Chilling Out with the Mead Makers

As part of my Mead-ieval Quest, I was keen to see how the experts brew it and to pick up some tips for our own Sticky Rogers. So we recently dropped in to meet a wonderful brewer whose passion for beekeeping and mead-making knows no bounds. And his enthusiasm really shows in the results. We were in for a tasting treat and a very pleasant surprise because this is mead, but not as we know it. This is sparkling medium-dry mead, more akin to craft beer than traditional honey wine, with some amazing flavours to enjoy.

My search for a mead maker took us to Chepstow, to the brewing house of Wye Valley Meadery. Owner Matt Newell greeted us warmly on arrival, and soon we were learning all about how he and his brother came to open the meadey a year ago. But it’s not just the mead that sparkles in this brewery, Matt himself effervesces with a genuine passion for his subject, and you can’t help but go along for the ride.

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Some of Wye Valley Meadery’s range of delicious products

A geologist by trade, Matt indulged his long-standing interest in bees by spending a summer working for a beekeeper in the Forest of Dean. Having been bitten by the honey bug (as it were) he took the opportunity to purchase ten hives from his employer when he retired, and his enterprise grew from there. Nowadays he has some 130 hives, all nestling in the Wye Valley where the area’s exceptional biodiversity means the bees can thrive, allowing them to produce a rich and varied honey. His brother, Kit, doesn’t have quite the same affinity with the bees, keeping the insect interactions to a minimum. One memorable encounter was caught on film when he was stung on national television during an episode of BBC’s Countryfile programme, much to Matt’s amusement. Apparently, bees will pick up on a nervous person’s tension and jerky movements, so Kit sticks instead to the marketing, social media and design side of the business. So having got all the background on this exciting young venture, it was time to have a look inside the brewery, where all the magic happens.

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Matt in his element, where the mead is brewed

A far cry from little Sticky Rogers fermenting in our pantry, this was mead production on an entirely different level. The ‘must’ is mixed in large cylindrical steel fermenters, where it stays while the mad fizzing part – the first stage of fermentation – goes on. Interestingly, I discovered that this first stage takes the same time as Sticky did, even on this much bigger scale – around two weeks. The mead then spends a month or so in the big 1,400-litre fermenters with the temperature being kept in check by a Glycol Chiller, which keeps the yeast happy. Matt told us that yeast can get ‘stressed’, which is to be avoided. Apparently, yeast is ‘highly strung’, and if it gets all upset it starts smelling like burnt rubber, so great efforts have to be made to keep it comfortable, chilled and relaxed. I had visions of scented candles, soothing music and massage oil. Providing the yeast doesn’t have a nervous breakdown and all goes well, the flavourings are added towards the end of the fermentation, with real ingredients such as mashed rhubarb. When the infused mead is ready it’s bottled – in beer bottles with caps rather than wine bottles – where it rests for a week or so before being pasteurised. After another few days resting it’s ready to go. The mead is great to drink straight away, but the flavours will continue to develop over time. And what a great range of flavours they are, as we were soon to find out.

Glycol Chiller

The Glycol Chiller, keeping the yeast happy

Having seen how it’s made, we got to taste the full range. I’ve never tried a craft sparkling mead before, so imagine how I felt to discover such a delicious and refreshing drink. I became an instant fan. Wye Valley makes five flavours, with more planned, each with a distinctive and zesty flavour and a pleasing natural sparkle, whilst retaining that essential characteristic of its historical roots.

The first we tried is called Honey and Hops, and it’s an ingenious cross between mead and beer. I could see myself with a bottle of this at a pub quiz. Then we tried the Honey and Elderflower which is wonderfully refreshing, zingy and light, like an alcoholic version of Elderflower Pressé with extras. Then there was the Honey and Rhubarb, another revelation. Slightly richer than the Elderflower, this was like rhubarb crumble in a glass – a sparkling indulgence, but crisp and clean at the same time. Moving on, we tried the Mango Mosaic, an inspired creation combining exotic fruit with beer and a hint of honey. This would be perfect with a curry – forget larger with spicy food, bring on the Mango Mosaic! We finished with a seasonal hit – the Honey and Ginger, packing a flavourful punch without knocking you out as some ginger beers do. I felt all Christmassy and warm but like the other flavours, in a light, clean and zesty way. Any of these new takes on mead would cut nicely through the festive food fug, yet would slip down equally nicely on a balmy summer evening. This is truly 21st Century mead.

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Honey and Elderflower – one of the fabulous flavours we tried

Another factor that makes Wye Valley meads so different is that it’s actually pretty low in alcohol, coming in at around 4% Volume, which means if you are in a pub quiz you’re not going to mess up on many answers with this. So if you fancy trying a fusion of the medieval and modern, with some interesting and fun flavours, these are the ones to go for. We certainly came away with a good stock. They also do gift packs which would make a great Christmas present for any craft brew enthusiast, and you can even buy a jar of their own unique honey made by those canny valley-dwelling bees.

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Looking forward to some more… big thanks to Matt for a great tour!

