A class at Wye Valley Meadery is a relaxed affair. As well as learning how to make mead – including key steps such as sterilising equipment, preparing ingredients and adding flavours – students also experience an in-depth tour of the meadery’s mead and beer making equipment and processes, and enjoy a mammoth tasting session of their full range of products.
Wye Valley Meadery is run by brothers Matt and Kit Newell in a dedicated brewery located within the Castleway Industrial Estate in Caldicot, just south of the Wye Valley conservation area.
Learning How To Make Mead
Mead, often known as honey-wine, is a drink with a very long history which we learn about in a short presentation that starts the class. We learn more about the process of making it, the science involved, and a few more fascinating mead facts.
Before we get started on making our own mead, Matt gives us a tour of their production area, talking us through how they make their mead and their beer, pointing out the various pieces of equipment. Of course, this equipment is essential to make mead on a commercial scale, but home brewers need only a few simple items to make mead on a small scale. Pete and I already have demijohns, bungs and airlocks, siphon tubes, and a hydrometer but students are also able to buy items at the end of the class should they need to.
Like us, a couple of our fellow students have previously made beer at home. We quickly discover that making mead is far simpler. In beer making you need to malt the barley (to kickstart its germination) and then heat that malted barley in water (known as mashing) to extract the sugars, so that they are available for the yeast to turn into alcohol.
But when it comes to making mead, all you need to do is dissolve your honey in water, and it’s ready for the yeast to do its job.
Of course, there is some key information to learn if you want to succeed, including the importance of sterilising equipment, understanding the ratios of honey to water, what type of yeast to use and exactly how to add it, the importance of controlling the temperature at key stages, and how to bring extra flavours to your mead through the addition of natural flavouring ingredients.
Pete chooses rose petals to flavour his mead, and Kit recommends adding beetroot powder as well to provide a beautiful pink colour.
We learn all of these things during the class, through hands on practice – every student makes a gallon (4.5 litres) of must (the honey, water and yeast mix before it has fermented into mead).
Mead takes 10-20 days to ferment and students are given the choice of taking their mead home to finish that process themselves, or leaving it at the Meadery to collect once it’s ready.
There are extra steps following fermentation, depending on what style of mead you are making; during the class we are creating light meads that will ferment to about 6% alcohol. Once fermentation has finished, you might want to add fining (which gets rids of suspended solids) if you prefer a clearer result. Because pretty much all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the result is very dry, and we learn how to back-sweeten (adding a little more honey back in) to provide sweetness and a more pronounced honey flavour.
Because we are working through the process ourselves with Matt guiding us all the way, the steps are easy to absorb, and we are given an instruction sheet to take home should we forget any of the details.
A Tasting of Wye Valley Meadery’s Meads and Beers
Kit leads the tasting part of the course and it’s only natural that we start by trying some of their honey, which they sell in 340 gram jars. Wye Valley honey is raw and hasn’t been heat treated so it’s full of natural goodness. It’s also unblended, meaning it comes from a single hive.
Incidentally, the brothers also offer a a bee-keeping course that provides an introduction to bee-keeping, the parts of a hive, how to read and handle bees and how to maintain a healthy hive, how to extract and process honey, including how to jar it, the basics of pest control, how to overwinter bees, and bee-keeping safety advice.
Over the course of a relaxed hour we try several sparkling meads (a product the brothers have pioneered), traditional mead, and beers featuring honey. For making their honeyed drinks, Matt and Kit use a blend of a full year of honeys, to achieve a rounded and more consistent flavour profile. Their current sparkling mead flavours are pure honey, rhubarb, honey and hops, honey and elderflower, honey and ginger, and sour cherry but we are also treated to a taste of mango mosaic, one of their previous flavours of which they have just a few precious bottles left.
To my immense surprise, I adore the rhubarb mead! Given that I dislike rhubarb, this is a surprise, but somehow Matt and Kit have extracted the flavour essence of rhubarb without the sourness that tightens my jaw so painfully. I’m also surprised by the honey and hop flavour, which has none of the bitterness I associate with hop-forward beers; Kit explains that because they cold-infuse the hops (they are boiled during the making of beer) they get the hops’ citrussy flavour without the bitterness. Result! All of the flavours are excellent with a deft balance between the taste of the honey and the additional flavouring.
The classic mead, fermented to 14.5% is beautifully rich and really shows off the excellence of their high quality honey.
We also try some of their beers including a hazy pollen beer (3.8%), a golden ale (4%), a heather, honey and blueberries beer (4%) and their smoked honey porter (7%) which is made with malt smoked over beechwood. They are all great but it’s a box of the smokey porter that comes home with us, along with a couple of large boxes of sparkling mead (weighted in favour of the rhubarb!)
The History of the Wye Valley Meadery
The Wye Valley Meadery was founded in 2018 but the story begins many years earlier. Matt developed an interest in bees when he was 11 years old, and began helping a local commercial beekeeper in the Forest of Dean. It wasn’t long before he was captivated by the world of bees and caught his first swarm to create his own hive. When his mentor retired, Matt bought 10 hives of bees from him and started producing honey (and by products) at a larger scale. Of course, it wasn’t long before home-brewed mead was part of the picture!
Although Kit had his own career in technical product design, he was back home every weekend, giving Matt a helping hand on projects such as making candles from the wax bees use to cap their honey combs. Enjoying the opportunity to work together, the brothers were keen to create a business that allowed them to work outdoors, enjoy the biodiversity of the Wye Valley, and make a worthwhile and creative range of products.
The Meadery business was initially established in premises the brothers shared with a brewery, which they took over fully when the brewery closed. They remained at that site for 15 months before setting up in their current site in Caldicot.
The Meadery’s first meads were brewed in the same style as beer, and the brothers soon began to brew beers featuring their honey too. It wasn’t until later that they started making traditional mead, a product that is over 50% honey by volume and bottled at 14.5%, and they also pioneered a light sparkling mead infused with natural flavours such as elderflower, ginger, hops, and rhubarb.
Visiting The Meadery
The Meadery is not only where Matt and Kit create their meads and beers, but also has space for a shopfront where customers can buy honey, mead and beer to takeaway and a bar and seating area where customers can enjoy pizza and drinks every Friday. They also run events including paired food and mead tastins, and event nights where guest street food vendors and musicians join them to provide the food and entertainment.
Booking a Class
The mead making class we attended is priced at £75 per person, and each student makes their own gallon (4.5 litres) of mead during the course. The bee-keeping class is also £75 per person. You can also contact them about private classes should that suit you better.
How Did Our Mead Turn Out?
We went to pick up our rose and beetroot mead a couple of months after attending the course, and were really please with its delicate rose flavour and pale peachy colour.
We’ve also made a batch of mead at home flavoured with fresh magnolia blossoms and locally produced honey. We followed the process we learned during the class (helped by the printed instructions as a reminder) and it turned out just as we hoped with a really delicious fresh ginger flavour to balance the delicious honey.