I always imagined mead as a rough kind of beer, something dark, brewed from hay and potatoes, that would go well with a haunch of wild boar. So the mead tasting at Touch of Madness on Friday 23 April was a revelation.
Mead is the most ancient alcoholic drink, easy for our ancestors to discover as made simply from honey, water and yeast. Types of mead can be found in pretty much every culture that’s in contact with bees. So in Ethiopia it’s tej, while in the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa call it iQhilika. Most of the meads we tasted were from a small brewery in Grahamstown called Makana Meadery, which is inspired by the local methods of mead-making (the yeast, for example, is indigenous, harvested from the roots of a drought resistant plant). The Makana bottles are sealed with a wax capsule, a nod to the bees.
Cape Winemaster Hanneke van de Linde led the tasting of five Makana meads, under the brand name Honey Sun, and a homebrew. It’s quite common for the brew to be infused with herbs or spices – this style is called metheglin. Makana also infuses its meads – the first flight was fig (infused with the fruit and leaves of the Cape Fig), coffee (scented with wild beans from the Koffie Bay area) and chili. The first thing that surprised me was how light and golden the drink was. Served chilled, or it becomes viscous, it has a strong floral, slightly vegetative nose and complex, not overly sweet, flavour. The fig flavour had natural affinity, with slight cinnamon overtones, the coffee was more minerally and the chili offered a wooded nose with a satisfying kick at the end of the palate.
Then we tasted the Honey Sun dry, a subtle mead of pure honey, and Makana’s award-winning herbal mead, infused with rooibos, honeybush tea, cinnamon and apple. This was the most complex and sophisticated of the meads – definitely one to add to the cellar. Finally, we tried ‘Trevor’s Home Brew’, and this was the cloudy, dark, nutty mead we had imagined – Christmas cake on the nose and a creamy mouthfeel. Made in a bucket in the cupboard and unfiltered, this was rough and ready, and pretty delicious, stuff!
Touch of Madness put on a mead-friendly meal, with a sweet and spicy chicken stir-fry followed by rooibos -infused crème brulee. Although it’s best served as a welcome drink on ice, or with biscuits after a meal, Makana’s light golden mead would also pair well with Morrocan food or a Cape-style fruity curry. It’s a beautiful drink with a fascinating history that’s sure to spark conversation around the dinner table.
Did you know?
In Europe, it was traditional to give newlyweds enough mead to last them a month, hence the term honeymoon. The idea was that the mead would inspire cheerfulness and abandon, and at the end of the moon-cycle the couple would have proved their fertility with a pregnancy. Having indulged, I can see how that might work, actually…