How Game of Thrones is making mead hip to drink again

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 6:27am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 6:27am

There have been a few surprises in changing drinking fashions lately, but the sudden trendiness of mead in London's hipper bars is certainly among the oddest.

Mead - an alcoholic drink made from fermented honey and water - has been around for millennia, and features prominently in the Norse sagas and in much early English literature.

Until recently, however, while anyone familiar with those tales would have known what mead was, few would have felt inclined to taste it. Its consumption was associated with Druids in England's West Country, and you couldn't get much less hip than that.

Then along came Game of Thrones. The vast popularity of the medieval fantasy TV series - which I haven't watched, but in which apparently quite a lot of mead is consumed - gave the drink the kind of exposure money can't buy. Possibly its new fans have made a connection with the abundance of gratuitous sex for which the series is known, and are hoping that a glass or two of mead will lead to interesting opportunities.

They may even be on to something. Mead is a traditional wedding drink, and one explanation for the origin of the term "honeymoon" - though not the only one - is newlywed couples were supposedly given a supply of it intended to last one lunar month. Mead is supposed to have aphrodisiac powers.

Although mead is associated with countries historically subject to strong Norse or Teutonic influences, it can be - and something like it probably has been - made just about anywhere bees, and therefore honey, can be found.

There are written records of just such a drink in northern India dating from before 1000BC. In China, evidence of it goes back still further.

According to an academic study for the US National Academy of Sciences "chemical analyses of ancient organics absorbed into pottery jars from the early Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province in China have revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit [hawthorn fruit and/or grape] was being produced as early as the seventh millennium BC".

The new vogue for this venerable drink apparently started in the US, where a mini-boom in meaderies has followed in the wake of the success of the many American craft breweries.

On the other side of the Atlantic mead sales started to pick up dramatically last year - to the particular benefit of producers in Cornwall and the West Country where production of the drink has been maintained for decades in defiance of the lack of significant demand for it outside the region.

During my current visit to London and the southeast of England, however, I've seen meads widely available in supermarkets and pubs, while mixologists in fashionable bars are beginning to experiment with mead cocktails.

And London now has its own craft meadery, Gosnells, which joins the Lurgashall Winery in West Sussex in flying the flag for mead in Britain's southeast.

The drink is versatile. It can be made for immediate consumption, like beer, or longer-term ageing like wine.

Meads have been added to the drinks lists in upmarket restaurants, including Simon Rogan's Fera at Claridge's that serves a mead brewed by the Lancashire Mead Company in what they believe to be a more 13th-century style (using bread yeasts rather than modern wine or brewer's yeasts) to celebrate this year's 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, which was probably toasted with the stuff.

In Denmark, also historically a mead-drinking country, Noma chef and co-owner René Redzepi uses it in some of his sauces.

Another reason for the interest on the part of restaurants is that meads go well with a variety of cheeses - not surprisingly given that honey is also a popular supplement to many cheeseboards.

The drink is versatile. It can be made for immediate consumption, like beer, or longer-term ageing like wine. It can be still or sparkling, sweet or relatively dry, and can be distilled to make a liqueur or spirit. The new generation of artisanal producers, like their craft-brewing counterparts, are experimenting with new as well as traditional styles.

Hong Kong is not missing out on the trend. Wine'n'Things imports a mead from South Australia's McLaren Vale wine region, so clearly the US is not the only country outside Europe keen to get in on the act. In fact, the region's wine-making Maxwell family, who claim also to be "the largest producer of mead in the southern hemisphere", have been making it for decades.

Wine'n'Things recommends consuming it over ice, or with a mixer. It sounds refreshing - but you probably won't see it drunk that way on Game of Thrones.