I’m on a journey. Let’s call it The Honey Wine Trail. I don’t know where it will end. Currently it’s confined to Joule, the Salford craft beer bar run by Kev Fenton and Kym Dawson. They are The Mead Hunters. Their shelves groan with melomels, pyments, cysters and hydromels. Mostly bottles from the States, where there are now over 500 craft meaderies, but also from Norway and, nearer home, Eccles.
Their own quest started in downtown Portland, Oregon over a year ago, before they opened in Chapel Street. At a beer festival, in search of West Coast hoppiness, they noticed that the busiest stand was dispensing mead. They joined the throng and got the taste. Every Hail Ragnar/Wrath of Odin in a goblet cliche was axed as the variety and complexity of the fermented honey beverage were unveiled. Now Joule stocks around 40 meads, ranging from bone-dry to honeyed (of course) sweetness.
Flash forward to January 2023 and the pair are over in The States again. In New York they drop in on the Evil Twin brewery, ostensibly to check out barrel-aged stouts and the like. There they run into team Nostrum, mead-making neighbours in Queens and were invited round to theirs to sample their range, including a cannabis example.
Back in downtown Salford, fresh off the plane, in honour of my own new-found interest in mead, Kev broaches a 15.8 per cent Nostrum cherry mead, fermented with orange blossom honey and both tart and sweet cherries. The label of this Volume 01 Chapter 05 mysteriously adds: “This batch was then conditioned on Sourwood honey and given our ‘cheesecake treatment’.
So we are not just talking a straight honey flavour from arguably the world’s first fermented alcohol drink, dating back some 12,000 years (way way beyond our own Beowulf and his mead hall). Honey, mixed with water and yeast (preferably wild) at the basic level, will do the trick, but it really needs more than honey for a vigorous fermentation. Hence the need for fruits, herbs even beer for the yeast to gobble and that in turn encourages the flavour profiles sought by artisan mead makers.
Add fruit and it’s a melomel. Apples or cider make a cyser. Grapes create a pyment. Herbs result in a metheglin. And out of a mead-beer collab comes a braggot.
I first encountered a braggot five years ago when Manchester’s (now Stockport’s) Runaway Brewery created an 8.5 per cent smoked example in collaboration with Brew Wild, using raw and unfiltered local honey from local beekeepers and fermented with Belgian yeast. I enjoyed its soft hybrid taste but regarded it as an anachronistic curiosity.
I was complacent too about the highest profile meadery in the North West – Horwich-based Lancashire Mead Makers. It was the proper stuff, not tourist tat, and crafted by an actual druid, active in the local pagan moot, I was told, with the branding matching the drink titles – Dragonsbreath Mead and Thor Mead.
All of which hadn’t prepared me for the post Big Apple tasing that followed at Joule. Stars of the show were undoubtedly the bottles from Superstition. Book me a ticket to Phoenix, Arizona. Although they have a downtown mead and tapas pairing restaurant in the state capital Jeff and Jenn’s Herbert’s meadery is actually two hours north in Prescott, the first territorial capital. Among the historic edifices that survived a 1900 fire is the Burmister Building, Superstition’s base.
At Joule, on the ground floor of Salford’s spanking new The Filaments apartment block, Kev poured me shots of three Superstition meads – Super Bee (12%) Marion and Blue Berry White (each 13.5 per cent). The first of these is made in the traditional Polish Trozniak style using rare Arizonan Ironwood’ honey from local apiarists Bee Dudes and offers a pure honey rush; red-purple Marion is a fruitfest featuring juice from blueberries, blackberries and raspberries along with wildflower homey. First impression is jamminess then the acidity kicks in and you gauge its complexity.
Yet more complex, but definitely on the dessert end of the mead spectrum is Blueberry White. It shares roses on the nose with Marion but the palate is all chocolate and berries. Quite beguiling.
All three bottles have garnered awards aplenty in the highly competitive US craft mead scene. Other big hitters on the Joule list include Florida duo Garagiste from Tampa and Pye Road (Odessa), New Hampshire’s Sap House and – lucky old Ferndale, Michigan – local rivals there B.Nektar and Schramm’s. The latter’s owner, Ken Schramm, has even write a definitive book on the subject – Complete Meadmaker.
Garagiste could probably pen their own gospel on sheer gustatory ambition for the drink. I‘m just hoping Joule will bring over their Cilice De-Lux melomel. “A base of local honey is enlivened with red currants, raspberries, and cherries. Then it’s blasted with a thick maraschino glaze from imported Luxardo cherries and finished on Bourbon staves that impart a rich undercurrent of molasses and caramel.”
At the bar 70ml pours are £13 for the American imports, £10 to £12 for other countries’, reflecting their rarity value on what is arguably the UK’s finest mead list. It was interesting to compare the meadery with the most representatives, Norway’s Marlobobo. Who also major in Quirky. What better name for a blackberry mead with vanilla beans than Bumfuzzle Vanizzle?
Vanilla’s obviously a big deal and is up front in their Care Full cyser (11.5%), made with a caramelised wildflower/heather honey and apple reduction, vanilla beans and cinnamon.
Equally delightful but more complex was Marlobobo’s gin barrel-aged raspberry mead, Introverted Escapism (10.5%).
Allow me to ‘borrow’ the description of its intricate production from the notes by online drinks merchants Indie Beer. A 375ml bottle will cost you £41.
“Ripe and juicy Glen Ample raspberries were drenched in wildflower honey and fermented slow and cool with a yeast chosen to preserve all the nuances both ingredients brought to the table. Not a droplet of water was added.
“Three months later, Marlobobo got their hands on a very special gin barrel that they are not allowed to state the name of, and filled it to the brim with the glorious nectar above. The barrel wasn’t juniper forward at all, but bursted of soft, sweet citrus fruits and floral botanicals. The mead took a six-month break in this very special and fragrant gin barrel, before it was ready to come back even stronger and be released to an extroverted world.
“As well as obviously bursting of fresh raspberries drenched in honey, the barrel brought it to another dimension in terms of complexity. Giving away new flavours and nuances from each and every sip. From the sweet and fruity notes of fragrant lemon verbena, citrus rinds, spruce shoots and coriander seeds. To bright notes of forest berries like lingonberries and cranberries, and flowery notes of jasmine, sage and lavender.”
So not the simple honey booze you thought, eh? For a generation rediscovering a whole, artisan hinterland of drinks Mead is an avenue being increasingly ignored. Kev an Kim at Joule stock the Lost Verses meads from up the road – at just £5 a tipple – and hope to champion the Brood range from ex-Cloudwater brewer Connor Seagrave (above), whose day job is at Sureshot. He took up mead making during lockdown – “I wasn’t going to brew beer in the free time I now had,” he told me. “There was kombucha, but mead seemed more interesting and challenging.”
Currently after moving house and in search of new premises he’s between mead engagements. That should change by the summer. For the moment you can get a taste of his back catalogue at the Sureshot Taproom. On the evidence of a wonderfully balanced example he opened for me there recently – Ta-Ta And Farewell (a semi sweet mead made with Spanish orange blossom honey, cherries, blackberries, blackcurrants and grapes) – the return to production can’t come soon enough.