine, nor is it some kind of syrupy liqueur. It is its own entity: honey and water. Of course, it’s never quite that simple, and mead makers are constantly experimenting with this base product, adding flavours, carbonating it, and adjusting sugar and ABV levels.

If you’ve been in New York City recently, you might be a little more familiar with where modern mead can go. Brooklyn’s Enlightenment Wines opened in 2009 and has garnered a reputation for its almost natural wine-esque meads. So much so that the team opened an accompanying mead bar, Honeys, in 2016. According to the American Mead Makers Association, there are 450 meaderies in the US as of 2020, with a further 50 breweries and wineries making at least one mead product. That has increased from just 60 in 2003. There’s usually something unexpected to be found in the world of mead, and something that challenges the drink’s reputation. In one case, it’s a mead brewery helmed by former child star Dylan Sprouse, one half of the twins from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.

Gosnell and Grubelnik both make the point that this boom in popularity in the USA comes from the fact that the country’s wine and beer industries are both miles ahead of the UK, alongside a larger appreciation for local honey varietals. “For people that didn’t get caught up in the craft beer revolution there, they kind of felt like they got left out, and they didn’t really want to go to cider or wine,” says Grubelnik. “So instead they found something that’s kind of weird and interesting – something that they can grab hold of and call their own.”

Christopher Mullin, founder of The Rookey meadery in Scotland, seconds this connection between the craft beer industry and the growth in mead’s popularity and visibility. “​​I also have to thank the modern craft beer phenomenon,” he tells me. “I think the last 20 years of more interesting beers has made customers more open to new alcoholic drinks.”

I couldn’t find a mead true to the definition of ‘honey, water and yeast’

The industry in the UK has not progressed as much as it has in the US, with lingering issues around mis-labelled mead products actually being made with flavoured wines, and the connection the beverage has to Paganism (more on that later), which can prevent newer customers from viewing mead as a modern-day beverage, rather than a gimmick. But one brewery in particular is embracing that connection. Self-described druid and founder of Lancashire Mead Company, Gordon Baron started making his own mead in 2009 for two reasons: to use for ritual purposes with fellow druids, and to satisfy his own demand for a purists’ mead. “I couldn’t find a commercially available mead that was true to the definition of ‘honey, water and yeast’,” Baron tells me. “I would see the words ‘fortified honey wine’ or ‘honey wine’ where it was a glucose or fructose syrup fermentation with a small percentage of honey added to flavour.”

This is a common practice within the mead industry, and one echoed by a lot of the producers I speak to. I’m particularly intrigued by Lancashire Mead Company’s roots in the traditional Pagan connection that mead had. While many modern meaderies are shedding these associations, Baron is embracing them. Heck – they’re essentially the driving force behind him setting up the meadery in the first place. “There is a bit of conflicting history, to be honest,” Baron tells me. “As Pagans and druids have a reverence for nature, it is believed that mead was intertwined with their beliefs. Most modern Paganism is 100% conjecture, as there are no written records of any practices. Druidry was an oral tradition, so if anything was written it was eliminated, or incorporated, by the Christian monks,” he explains. “Mead was
a drink of legend, of our ancestors, those who we remember with great esteem. So it became the drink of Pagan ritual.”

It’s undeniable that moving mead into a modern-day beverage, for many people, means a necessity to move away from Pagan associations. “We’re trying to shed that ‘castle gift shop’ reputation,” Gosnell tells me. “That kind of stuff that you take home as a novelty.” But the history of mead is about so much more than simply Paganism and vikings and Game of Thrones, and on some level needs to be embraced to fully understand the complexities of the product.

“The biggest challenge is that the history of mead is so much richer than the products at the moment,” Paul Sullivan, head of sales and marketing at Lyme Bay Winery in Devon, tells me. “Most countries have a mead culture and different names of mead in each of these markets.” They started making mead at Lyme Bay as a natural progression from the products they were already producing: cider and wine. “We started fermenting apples to make traditional ciders, and then fruit wines, so mead was a natural step,” Sullivan tells me, although he admits that “the history of mead and mead making still has a long way to go to reach the mainstream consumer.”

Mullin expands on the drink’s rich heritage. “I did a Gaelic Studies degree at university. As well as learning modern Gaelic, we studied the language back to its earliest written form in the 7th century and the cultural context of Celtic languages across the whole of Europe, going as far back as the first millennium BC,” he tells me. “Mead came up a number of times, in things like ‘Y Gododdin’, the oldest extant poem from Scotland, ‘Beowulf’ (an old English epic poem) and in Norse myths, which make constant references to mead. I had tried a couple of commercial meads, but these bore no relation to what was being described in these old texts, so I decided to make my own.” Mullin started brewing mead in a couple of demijohns in his halls of residence, and by his fourth year had up to 56 gallons of the stuff in his room. For Mullin, the history of mead is the “beginning, middle and end” of everything he does. “I’ve developed my drinks to match descriptions of mead from the Iron Age, and the early medieval period in Scotland and across Northern Europe.”

