Mead was believed to be the drink of the gods. This winter, you can judge that for yourself, free of charge, since English Heritage is offering samples of the 9,000-year-old drink at Framlingham Castle to celebrate its revival in popularity.
Cameron Moffett, English Heritage collections curator, said: “Mead was the power drink of ancient Europe before winemaking developed. It’s wonderful that this very old drink is now being discovered by a whole new generation.”
English Heritage claims to be the UK’s largest retailer of mead, selling a bottle every 10 minutes. Its mead is made by the Lyme Bay Winery in Devon, which is a leading producer of award-winning meads, including a Great Taste award-winning Christmas mead. The winery also produces a black cherry, a rhubarb and even a chilli mead (all £8.99 for 75cl; lymebaywinery.co.uk).
But there’s far more to the modern mead scene than gift shops and historical re-enactments playing on nostalgia, says Tom Gosnell of Gosnells London Mead in Peckham – an entrepreneur intent on bringing mead (which is any alcohol fermented with honey) into the 21st century.
When I tell him that mead makes me think of Game of Thrones, he laughs. "We’ve been lucky that it came along at the same time, but we try not to trade too much on it, because we’re trying to do something more modern. But if that’s the first place people have heard of it, we can take them on a journey from there."
Gosnells mead is only 5.5% ABV, but traditional mead was stronger and sweeter, like a dessert wine. This lower alcohol content renders it more approachable, like a beer or a cider.
“The USA is where I first came across well-crafted mead. I’d seen it in the UK, but it always had this weird kind of castle-gift-shop thing going on,” admits Gosnell. "Often, it would be really strong and too sweet. When I was in the States, I met people who were doing some really great things, and putting a lot of care and attention into their products.”
Now, the UK’s craft mead scene is stepping up. According to Gosnell, the drink is gender-neutral, gluten-free, and makes for an excellent spritz or cocktails: perhaps paired with fresh ginger, smashed lime and rum. And of course, these days, it’s more often drunk from a glass than a flagon.
According to Beverage Daily, growing consumer interest in sweeter, less alcoholic beverages – like rosé cider – is likely lead to the adoption of mead as a mixer in high-end bars.
Formerly a mere curiosity, "associated with hobbits, hessian socks, Ye Olde England and bearded men drinking from horns at food festivals", the new mead is a surprisingly versatile drink, says Adam Lechmere, general manager of the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC).
“Mead contains honey and you would expect it to be super sweet, but the good ones are actually very dry, while retaining a honeyed flavour. These styles can pair with food just like an aromatic white wine. They have the dry texture we call a “chewiness” in the wine business. Taken blind, you might think the good ones were a slightly strange dry white wine.”
This year, the IWSC awarded a 15% Danish elderberry mead a Bronze award. MJÖD No. 5 (£22.57, liquor-store-europe.com) is semi-sweet, made with local Danish honey. According to drinks specialists at Difford's Guide, it's faintly cloudy and golden amber, with an aroma of brown bread, apricot, tangerines and brown sugar, and tastes of "rich honey and ripe apricot with a light restraining sour acidity."
“Mead tends to be less bitter than beer, with a delicate sweetness that’s subtler than cider,” says premium mead producer William Boscawen, who last year launched his craft mead brand Marourd, based at his family farm near Mereworth in Kent.
“There are two things happening in mead: one is that mead in its traditional, simple, sweet, long-matured form is coming back into the public mindset, but the second is that there’s a very new mead coming through, which is what’s exciting," he says.
“Traditionally, the only way to make it was either until the yeast had consumed all the sugar or until the alcohol content was so great that the yeast died, much like a fortified wine.
"Now, there are greater filtration processes and a much greater understanding of yeast cultivation and management, so those with the tools to do so are able to start developing an array of new products.”
Since this new wave of mead is untrodden ground, it affords producers such as Boscawen scope for creativity.
“The joy of mead is that there’s no right or wrong: you can add any combination of hops, fruits or herbs to create a hugely interesting drink with a whole range of culinary possibilities," he enthuses.
“At the moment, because it’s so new to us, you have to look at the American market for an indication of where English trends are going – just as craft beer, cider and gin migrated here from the US. But even in the space of the last six years, numerous new meaderies have been opening up in the UK.”
The American Mead Makers Association reported that a new meadery was opening every day in the US and every seven days in the rest of the world in 2017, according to statistics drawn from an 18-month period. As in the US, the focus of mead makers in the UK is on creating a premium, quality product. Mead is classed as a wine, so duty-wise, it’s expensive to make.
According to Boscawen, whose craft mead made with Kent Goldings Hops was voted Kent’s best specialist drink in the Taste of Kent awards, the protection of bees should also be a key consideration for mead makers.
“As a mead producer, you have to promote strong bee habitats. I use a lot of my own honey from the 70 hives we have on the farm, and always opt for sustainable honey," he says.
The Northumberland Honey Co beekeepers and mead makers are particularly good for this: the founders, husband-and-wife Luke and Suzie Hutchinson have a strong focus on breeding sustainable honey bees, and currently keep 150 colonies of bee to produce their sparkling mead, which is akin to a champagne.
Mead is even making its way on to wine lists in restaurants: their pink sparkling honey mead features on the menu at The Orangery at Rockcliffe Hall in Darlington.
For Boscawen, it pays to be discerning when it comes to making your selection from the meaderies cropping up across the UK.
"I’m going to be utterly honest with you – there’s a lot of bad stuff out there," he warns. "There needs to be rigour in the mead making process." And of course, that is something that will come in time.
In the meantime, as well as Marourd, Boscawen recommends Gosnell's, Lyme Bay and the Northumberland Honey Company. Here's our pick of the best.
1. Gosnells Vintage Mead 2018
Gosnell's first vintage is made from 100pc raw London honey, sourced from hives in Woodberry Wetlands N16 and Lea Bridge Road E10. It's brewed to a strong, celebratory 12.5pc.
2. Lyme Bay Winery traditional mead
A sweet, full-flavoured 14.5pc mead best served at room temperature, which pairs well with strong cheeses and casseroles. It won a Great Taste gold star in 2013.
3. The Northumberland Honey Company Wildflower sparkling mead
Northumberland Wildflower Honey and Northumberland spring water, with characteristics very similar to a brut champagne.