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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…