Monday 10 April 2023

Can craft mead break into the big time?

Where next for mead? Or perhaps it’s more important to start with “What is mead, and what should it be?” 

I don't just mean what's it made from – I suspect many people know it's got honey in – but thinking about what defines it, and how varied it is. Because if your idea of mead is just that super-sweet syrupy stuff you see in some souvenir shops, then it's time to think again. 

Authentic, local and sustainable values

“The general mead story is a very compelling one around sustainability, authenticity and localism – we are very interested in sustainability, we’re supporting bees and all pollinators* with 10p donation per pint,” said the eponymous Tom Gosnell (left), speaking at a ‘meadia briefing’ ahead of last month’s British Mead Festival at the Gosnells mead taproom in London’s Bermondsey.  

“It has opened up a lot more in the last 10 years, but there’s still a lack of knowledge,” he added, with some people wondering if it will be 'like drinking honey.'

“The average consumer may not understand what mead means at all,” agreed James Lambert, MD of the other big UK producer, Lyme Bay Winery, which makes mead alongside grape and fruit wines. “We are seeing demonstrable consumer demand, with growth in excess of 10% year-on-year, there’s demand here and abroad, we’re seeing more searches on our website,” he added. 

“But within that, the biggest challenge – the one we’re struggling with – is the gatekeepers. Who do you talk to?” He explained that with restaurants, supermarkets and so on, there’s category buyers for wine, cider and beer, but there’s no one responsible for mead. 

But standards and definitions are currently missing

James Lambert
Another problem is definitions, the two meadmakers agreed. You can’t define it by strength, for example – Lyme Bay’s meads are rich honey wines of 10% to 14.5%, while most Gosnells mead is much lighter, at around 4%, and of course they’re aimed at rather different audiences. James said Lyme Bay sells a lot of bottles through garden centres and the like, and is the sole supplier to English Heritage, whereas it’s not unusual now to see Gosnells flagship Wildflower Mead on tap in pubs and brewery taprooms. 

And at the moment, in the UK it’s not even required to be made from at least 50% honey – although most craft meaderies use 100% honey, and James said Lyme Bay’s is about 55%, some of what’s sold as mead is mostly made from other ingredients such as grape wine or sugar, with honey added more as a flavouring than a fermentable. 

There’s a good reason for that, of course, which is price. “Honey is expensive, and there’s not enough of it in the UK, so we use honeys from elsewhere in Europe and especially from Mexico,” James said – apparently the Yucatan is famous for its honey. 

One way around this is to make session meads, as Gosnells does, but even at less than one-third the ABV of the heavy honey wines, they’re 100% honey so still not cheap to make. Tom noted though that where Lyme Bay pays duty at wine-rate, “the 8.5% tax-break [due in August 2023] will help us, we’ll also be able to take advantage of the draught relief.”

Seeking a sweet future

“What’s the future of mead?” asked James. “The challenge is to get consumers to understand what it is first, only then can we start to differentiate. Chilled and neat in a wine glass, or slightly warmer, we’re starting to see traction in cocktails too. Our sweeter style lends itself well to that.”

Tom agreed. “We give pubs simple cocktail recipes that are easy to make behind the bar,” he said. “It keeps the mead tap busy.”

Looking further ahead, if the UK follows the US, as it has for craft beer, we may well see quite a few more meaderies. When I first encountered American craft mead almost 20 years ago, at a presentation in Denver alongside the Great American Beer Festival, there were perhaps 30 producers present. “Now there’s maybe 1000 in the US,” says Tom. “There’s a lot of session mead – their session mead is more like 7% though!”

And with mead – unlike most wine – offering many of the same positives as beer and cider, such as craft, authenticity and localism, it’s going to be an increasingly attractive option for bars and consumers alike. That’s sweet news for the mead-makers, as long as they can work out how to make it pay. 

*This is a reference to recent news reports that, with so many more people taking up beekeeping during the pandemic, there is a risk of honeybee overpopulation. The problem is that honeybees are far from the only pollinators around – there's also various other bee species, moths, etc – but they are very efficient, so the danger is that they'll outcompete the others and cause species declines.

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