Norfolk mead - 21st century take on an ancient drink

PUBLISHED: 10:07 29 July 2020 | UPDATED: 10:07 29 July 2020

John Costin with a barrel of Norfolk Amber Mead. Photo: Mark Fitch

John Costin with a barrel of Norfolk Amber Mead. Photo: Mark Fitch

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Mark Fitch tries some modern versions of a traditional drink; Norfolk Amber Mead

The end product - Norfolk Amber Mead. Photo: Mark FitchThe end product - Norfolk Amber Mead. Photo: Mark Fitch

Turning to alcohol is rarely the answer to a problem; but I hope on this occasion it provides a suitable remedy. With my roving reporter status still heavily curtailed, and feeling obliged to give you news of something outside the four walls of my own home, I was very pleased to hear of the opening of a oak cask in West Norfolk in circumstances where I could easily socially distance myself from its owner.

The content of the barrel is mead, and the brewmeister is John Costin of Norfolk Amber Mead, based in Flitcham. This batch, the first of his business to be aged in this manner, was made two years ago and will go on sale later this year.

I have commented before on what a delight it is to see artisanal producers of food and drink hit the heights of their own expectations, and today is no different. As with wine, John hopes that the mead has taken on some of the wood’s chemical compounds and tannin; there is clear tension evident as he unpops the large stopper.

Beforehand, and to ease into things, we try his current main offering, a 14% wildflower mead, so-called because the bees who make this honey collect their pollen in the open countryside. It is beautifully sweet and light and would cause diners to swoon either chilled, as an aperitif, or at room temperature as an after-meal digestif.

John Costin of Norfolk Amber Mead. Photo: Mark FitchJohn Costin of Norfolk Amber Mead. Photo: Mark Fitch

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Honey, brewing yeast and water are the only ingredients and the bottle contents are crystal clear. John’s other main seller is his original, using woodland bees that locate themselves mainly around ivy. The difference is quite staggering. It is much drier, giving customers a choice, depending on their preference. The family to date is completed by a mead infused with tea and another with spices, including cinnamon and cloves.

But back to the moment at hand. The (nearly) former accountant, who has been home-brewing since he was a teenager, sets up a filter, just to ensure no wood from the barrels gets included, and I see the first liquor coming through the pipes and into the first bottle. I am very pleased (and a little relieved) to note how clear it is.

Throughout my time as Norfolk home chef, and beyond, I have always been keen to emphasise my ‘amateur’ status. The same goes with any conclusions I reach on tasting. But wow... still sweet, but with a complexity of tannin that excites the taste buds and a smoothness that seduces you like a cushioned lounger on a sunny summer’s day. I am delighted 
that John is happy with his end product.

Whilst a buy-direct website will be up and running by the end of the year, you can acquire Norfolk Amber Mead at shops in Hunstanton, Thornham, Reepham, Downham Market, Old Hurst (somewhere over the Cambridgeshire border apparently) and also at Creake Abbey, where I am sure any monks looking down on events would cheerily and proudly raise a glass...

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