‘Purists say it has to be crystal clear, so I sometimes get into trouble for ageing on lees,’ Will Grubelnik, head of production for London-based meadery Gosnells says. We’re tasting a 2019 vintage mead brewed from raw London honey. It’s citrussy, with exotic fruit flavours of kiwi and melon, and it’s surprisingly dry, with bitter notes and a satisfying grainy texture.
Mead, an alcoholic drink made from fermented honey, has been brewed for centuries. In Ethiopia it is known as tej (it’s made all over Africa, as far south as Tanzania); it was the favoured drink of Aristotle, and it’s mentioned many times in the Old English poem Beowulf, which dates (probably) from the 9th century. There are myriad methods of brewing, but the essentials are simple: honey is combined with water and herbs or botanicals, yeast is added, and the brew is fermented.
The hive is a living thing. ‘Honey is 80 per cent sugar and about 20 per cent water,’ Grubelnik says. ‘Then 0.2 per cent everything else: wax, pollen, bits of bee… It’s the last bit that gives richness and texture and flavour to the mead.’ The presence of wax and propolis (the mixture of beeswax and other oils and resins, which is used in the construction of the hive) ‘helps prolong the delicate floral aromas of the honey and gives the mead almost a glossy mouthfeel.’
But in the mead industry, clarity is all, and lees-y meads can be frowned upon. Grubelnik might be a winemaker talking about brettanomyces, the rogue yeast some consider gives a desirable rustic character to a wine, while others say it’s a fault.
There are some intriguing parallels between mead and wine. Terroir, for example. Bees will travel two to three kilometres around their hive, so a beekeeper, using crop maps, can tell with some accuracy what their swarm is feeding on, depending on the time of year. Different crops will produce different styles of honey. ‘The fact that each flower or bush or tree produces its own nectar flavour means that we have the most astonishing interpretation of terroir. That seems to hit the spot, especially with wine drinkers,’ says Rupert Ponsonby, one of Gosnells’ investors.
‘If you want a clean, light, floral profile, then go for early-pick borage,’ Grubelnik says. Acacia will give a lemon sherbet flavour, oil seed rape a neutral honey with a floral background. And it’s the same with texture: sunflower honey is creamy and oily, for example. Another producer, Kit Newell at the Wye Valley Meadery in the Welsh borders, is also fascinated by terroir, noting that when the small-leaved lime tree is in blossom ‘you can say exactly what flavour profile the honey will have’.
But how is a meadery in a business park unit in south London’s Peckham making the most of bee terroir? Grubelnik prises the lid off a 25kg plastic tub of honey. It’s 2021 OX44 – that’s the Oxford postcode – and it tastes delicious. Gosnells produces a ‘postcode taster pack’ of meads to demonstrate terroir: the OX44 is from very diverse farmland in the Cotswolds, the bucolic stretch of rolling hills and archetypal stone towns in the west of England; and CM22 is from Bishops Stortford in Cambridgeshire to the east. But there’s also offerings from two London districts, Hammersmith (W5) and east London (IG10).
Urban and rural honeys are very different: there’s no crop rotation in London, so bees’ feeding grounds are consistent. ‘There’s also a great variation of plants in London, so honeys tend to be much more floral in profile,’ Grubelnik says. He notes how honey reflects human impact – more housing can mean less diversity in flora with a corresponding effect on honey.
We sit down to taste (we’re in the cluttered back office, where the meadery’s founder Tom Gosnell is sitting at his computer ‘doing VAT returns,’ he says cheerfully). The brewery’s output varies from lighter floral offerings like the Orange Blossom – ‘This is our house style,’ Grubelnik says – to vintage meads, like the 2019, in which you can see the lees held in suspension. In between, there’s a cornucopia of flavours and styles. Like beer, botanicals are added: hops, Assam tea, salt, lemon peel, tarragon or dried hibiscus flowers to turn the dial on the sweet, sour, bitter notes. Most are carbonated in keg but the vintages are bottle-carbonated, aged on lees, disgorged and dosaged with a honey-based liquor.
Those who don’t know mead expect it to be as sweet as dessert wine and are surprised by how dry and textured it is. Residual sugars typically weigh in at about 13 grams per litre (the same as an off-dry white wine). Honey notes are desirable, unlike grape flavours in wine. It’s a unique palate, almost akin to a fruity IPA with a fine bitter core.
In the UK, mead is still strongly associated with a kind of hairy-kneed eccentricity (it’s hugely popular with Vikings and druids), but it’s growing in popularity, with savvy producers like Gosnells and Wye Valley eschewing ‘runic’ labels in favour of a much cooler vibe. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see the smart Gosnells logo among the beer taps in London pubs.
In fact, in London’s Bermondsey, Gosnells has just opened a dedicated taproom under the railway arches. On launch night it’s packed with a hip crowd quaffing Raspberry Wildflower, Sweet Cherry and Orange Blossom in stemmed pint glasses. The staff wear sunflower-yellow dungarees and ‘Show me the honey!’ tee-shirts. It’s buzzing (a pun which is banned around here). There are plenty of beards and tattoos, but not a druid or a Viking in sight.
Five Gosnells meads showcasing bee terroir
OX44: Oxfordshire springtime honey comes from the rolling Cotswold farmlands. Bottle-carbonated, matured on wax lees for 12 months. Honeyed and floral on the nose, the honey flavours repeat on a palate with citrus notes and a fine dry texture. A very satisfying mouthfeel with a nice contrast between opulence and grainy, honeyed texture. 5.5%. £35 as part of a 4 x 500ml bottle postcode tasting pack. Available from gosnells.co.uk, Amazon, and Whole Foods.
CM22: A canal-side apiary with rich waterside forage – ‘including wispy willow trees, orchards, hedgerows, private gardens and wildflower meadows.’Well-defined citrus notes – grapefruit, preserved lemon – on the nose, and pronounced acidity, which carries and offsets the fine citrus fruit on the palate. Fine-grained texture. 5.5%. £35 as part of a 4 x 500ml bottle postcode tasting pack. Available from gosnells.co.uk, Amazon, and Whole Foods.
IG10: This east London postcode has borage, rapeseed and heather, blackberry, early-flowering trees in the spring, and spicy ivy in the autumn. Really delicious, delicate flavours – not so much citrus as intense caramel marinated in honey, fresh and sweet with the classic fine-grained mid-palate. One of the best meads in the line-up. 5.5%. £35 as part of a 4 x 500ml bottle postcode tasting pack. Available from gosnells.co.uk, Amazon, and Whole Foods.
Orange Blossom: Spanish honeys from Valencia, Spain make up this off-dry mead at 38g residual sugar. The nose is floral with hints of tangerine zest, the palate dry with rich honey flavours. As with all Gosnells meads, the texture is very attractive, grainy and full. 5.5%. £12. Available from gosnells.co.uk, Amazon, and Whole Foods.
Vintage 2019: Raw London honey, from Lea Bridge Road & Woodbury Wetlands in north London. Bottle-carbonated and aged on lees. There’s a green grassy vibe on the nose, an intense honey character and exotic fruits, a hint of melon and even kiwi, and waxy intensity leading to a finish with very satisfying bitter notes. 12%. £35. Available from gosnells.co.uk, Amazon, and Whole Foods.