Remember when the world went into a tizzy after a beer factory from 5,000 years ago was discovered in Egypt last year? For some time now, we’ve been going back centuries trying to find exactly when our ancestors started drinking. Records suggest, the answer could lie in meads, which have been touted as the first alcoholic spirit known to mankind. For some reason, it must have fallen out of favour as new spirits came into the fore. A few enterprising entrepreneurs in India are correcting this historical error by shining the light on this sweet, sticky (and potent) tipple.
When it comes to spirits, meads hold a special place for those in the alco-bev space. Mentions of the drink, which is made by fermenting honey, have been found in the hymns of the Rig Veda, which dates back to 1700–1100 BCE. In fact, one school of thought suggests that the word ‘mead’ comes from the Indian term for honey, madhu. Traditional meads are made by adding water to fermented honey, with the spirit having a pretty low per cent of ABV, or alcohol by volume. Once carbonated, these become sparkling meads, and are the most common variant in India today. These were brought to the fore by a mini-revolution that began with the launch of Moonshine Meadery in 2017.
Other types of meads that can be found in the country include melomel, which contain added fruits such as pomegranate; metheglin, which has spices mixed with meads, and then there’s pyment that includes grape or grape juice. “Interestingly, metheglin is derived from a Welsh word, and it means ‘healing water.’ It is also the origin of the word, medicine,” Dr Yoginee Budhkar, co-founder and partner of Cerana Meads, reveals.
Targeted push and fun content driving the key message around how meads differ from beers, has played an important role in popularising the drink amid Indian spirit lovers. Some other favours have also fortuitously come together to help meads. As Anant Gupta, co-founder of No Label Meads explains, “We did some market research before launching No Label, and found there are a few advantages from a commercial angle to making meads. It can be made year-round; you can add flavours and you need a wine licence (instead of a distillery licence) to start production.”
Meads are now travelling beyond Mumbai and Pune, where its re-origin journey first began, with Moonshine Meadery. Whether its Stump Meads in Karnataka, No Label that’s about to launch in Delhi soon, premium dessert mead brand Arka — which has three variants, rose, jamun, and wildflower — or the strong Portside mead, they are all following in the footsteps of Moonshine Meadery.
“It’s great to see meads picking up as a category, even though there’s a long way to go. There’s a trial phase, sustenance phase and then, an established phase for any brand. Meads are still in the trial phase,” Nitin Vishwas, co-founder of the brand shares, adding that the only time meads have experienced a dip since their renaissance was when restaurants shut down during Covid-19. “When an entire segment disappears overnight, the growth of the brand takes a hit. Thankfully, home delivery of meads started soon after, which really helped us,” he explains.
On the other hand, newer brands like Stump Meads would not have materialised, had it not been for the pandemic. Himavanth Hasaganur Jayanth, founder of the alco-bev venture, launched it in February 2022, after relocating from London to Bengaluru. And he believes that meads need more attention in India. “I used to see people in London drinking it but there was not much back home in India. We have plans to introduce more variants and different styles going forward to bring the authentic mead experience here,” he says.
One of the most exciting experiments Stump is working on is serving French Oak still mead with no carbonation some time next year. They’re also hoping to tie up with restaurants in Bengaluru to serve meads in earthen pots to be as close to the tradition as possible. Recently, Cerana Meads launched mead cocktails in association with Taftoon Mumbai for patrons to sample and indulge in different variants. Whether it’s Roma Rosa with Pomegranate Mead, Nordic Nectar with Jamun Mead, or Loki’s Mischief with Chenin Blanc Pyment, the cocktails showed a new way to enjoy meads. Moonshine Meadery, on the other hand, is looking to develop more flavours with its MeadLAB series to create small- batch, handcrafted flavours such as Hopped Mead, Mango Chilli, and Bourbon Oaked Apple. Currently, they are in eight Indian markets, and are exploring international terrains, too. “Our only challenge will be to figure out how to remain a craft spirit as we scale,” Vishwas says. Despite these new initiatives, there are inherent challenges that mead makers face. Because of its distinct 330ml bottle shape, most newcomers still confuse meads with beer or cider. Others wrongly perceive them to be sweet because they use honey.
Budhkar however believes that drinking mead helps everyone along the supply chain, and needs to be encouraged. “Ever since Covid-19, people have at least notionally understood that you need to take care of your health and that of the planet, and for that your choices matter. Choosing mead is beneficial as you use bees that have pollinated flowers that have helped farmers get more produce, thereby helping the beekeeper, even as you enjoy a beverage,” she says.