The nectar of the gods
Mead, the tipple that quenched the thirst of monks, warriors and kings, is enjoying a belated honeymoon period, says Flora Watkins
Mead is enjoying a belated honeymoon reports Flora Watkins
At a conservative estimate, it’s about 9,000 years old, having been brewed by the Ancient Chinese and Egyptians, Norse warriors and the monks of Lindisfarne. Devotees have included Elizabeth I—who had her own recipe—and references in literature abound, from Beowulf to King Arthur, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to tolkien and J. K. Rowling.
Historically, because honey was an expensive commodity, mead has had a special, quasi-mystical status—something served by the Valkyries in Valhalla, rather than comely wenches in the local tavern. It was even part of the marriage ritual, with young couples being given enough mead for one full moon, for good luck and fertility, hence the term honeymoon.
However, from the end of the tudor era until quite recently, mead-making was in the doldrums—it’s thought that production may have declined in the 17th century due to cheap imported sugar from the West Indies and varroa-mites destroying bee colonies. Mead has since been something of a historical curiosity, languishing dustily at the back of the shelf.
At his brewery in south-east London, tom Gosnell jokes that the only type of mead he’d tried had been ‘castle gift-shop type stuff’, until a trip to the USA, where he sampled some ‘really wellcrafted mead’ in Maine. Back in London, he began ‘playing around’ in his basement, founding his eponymous brewery in 2013. He’s doubled his turnover each year and now has seven staff on the payroll.
‘A lot of mead is quite sweet and strong, so it’s challenging, but ours is only 5.5% [ABV]. It’s still made with just honey, water and yeast, but it’s a lot lighter and easier to get on with,’ he explains.
His signature London Mead, served, appropriately, at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London, is light, citrusy and gently sparkling, the honey providing delicate floral notes. Served very cold on a hot day, ‘it really slakes your thirst’.
Mr Gosnell also produces a ‘hopped’, slightly more full-bodied mead and limited editions, including a spiced variety for winter and a Citrus Sea mead, blended with lemon peel, tarragon and saltwater.
Crucially, thanks to the lower ABV, these meads won’t leave you feeling as if you’ve been coshed over the head the next day. Much of Mr Gosnell’s success has been facilitated by the craft-beer movement. He suggests drinking his brew on its own, in ‘place of a cider or a light lager’, or pairing it with richer, spicier dishes, hard cheeses or with pudding in place of, say, a Sauternes.
His ethos has been taken to heart at Michelin-starred restaurants the Clove Club and Dabbous. Another devotee is the entrepreneur Stefan turnbull, who sells Gosnell’s mead in his Cubitt House group of fine-dining pubs. ‘It’s very light, crisp, clean and refreshing—nothing like my [prior] perception,’ he says.
In Cornwall, Sophia Fenton’s family has been brewing a stronger mead with a wine base (14%– 17%) to her great-grandfather’s recipe since 1960. Its Newlyn brewery has always enjoyed a strong following locally, but, in the past few years, Miss Fenton reports ‘a steady growth’ in sales and interest. ‘I think it started with Harry Potter,’ she muses. ‘the resurgence of boutique breweries has also helped, because people aren’t constantly steered towards the average pint of Heineken or Stella [Artois].’
Miss Fenton discloses that, in her family’s Meadery restaurants, locals ‘drink it by the litre’, but advises that it’s best enjoyed as ‘an alternative to a pudding wine’, as an aperitif or with Riesling to make a longer drink, like a Kir.
Light, modern and refreshingly reimagined, mead looks set for a few more millennia. Cheers!
‘These meads won’t leave you feeling as if you’ve been coshed over the head
It’s 6pm somewhere: mead has been around for thousands of years, but, after falling out of favour at the end of the Tudor era, it’s been enjoying a renaissance in recent years