He goes on to tell me about how archaeological findings directly contribute to our understanding of mead making. For example, discoveries at the 3,000-year-old Ashgrove site in Fife show that the honey used in mead came from bees that had pollinated lime trees. These weren’t grown in Scotland at the time, suggesting that honey for mead was being imported from the European continent, even back then.

For Mullin, the Pagan contingent still makes up a large number of his customer base, however. “I spend much of my year in viking clothing,” he says, “operating out of my replica of a tent found in the Oseberg ship burial. I’m also starting to get invited to do more Pagan events.” As a practising Pagan, Mullin talks about his pride in playing a central role, but also that mixing business with religion requires a deft touch. “I have to be careful to be respectful of peoples’ heart-held beliefs, and I try and make sure to reflect that in what I do.”

It’s fascinating looking at the width and breadth of offerings across the board, and how much the history of mead is rejected or embraced by various meaderies, even as they try to attract a wider customer base. While there is a certain element of that Pagan connection woven into the meads at Lyme Bay as well, they’re also pursuing a modernised carbonated version – something that’s a key element of Gosnell’s product offering and something the team there feel is the way forward for a lot of mead drinkers. “In 2019 we had a look at our audience, did a bit of research, and found our drinker is basically a cider drinker,” Gosnell tells me. “It’s like an easy switch: it’s sweet, it’s sessionable, it’s easygoing, it’s good in the sun. And so recently that’s what we’ve been doubling down on. It was really launching the cans that took us into a different bracket and made us feel a lot more modern.”

That’s not to say, though, that the classic interpretation of mead – sweeter, honeyed in profile, a great replacement for dessert wines or digestifs – doesn’t hold its own place in modern mead drinking. At Evelyn’s Table, a Michelin-starred restaurant in central London, wine director Honey Spencer (in a lovely bit of nominative determinism) serves up a mead as part of the wine pairing to the restaurant’s tasting menu. It’s a Gosnells mead, produced as part of the brewery’s small batch collection, where the finished product sips more like a dessert wine than a carbonated cider.

“Working in a restaurant like Evelyn’s Table, there’s so much focus on native and UK-grown ingredients, and we’re always thinking how to mirror this in the best way with our drinks program,” Spencer tells me. “The mead pairing was the idea of our restaurant manager Aidan, who loves to think outside the box. Using mead in the Evelyn’s pairing is a great way of allowing our guests not only a new range of flavour, but also a break from higher levels of alcohol, and therefore a change of pace.”

When it comes to the product itself, she talks about the intricacies of mead as a representation of the honey it’s made from, much like how wine tells a story not only about the grapes it’s made with, but also the ground in which they’re grown and the climate in which they exist. “Honey itself is such a vehicle for flavour, and I suppose in turn terroir,” says Spencer. “If a bee focuses its pollination efforts on one particular plant, you can taste that in the final mead, which we find really exciting. And it offers a great balance of sweet, acid and savoury, which is a rarity in the drinks world.”

And Evelyn’s Table isn’t the only new-school venue serving up mead in London. Peckham bar Funkidory has been stocking mead for a while, and recently collaborated with Gosnells on a mead which the team formulated especially for a cocktail they called the Kaserat Meadtini. “It’s served over ice with a zest of orange, with tonic water or in a vodka martini with vodka, Koseret Mead and orange bitters,” says Sergio Leanza, one the bar’s owners. “This dry mead is quite similar to a dry sherry so we like to serve it and play with it in a similar way.” Elsewhere at Funkidory, Leanza uses Gosnells’ sparkling mead in the Southside Fizz alongside gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup and sage in a refreshing twist on the classic Tom Collins.

Modern mead has a healthy disregard for ‘how it’s always been done’

For an industry – and a product – built from what is such a simple concept in essence, the avenues and stories that mead can spur on are endless. Almost every producer I speak to has a different view on what modern-day mead might look like, but they all agreed on one thing: it’s only mead if it’s made from honey. “The mead revival started back in the 1960s, but most of the products available were heavy, thick and cloying and most producers moved from honey only fermentations in their early days to using sugar, at least in part as a fermentable,” Mullin tells me. He says the new wave of mead producers in the UK “has given UK mead a much-needed shot in the arm, with new ideas, new passion and a healthy disregard for ‘how it’s always been done’.”

For Gosnells, this rejection of tradition is, in many ways, as much a part of its identity as Gordon Baron’s embracing of its history is to the Lancashire Mead Company – but a respect for the craft is at the core of both businesses. Gosnell himself has done a fair bit of rallying to the UK government, trying to get some legislation and duty relief when it comes to mead. “I was pushing that mead should be defined alongside cider,” he tells me. “Cider has to have a minimum juice content to be cider. So with mead, you should have a minimum honey content to be classified as mead. That would knock out anyone not using honey, and help regulate the product.”

For a drink with a history that predates modern civilisation, it can seem counterintuitive to reject its history. But for modern-day mead, the key to this burgeoning industry becoming a success is finding a happy medium between looking ahead while still paying homage to the past. Whether it’s sipping on The Rookery’s mead as a digestif, or cracking open a can of Gosnells on a hot summer’s day, mead is steadily becoming a ritual of choice – for Pagans in Lancashire and hipsters in Peckham, and everyone in between.