In the belly of the bee

Having just seen through its busiest quarter since starting operations in 2014, Peckham’s own honey-led brewery, Gosnells, is living proof that it pays to protect pollinators


For all Tom Gosnell is so passionate about mead that he’s dedicated no small portion of his life to its production he’s got qualms with its place in popular culture. As founder of Peckham’s favourite honey-based drinks producer, he’s all too aware that the tendency of mead to be consumed with Mediaeval history in mind has largely obscured its potential to showcase the amazing work of bees. For ten years now, Gosnells, has been shining a light on honey as an incredible natural product, and using the growing popularity of it’s products to advocate for the protection of biodiverse habitats that our neighbourhood pollinators need to flourish.

Tom says that the real romance of honey is that it wears its terroir on its sleeve, with the location of the hive, by way of the plants surrounding it, really jumping out of the honey’s profile. If the bees have had access to Heather Nectar, you’ll taste heather in your honey, if they’ve been eating coriander, or buckwheat, or orange blossom, you’ll taste that too. There’s no end to honey’s potential to be rich, complex, and unexpected. It was an appreciation of this amazing natural product that motivated Tom to start brewing with honey, almost ten years ago now, in 2014.

Of the composition of honey itself, Tom says “about 10-13% of it is water, the vast majority of the rest are simple sugars with a very tiny remainder accounting for flavour compounds. When you start turning that sugar into alcohol, you're then making that 2% of flavour compounds much bigger, and really getting access to those flavours, so you can kind of pick them out quite easily. I guess for us, that's just what's really important is using really good quality honey, and then making that into some really good quality alcohol on our end.” 

He points out that, speaking in broad strokes, people who know what mead is, tend to think of it as “quite strong, quite thick, and quite serious”. Of course, it can be that, and still be an impressive, superbly crafted drink, but that’s far from the only manifestation of mead on the market today. 

“Any alcoholic product that's fermented from honey is classed as mead, whether it drinks like a dessert wine or a soda, and that can be quite confusing for the consumer,” says Cameron McKenzie-Wilde, sales director. “The way we tend to describe it is that within the category of ‘beer’, you've got stout, and you've got lager, and you've got IPA, they’re all beer, but they’re subcategories within beer. That's where we're trying to get to with the mead category. We produce small batch meads at the top end, which drink like wine, and we do ‘Nectar’ which is more cider-like, and which you drink in a pint that's sort of 3-5%, and is fizzy like cider.

We've coined the term 'Nectar' in-house, and it's a term that we are legitimising solely at the moment as far as we know.”

I’m intrigued to learn that Gosnells largely use a pilsner lager yeast to achieve the crisp finish of its Nectar and run fermentation quite hot — around 23°C — for a week to achieve the desired product. “That gets you some really amazing apple and pear flavours, which is funny because those would be off flavours in a beer, but for us it marries perfectly with the fruit flavours in the honey” says Tom.

Championing the profile of the honey is of the utmost importance to Gosnells, given the lengths to which it goes to responsibly source and trace the best quality honey. “For our core range, an importer makes us a special blend of British and EU honeys, and we do that to ensure we’re producing and working with a consistent product,” says Tom. “For the stronger products in our range we use honey from specific hives, so we can really tell the story of the bees.” The thought makes me weak in the knees. Tom continues. 

“We've done a series, which we call our vintage series, where we’ve used the honey from the same hives year after year, so for example, we’ve used honey from a hive on the Woodberry Wetlands, in East London. Obviously, a lot of development has been happening there, there has been a lot of variation in the weather over the last number of years, all this affects what the bees can find and eat. The result is that every year you’ve got a completely different profile in the honey, and a completely different drink at the end. We’ve also done some stuff with foraged honey around Norfolk, some stuff with hives from Saffron Walden, we’ve done Scottish Heather honey. We’ve also done a postcode series, where we’ve worked with bees in four different places, so yeah, we really like to play with those kinds of stories.”

In addition to implementing strict protocols to ensure all honey is traceable, and coming from farms where the welfare of the bees is a top priority, Tom says that 5p of every pint of Nectar is donated to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. “Because people need honeybees for honey, the honeybee actually gets quite a lot of love already, which isn’t the case for more solitary bees,” says Tom. Cameron adds that “The Bumblebee Conservation Trust champions the creation of pollinator friendly habitats, particularly in urban areas. Those pollinators are a keystone species and without them, our food chain and lots of other facets of human life suffer. So that biodiversity angle is really important for us and is really our underlying purpose as a business.”

In a world in which the UK government has reversed bans on neonicotinoid — pesticides which are lethal for bees — and corporations like Heineken are free to uproot 300 acres (140 football pitches) of apple trees overnight, fighting for pollinator-friendly, biodiverse habitats can feel like an uphill battle. However, public recognition of Gosnells as a champion for pollinators, has seen an outpouring of support for the brand, which it has in turn used to spread the message of The Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Tom says that the best piece of advice the Trust has given Gosnells is to plant rosemary, lavender, thyme, or any other plant that’s easy to grow, and does a lot of looking after itself. Native wildflowers are amazing, so by all means plant them if you can, but if you’re keen to make low effort changes with lasting impact, hardy perennials are — pardon the pun — the bees knees. Equally, if you can change how you see an overgrown lawn, and think about it as a beacon of biodiversity instead of an eyesore, leaving even just a patch of grass in your garden uncut, will allow a myriad of plants and insects to find much needed footing in your area. With small, practical, sustainable changes being the name of the game when it comes to healing the world we live in, lending your neighbourhood pollinators a helping hand is a great place to start.

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