Going for gold: How mead is making its mark

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

24 December 2019

Mead is eschewing its medieval connotations and making its mark on the UK brewing scene, but are we ready for the renaissance?

If you’ve managed to peel yourself away from the exquisite black hole of Netflix to watch a bit of network television lately, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a certain medieval-themed Bud Light advert. In the 30-second spot, a character called the Bud Light King enters a tavern and orders Bud Lights for all his subjects – except for one. This rogue drinker requests an ‘autumnal’, ‘full-bodied’ mead instead, and is promptly thrown in the stocks for his insolence. After all, who would possibly shun the everyman’s Bud Light for mead?

New producers, retailers and bars are championing British-made mead

Quite a lot of people, as it turns out. Driven in part by connections with popular TV shows like Game of Thrones and Vikings, consumers are increasingly looking to mead to quench their thirst. But the fermented honey beverage is becoming more than just a novelty used to take the edge off the Red Wedding.
The US is now home to hundreds of meaderies, and these American producers are harnessing traditional mead styles and creating new ones. They are embracing unexpected flavours, ingredients and techniques to bring mead to a generation of craft-loving drinkers.

The UK is following suit. New producers, retailers and bars are now championing British-made mead, much like brewers from Bermondsey to Birmingham have done for the British craft beer movement. Could we be on the verge of a mead renaissance?

Meet the mead makers

If we are, it’s in no small part due to Lyme Bay Winery, one of the biggest players in the UK mead market. Though you might be more familiar with its English wines or Lugger Rum, Devon-based Lyme Bay has been producing mead for the better part of a decade.

It started off supplying a number of private-label customers and now boasts no less than nine meads under the Lyme Bay name.

The producer’s bestseller is still its Traditional Mead, a still, sweet style that comes in at 14.5% abv. ‘From our perspective, it’s about having an approachable style at the moment,’ says Paul Sullivan, Lyme Bay’s head of sales. ‘What we’re making is what they’d call a “gateway mead” in the US market. It has a degree of sweetness, and it’s in a more approachable, more commercial style.’

If you have a taste for pét-nats, hoppy beers and bitter cocktails, the popularity of this sweet style might come as a surprise, but that’s the result of your craft conditioning, says Sullivan. ‘You’ve only got to look at the sales of sweet, flavoured ciders out there to see there’s a demand.’

Sam Boulton, co-founder of the mead-focused bar The Vanguard in Birmingham, also noticed the popularity of sweeter meads among his customers. When he launched his own brand, The Modern Mead Co, earlier this year, he developed his first expression to fit the bill.

His Original English Mead is a lightly fl oral, elegant hit of honey that clocks in at 10% abv. ‘Our first mead is our sweetest one, but a lot of producers are making drier styles now,’ Boulton comments. ‘It will be interesting to see how that affects the consumer’s palate.’

Peckham-based brand Gosnells of London was one of the first modern producers to bring a drier style to the UK. After visiting the East Coast of America in 2012, founder and chief mead maker Tom Gosnell was so inspired by the meads he encountered there that he decided to come back to London and make his own.

‘We wanted to make something a little more accessible, drier and lighter at about 5.5% abv, and we found that making it sparkling helped the mouthfeel. The effervescence just brought out a lot of the flavours,’ Gosnell explains. Now, in addition to this sparkling, lower-abv flagship style, Gosnells offers limited-edition meads made with single-varietal honey collected from bees that have been fed on one type of plant and a range of canned meads with a distinct beer influence. The meadery is even collaborating on a co-ferment with London saké brewery Kanpai.

Gosnell says he sees the craft-beer movement and its emphasis on innovation and collaboration as a model for mead. ‘For us it’s really important to grow the category as a whole, and collaborating with other people is a great way of showing the breadth of what you can do,’ he explains.

Overcoming perceptions

It’s possible that mead could follow along the same explosive path that craft beer has, but – beverage-shaming Bud Light Kings aside – the honey drink has quite a few obstacles to overcome first. One of these challenges is a lack of understanding around the category. Though mead has enjoyed a resurgence thanks to its association with Stark, Lannister et al, TV’s portrayal of the drink hasn’t always hit the mark.

‘The medieval relationship with mead has given it a beer connotation – that it is essentially a honey beer,’ Sullivan says. ‘Mead has been misunderstood and misrepresented for years. [These programmes] have been good for awareness, but it hasn’t been great for the category in terms of building credibility.’

Of course, HBO and the like shouldn’t carry all the blame for mead’s image problem. In fact, it can look a lot like beer – Gosnells’ cans are proof of this. And, to add to the confusion, there’s the ancient tradition of making braggot, a brew that marries varying ratios of honey and barley malt in the recipe.

Mead can also look a lot like dessert wine and a lot like dry wine. With certain botanicals, it can strike a similar chord to vermouth too. Some honey liqueurs are even marketed as mead. At its best, these are examples of mead’s versatility, but given such a wide range of styles and possibilities, it’s little wonder that
consumers are confused.

To combat the chaos, Lyme Bay is currently working with a number of other mead producers across the UK to form an organisation to regulate the category, following in the footsteps of the American Mead Makers Association. Sullivan says that in an ideal world there would be legislation stating that at least 51% of the fermentable sugars in mead’s recipe must come from pure honey.

Still, mead is just making its way into the spotlight. Whether legislation comes into play or not, consumer understanding will take time to develop. ‘We’re right at the start of the category,’ says Gosnell. ‘Mead’s been around for ages, but it’s the beginning of a rebirth.’

Feature originally published in print, Imbibe Winter 2019.

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