Guide to modern mead

Jonathan Goodall / 13 July 2016

Mead, the world's oldest known alcoholic drink, has made a comeback, largely thanks to the popularity of Game of Thrones. We look at what it is and what modern honey wines to try.



Mead, or honey wine, has come a long way from the days of swords and sorcery. Modern version are light, crisp and simply wizard

Everything comes back into fashion if you’re prepared to wait. And sure enough, long after Henry VIII began to do away with the monasteries – and their beekeeping, mead-making monks – the honey-based hooch of yesteryear is back. I don’t hold out much hope for wimples and ruffs, but you never can tell. 

The rise in popularity of mead

In America mead sales grew by 130% from 2012 and 2013, according to the American Mead Makers Association. They attributed this growth to the improving quality of mead and some even linked it with the phenomenal success of Game of Thrones

Humourless fans of the HBO ratings smasher quickly pointed out that mead has neither been mentioned nor drunk in the programme, but journalists didn’t allow this minor detail to get in the way of a good story. And so it spread, becoming truer with each repetition. ‘We’ve had Game of Thrones theme nights requesting mead,’ says Sophia Fenton of The Cornish Mead Company, which has seen an uplift in sales since the series began. 

The top tipple in the court of King Arthur, Beowulf’s beverage of choice, mead is also referenced in the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tolkien and in the Harry Potter books, although it has always inspired a small but loyal following among fantasistas of the swords, sandals and sorcery persuasion. 

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The origins of mead

The original mead was simply fermented honey diluted with water, making it the world’s most ancient known alcoholic drink. 

Mead was brewed in China 9,000 years ago and the earliest evidence of European consumption is around 2800BC. It is entirely possible that mead-making even predates farming, which might explain its new following among the very latest demographic, the urban bearded hipster who has already clasped craft beer to his hairy chest. Mead fits perfectly with the hipster’s hankering for all things retro, manly and obscure. It’s so brain-achingly ancient it’s positively new again. 

Mead styles and strength

The earliest authentic mead styles include cyser mead (made with honey and fermented apple juice), sack mead (with high honey, high alcohol content) and who could forget metheglin (flavoured with herbs and spices)? 

Typically, the alcoholic strength would have been around 14%, with the flavour nuanced by the strain of yeast used and the type of honey, ranging from light and fruity to dark and molasses-like. 

But mead has mutated over the centuries to encompass a broad range of honey-based drinks. Nowadays it ranges from around 5% to 20% alcohol, can be still or sparkling, as dry as proper sherry or as sweet as a pixie princess trilling ‘Hey nonny no’ on a marshmallow mushroom. 

Tom Gosnell quit Virgin Media to brew a distinctively light, sparkling modern mead in Peckham, southeast London. He uses lager yeast to produce ‘a crisp, refreshing finish to balance the sweetness of the honey’, though surely missed a trick by failing to name his eponymous meadery Virgin Meadia. 

Drunk by hipsters and fantasists alike, mead is enjoying a ‘honeymoon’ period. The word derives from the ancient practice of giving one lunar month’s supply of mead, thought to be an aphrodisiac, to newlyweds. 

Now, where did I leave that codpiece? 

Recommended meads

Harvest Gold Mead
Medium-sweet, fresh and fruity (13% alcohol) £4.85 (70cl), www.thedrinkshop.com

Morrisons Lindisfarne Spiced Mead
Moreish sack mead with hints of cinnamon (14½%) £9.79 (70cl), www.lindisfarne-mead.co.uk 

Lyme Bay Tournament Mead
Dark and sweet with a touch of ginger (11%) £8.29 (75cl), www.lymebaywinery.co.uk 

Gosnell’s London Mead
Sparkling, light and dry. Delicious chilled (5½%) £35 for 12 x 33cl, www.gosnells.co.uk

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