Travel, Food & Drink

As Sweet As Honey: Why Mead Is the Latest Wine to Know

Mead, one of the oldest drinks in the world, is having a moment. Luxury Defined takes a look at what the future might hold

“Since 2018, we’ve been making a vintage mead,” says Tom Gosnell, founder of Gosnells, London’s first mead bar. “It’s made from honey that comes from bees in Walthamstow and, depending on the weather and factors such as the pollen the bees collect, the mead will taste different each year.” It is similar to the idea of terroir in wine, but with airborne insects.

Mead is one of the oldest—if not the oldest—fermented drinks in the world. It is, at its simplest, a mixture of honey and water that is fermented to produce a drink with an alcohol content that ranges from around three percent to 20 percent.

A can of Gosnell's honey mead with wild flowers and honey
Gosnells started out in Tom Gosnell’s tiny kitchen in 2014, and now serves its modern version of the world’s oldest drink to customers all over the globe. Its drinks never contain added sugar, gluten, sulfites, artificial flavors, or colorings.

Gosnells is based in South London’s Peckham, a lively, vibrant area, and the cans in its shop resemble hipster IPA cans. This is no coincidence. After centuries of obscurity, mead is having a moment.

From early human history, probably as far back as 9000 BC, until the end of the Middle Ages, mead was a common drink. But around 1500, its popularity began to decline. The growth of commercial cane sugar was a big factor in this (supplanting honey as a cheaper source of sweetness), as was the increasing popularity and availability of wines, beers, and distilled spirits.

Home brewing of mead continued (Tej, a form of mead, is still the national drink of Ethiopia), but commercial mead became a historic footnote. If you encountered mead, until recently, it was probably in a monastery gift shop. In the UK, English Heritage has long been one of the biggest mead retailers.

Lots of bright coloured Gosnells mead cans
As a small, independent company, Gosnells tries to do what it can to make the world a better place. For example, the company supports sustainable biodiversity, which is essential to maintaining the supply of the finest honey.

All this started to change around the year 2000—and the change, like the IPA revolution in beer, began in the United States. According to the American Mead Makers Association, in 2003, there were 60 meaderies in America. In 2020, there were 450, with 200 more in the pipeline. The American mead revival has its roots in the same law that kicked off the IPA revolution in beer. In 1919, the U.S. banned home brewing as part of Prohibition. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter repealed this law.

Introducing Arizona’s Award-Winning Superstition Meadery

Married couple Jennifer and Jeff Herbert are co-founders of Superstition Meadery, which is based in Prescott, near Phoenix in Arizona. According to Jeff, the second Godfather of modern mead (after President Carter) is Charlie Papazian, who is a nuclear engineer and home brew enthusiast. “He wrote a book called The Complete Joy of Home Brewing. This had a mead recipe in it and this one recipe really helped launch awareness of need,” he says.

The Herberts’ meadery, launched in 2013, has now expanded to include a restaurant in Phoenix—and they have won awards for both their drinks and business.

Person holding out a glass of mead in a room full of barrels
Superstition Meadery has introduced more than 300 unique meads and hard ciders since 2012. The company also opened the world’s first mead and pairing restaurant in Phoenix, which serves elevated comfort food with meads and ciders.

There are two basic kinds of modern mead. One is relatively low alcohol—typically from three to six percent, so about the same as beers and ciders. The other is usually from 10 to 20 percent and is more like wine. Both range from dry to sweet and may include other flavorings such as flowers. Gosnells’ lower-alcohol drinks include a hibiscus mead and a hopped mead.

Superstition’s higher-alcohol meads often resemble wines, although this not true of all of them. One of its 13 percent meads boasts: “We did it. We put a peanut butter jelly sandwich in a bottle. Some would say that this is a crime against all that is decent in the world of craft beverage . . . ”

What to Eat with Mead 

In terms of the foods you can pair meads with, it depends on the mead. Sweeter, more alcoholic meads resemble dessert wines and work well with puddings and blue cheeses. However, this is just the obvious starting point. Some semi-sweet meads work well with spicy foods, such as Indian and Mexican (like Riesling), while more cider-like meads would pair nicely with hard cheeses. Semi-sweet meads can also work well with fatty meats, like pork belly.

Bottles of mead lined up in front of barrels
Superstition has a Tasting Room in Prescott, Arizona, which is the perfect place to try mead. The team will guide you through mead history and styles, while you sample one-off test batches on tap, special releases, and the otherwise unobtainable products on the Cellar List.

In the United Kingdom, Gosnells says that the obvious place for the mead market is cider drinkers. The United Kingdom represents an amazing 39 percent of the global cider market, but the market has declined since peaking in 2009 and is ripe for change. So perhaps mead could play a disruptive role here in the way that IPAs did. Gosnells’ mead is already on tap in a number of London pubs.

But even in the United States, mead producers tend to be small concerns. Last year, says Herbert, Superstition enjoyed 45 percent growth. “But everyone who starts a meadery is like me. They’ve got a credit card and an idea, and a home-brewing background. I’ve never heard of anyone say, ‘We’ve got $2 million (£1.6m) to start this business with’—but I think you might start seeing that soon.’”

Wild flower honey mead can held amongst yellow and purple flowers
The founders of Gosnells created their own Mead Garden, to enrich biodiversity at their London home. They work with community groups to re-wild urban areas with nectar-rich flowers, shrubs, and trees.

The other great indicator that mead is ready for the big time would be a drinks giant snapping up a meadery, as has happened in the IPA market over the past few decades. In the United Kingdom , for instance, AB InBev bought craft brewers Camden Town Brewery in 2015 for around £85 million ($106m), when it was only five years old. This has yet to happen in the world of mead.

Could it? Perhaps. It’s worth remembering the Sierra Nevada Brewery Company was founded in 1979 by a pair of home brewers in a hand-built brewery. It now is widely credited as being one of the three main drivers behind the craft beer revolution (The other two are the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco and the now-closed New Albion Brewing Company), and is the third largest privately owned brewery in the US.

Banner image: Superstition Meadery’s bottled drinks