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to a meadery, and I certainly wouldn’t mind quaffing these special brews in Hrothgar’s mead hall. Despite the difference in size between a commercial brewer and our own Sticky Rogers, my meeting with Matt has reassured me that things are going well in my own little brew cupboard. So while I wait until I can taste him at Christmas, I’ll keep dipping into the wide variety of meads out there and learning about Sticky’s medieval ancestry. Oh, and there’s just one more thing I need to do to him before he’s released into the world…

 

29 thoughts on “Chilling Out with the Mead Makers

  1. What a great tour to take while brewing your own mead, Alli! And that must be reassuring to get the thumbs up from Matt as he certainly sounds like he knows a thing or two about mead. Great job and fun to read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Robyn, glad you enjoyed our tour. Yes, Matt certainly does seem to be a honeyed fount of all knowledge, so talking with him certainly did reassure us we’re on the right track. I know how important it is to keep the yeast happy now… seems we were lucky this time, but I know more to look out for next time. Thanks for reading, and have a great week. 🙂

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  2. I love this! I want some! And we need a legit time machine to Hrothgar’s mead hall post Grendel and family, quaffing away. Wow. Craft beer is a big thing in Colorado — in fact, we have a craft brewery afew miles from me that brews its beer exclusively from what it grows on its farm. I’m not a beer person at all, but something with such a low alcohol content and all the story behind it? Oh yes, please. For a moment I thought I smelled honey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Martha! Glad you enjoyed it – I’m sure you’d love these meads, because I’m not a beer person either but I loved this. Craft beer seems to be a big thing nowadays, but I didn’t realise it was quite so widespread. I guess it’s answering a demand for quality produce. And oh yes, I’d so love to go back in time and join you in a good quaffing session in Hrothgar’s mead hall. What a dream, eh? 🙂

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  3. An excellent description of what must have been like visiting a temple to mead. I wonder if that’s where Bristol Temple Meads gets its name from 🙂
    Talking of railway stations, I would have been very close to the Wye Valley Meadery in August when we caught the train to Chepstow to visit the castle. The meadery is just opposite the station isn’t it?

    I really enjoyed your colourful description of all these flavours. I think I’m converted without even trying any of them, and I’m inquisitive as to know what’s happening to Sticky Rogers next. Smashing blog Alli.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Malc. Yes, the meadery is only a few minutes’ drive from the castle (where, strangely enough, we also went on the day – post on that later – another favourite) And yes, is just opposite the station, so you would have been practically on the meadery’s doorstep. And the name of Bristol Temple Meads? That sounds like something to investigate…

      Glad you enjoyed the tasting notes – they really are deliciously different. As for Sticky Rogers, I’m sure you’ll approve of the next move. 🙂

      Hope you’re ok after last week, and enjoy Scotland. I’m sure the break and all that amazing scenery will be a tonic.

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      • Well, I have managed to find out that it seems Temple Meads does have a medieval connection – it’s named after the Knights Templar who owned the land it’s on in the Middle Ages. But the mead connection is a mystery at this stage. Intriguing. 🙂

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      • No worries – I’ll let you know if I do.

        I’ll be in touch ‘off grid’ later, as I’ve only just got your message, which was sent to the wrong email address – typical! Thanks for your message, and for flagging up an issue with my site. 🙂

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  4. Fascinating read Alli, who would have thought there were some many takes on mead. Right now the ginger one sounds good but on a warm summer’s evening a chilled Elderflower brew may well hit the spot perfectly.
    Bet you and Stuart can’t wait until Maddie can drive and she can drive you around.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Graham. Glad you enjoyed the tour. They’re lovely and original meads, and I had great fun with them. Hopefull I’ll have a lot more fun with them too in the future!

      Sadly, Maddie doesn’t seem even vaguely interested in learning to drive, so we’ve bombed out there. Instead, she’s offering to sail us around. I guess that’ll be alright if we move to York, as she can sail us up the River Ouse which flows right through the city… 🙂

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  5. The rhubarb one sounds nicest to me – what a great idea to add that.

    Your comment about bees stinging people makes sense to me (although I didn’t know it before). Absolutely everything either stings or bites me and – I know they’re going to so get stressed! Vicious circle

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    • The rhubarb one is really lovely. And so different.

      I didn’t know that about bees either until Matt mentioned it. But it does make sense. I think a lot of animals pick up on human stress. I see what you mean about a vicious circle though, poor you. It is a bit of an involuntary reaction in lots of people though.

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  6. oh how fun…
    craft sparkling mead – mmmm
    and the Honey and Rhubarb would be one I would try first – and LOVE the photo of you holding the bottles (enjoying learning about and exploring MEAD with you this year)

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    • Thanks, Yvette, glad you’re enjoying my Mead-ieval Quest!
      These meads really are fun and so tasty! I loved the Honey and Rhubarb too – I love the way they come up with such different but gorgeous flavours.
      Cheers! Or, in Viking tongue, I should say – Skol! 😀

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