In the face of the dominance of the craft beer movement in London, Tom Gosnell is spearheading a movement of his own, bringing the taste of mead to a new audience right from the heart of South London.
Hidden in a tree-lined street behind Peckham’s main drag, is a small industrial estate housing half a dozen businesses. It’s a grey weekday morning and has been mizzling since I got on the train. The streets are wet by the time I get off, even though the journey is a short one, and the sky is gunmetal grey. Behind the double doors of Unit 5, bearing the name of its owner, Tom Gosnell, sits a small but perfectly formed meadery.
Beer and wine have enjoyed tremendous cultural and economic growth in recent years. In London alone there are over 100 breweries, many of them in East London. Mead doesn’t form part of the picture of hipster craft alcohol revival. Despite a resurgence in mead production in the UK from the likes of the Lancashire Mead Company and Caerphilly’s Mad Meads, mead hasn’t hit London in the way that craft beer has. Gosnell is the only producer in London.
According to Gosnell, mead production in the UK is probably where craft beer production was in the eighties. Mead’s reputation has certainly been tainted by low-quality syrupy, sweet, unsophisticated honey wine associated with at medieval historical re-enactments. Yet mead has a global historical and literary pedigree.
Mead is thought to be the earliest fermented drink. Legend has its origins in Africa, where wild bees would nest in tree hollows which flooded when the rains came. Naturally occurring yeast in the honey and airborne yeast would start the fermentation process and mead was created. From Africa, mead spread to every country where bees are found. Each mead-producing country has its own rich heritage. In the UK, monasteries have over a 400 year tradition of mead making. It is mentioned in Beowulf and in Chaucer (The Miller’s Tale).
With the introduction, however, of fermenting grapes which offered a much cheaper and a more predictable output of wine production, mead went into decline. In recent years, in the US, mead has been enjoying a revival. A new wave of mead producers are leading the way in the States and consumption is up by 42% among a younger consumers. Hearsay has Game of Thrones influencing the uptrend. Nonetheless, mead is the fastest growing segment of the American alcohol beverage industry and it’s where Gosnell first encountered it around 2013.
Image courtesy of Gosnells Mead gosnells.co.uk
“I’d always been a cider and Perry maker and went to the States and tasted mead for the first time and it set fire to my imagination. So I came home and started playing with basic recipes and then it just sort of expanded from there and that was probably four or five years ago now.
When I was in the States, it was the first time that I had mead that was really well made as opposed to some weird castle gift shop thing and I had some of these really beautiful products. I thought I should be able to make some really nice alcohol with it.”
Gosnell took his time though to develop the product that sits on the shelves today. “We spent a long time getting that product right. It took about a year or two to develop the first product, from messing about at home through to commercialising it.”
Mead is essentially fermented honey and water. The fermentation occurs from naturally occurring yeast in the honey and airborne yeast. Today commercial mead producers tend to use a mix of honey, fresh yeast, lemons and water.
Its alcoholic strength can vary from 8-17 percent ABV and it can be fortified with grape or grain spirit. In the development phase, Gosnell started with a stronger, more traditional mead to test what level of sweetness he wanted. Then he dropped it down until it became more like a beer or cider. After trying a number of different yeasts, he settled on a lager yeast to give a crisp finish and added some vitamins and minerals to keep the yeast happy and a bit of acid to bring the PH down.
A master mead producer can start with honey, water and yeast, and end up with something that is dry or sweet, still or sparkling, straight up or mixed with fruits or spices. Gosnells sparkle comes after it’s been left for two to three days so it starts to carbonate. It’s then pasteurised in the bottle to stop the fermentation process. The result is fresh, lightly sparkling product with citrus and blossom notes which come from the honey he sources in Spain.
“We use a Spanish orange blossom honey. Obviously the flavour of the honey depends on what the bees have been eating, so it’s quite important for us to have a consistent product. The bees in the area in Spain graze mainly on the orange blossom, so it’s a really consistent product that we get. We work with the distributer to blend the honey so that it’s the same consistency.”
Aside from spending time developing and testing a solid core product, a number of limited editions in the range have emerged from experimentation and different stimulus. The Citra Sea Mead came from participating in the beer fest in Singapore.
“Our previous brewer Nick came up with it and it was a riff on salt in cocktails which wasn’t quite a thing last year but it was getting there, and we incorporated that into the one we made. It just went down really well and everyone loved it and we’ve incorporated it in to our line now.
Generally the inspiration comes from flavours we’ve seen or things we’d like to try, so we start off on a small scale and do 5 or 10 litres, then if it doesn’t work it doesn’t matter, and if it does you scale it up.”
Inspiration for other limited editions comes from different sources. “I think it’s about looking at lots of different stuff. There’s lots of burrito bars opening up in London so we were thinking about Mexico and those kinds of flavours. We also do an elderflower mead in the summer which is, of course, because elderflower cordial is huge and is a great flavour to work with. So it’s a bit if everything really. So there is no one kind of thesis for where we get our flavours.”
Gosnells produces 2000l of mead per week. I wondered if they had plans to scale up.
“So we are pretty much at our limit at the moment. We have got some fermenters coming in, so we are expanding at the moment. We’re looking to continue to double in size each year and we’ve just had a big meeting this morning about planning for how we are physically going to that and what kind of systems we need and that kind of stuff.
We would like to get pretty big. I think it’s always important. Beer and alcohol is quite a competitive industry so if you are not growing you’re probably shrinking so it’s important to keep growing.”
I didn’t really have any expectations I’d still be doing this when I started. I thought it would be a fun thing to try and get it out of my system but it’s been going really well so we are keeping going.”
Typical of any artisan producer, Gosnell recommends drinking it on its own. “I like it chilled on its own because it really showcases the honey and some of the floral notes coming through. It’s also really nice on draft out of the keg.”
I’ve used it to poach quinces along with rose water. It creates a beautiful, floral, yet fresh, poaching piqued. Gosnell recommends pairing it with rich and spicy foods. “It’s quite good at cutting across that (richness) maybe in terms of cheese, a hard cheese like a chevre.”
Mead is on the up. It’s only a matter of time before the UK catches on the to potential of mead and it starts to proliferate to the extent of craft beer. In the meantime, Gosnells is leading the way.