Mashing in

Charlotte Cook puts her scepticism aside and dons her hassock, as she learns to love beer’s socially awkward cousin


There is something very powerful about admitting you were wrong. The gravity attached to misapprehensions of course differs in its seriousness and consequence, and what I am about to confess is not going to shake up the world, but when you’ve made a mistake, you should admit it. I am now ready to publicly acknowledge that I was completely and utterly wrong about mead. 

When I thought of mead I tended to think of strong, syrupy, incredibly sweet alcohol that can only be served in dark rooms from a wooden mug by a jolly monk. Quite where this Medieval Times LARPing version of mead came from is not totally clear to me, but it coloured my perception of mead and I convinced myself I would not be a fan. A few weeks ago, in Estonia, I tried mead for the first time and my understanding of the drink has fundamentally shifted. 

The Estonian mead was made by my friend Kristjan, and was flavoured with local berries and fruit, and due to some accidental refermentation in the bottle, had a really light, fresh effervescence that elevated it to champagne levels. It was bone dry (with the plan to back sweeten), light, fizzy and only about 4% ABV, and it was served in a glass by a slightly taciturn Estonian man, no ebullient ecclesiastical characters in sight. 

I hadn’t expected it to be so refreshing and sparkling

Safe to say, my preconceptions were completely destroyed in one short sip. I hadn’t expected it to be so refreshing and sparkling, with the honey notes being delicate rather than overwhelming, and the zingy influence of the flowering quince providing fresh and bright top notes. We tried all 7 of his prototype meads, which was a rather too robust foundation for the 4 negronis we then drank at the bar. 

The next day I took a walk from Kalamaja, the arts district of Tallinn, to the sea. Standing by the sea is the second-best way to blow away any negroni flavoured cobwebs; the first-best way is to jump into the sea and let the icy water cover every inch of your body. My favourite part of the Baltic Coast is at Parterai. This fairly windswept and barren stretch of the city sits directly below the old prison that held inmates as recently as 2002. You used to be able to go inside, and indeed parties were held there, and you’d need to gingerly step over discarded bottles of vodka and amphetamine containing cough syrup to explore. 

There’s something disconcerting about seeing photos of Atomic Kitten and Faye from STEPS taped up with yellowing sticky tape on a wall that was built as part of a sea fortress in the early 1800s and turned into a notorious penitentiary with little updating. The prison was closed to visitors a few years back, citing safety concerns, and the building is now being restored, but the desolate stretch of sea outside compels me to return year after year. It’s a perfect place to think and take stock, looking out over the only view that hundreds of men, over several centuries, had to remind themselves of the outside world. 

It is also a very good place to contemplate a hangover and attempt to fortify yourself before the local cure of sauerkraut juice is forced upon you by a well-meaning friend, my preferred method of a Powerade (the blue doctor) a Red Bull (whacko juice) and a preprepared egg sandwich not having made it to these shores yet. And sat by the sea, I decided that I should expand my mead adventuring and seek some out when I got home. 

All of the modern meads I tried were excellent

As luck would have it, Tom Gosnell of Gosnell’s mead had emailed me a few days before to arrange a visit, so the next week I took an airless bus across southeast London to Peckham home of the Gosnell’s production facility and taproom. As I arrived Tom was planting out sunflowers into old cans for taproom patrons and locals to take home, adding a splash of colour and delight to an otherwise unremarkable industrial estate. The kit itself is charmingly DIY and shows a huge amount of ingenuity and resourcefulness, and the mead they are producing reflects this. The taproom had about 7 draft meads, as well as special concoctions in bottle, and all of them were delicious. My particular favourite was made with wildflower honey and raspberry, it was refreshing, moreish and again proved beyond doubt that I was wrong about mead. 

I asked Tom about the preconceptions around mead, and it turns out I am not alone. Tom described the kind of mead I was talking about as “Castle Giftshop Mead”, which apparently often isn’t even mostly made out of honey and continues to blight the positive efforts of modern mead makers with its artificial flavour and bottles that make it look like something a character in The Viz would drink. Yet all of the modern meads I tried were excellent, inventive, conscientiously made and utilising local ingredients. I was surprised to learn that honey producers often struggle to find new markets and uses for their product, and in my opinion, mead is an excellent use of honey, and if it helps to save the bees along the way, then all the better.

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