Honey, you've changed: Sydney gets buzzed on modern mead alternatives

Doug Purdie is buzzing to see his honey being used to make innovative beverages across Sydney.
Doug Purdie is buzzing to see his honey being used to make innovative beverages across Sydney.  Photo: Dean Sewell

When Sparrow & Vine winemaker Brendan Hilferty wanted to create an alcoholic beverage that reflected the terroir of inner west Sydney, he turned to bees.

Their compact hives fit comfortably in his Newtown backyard, and within months they were able to collect enough pollen from the surrounding gardens and parks for Hilferty to attempt his first batch of mead. 

At first, it was a disaster. Hilferty combined raw honey and water, relying on natural yeast to ferment the honey. But time passed, and the process failed to produce results. 

Charlie Parker bar manager Giacomo Franceschi has created Beesbucha, a fermented non-alcoholic honey drink.
Charlie Parker bar manager Giacomo Franceschi has created Beesbucha, a fermented non-alcoholic honey drink. Photo: Supplied

"I was not happy with it, so I put it in bottles and forgot about it for a while," Hilferty says.

Around three months later, Hilferty decided to give it another go.

"I was amazed," he says. Rather than the deeply golden, cloyingly sweet drink you may have come to expect from a bottle shop's bargain bin, this was light, refreshingly dry, and sparkling.

If you're a fan of natural wine, and have a taste for botanicals and funky flavours, then you're ready for mead.

Jaimee Edwards, Cornersmith

The resulting product was Sparrow & Vine's Project B, a mead reminiscent of a petillant naturel (pet-nat) wine, with "a bit of roundness and mid-palate weight". While most of the sweetness has gone, flavours of the city remained in notes of eucalyptus and citrus. 

"There is a honey character to it, of course, but it's a lot leaner. It reminds me a lot of an aged chenin blanc," Hilferty says.

Project B is just one of a growing number of honey-based beverages creating a buzz in Sydney. Doug Purdie, co-founder of The Urban Beehive, helps Rosebery distillery Archie Rose harvest the honey used as a botanical in their Distiller's Strength Gin. He also works with Cornersmith on their popular mead making workshop, due to resume in August. 

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"We're always a bit behind the curve here," Purdie says, noting commercial meaderies have exploded across the US in recent years. Between 2003 and 2021, the number grew by 650 per cent, approaching the popularity of craft beer.

Mead is widely considered to be one of the world's oldest fermented drinks. Trace chemical signatures consistent with mead have turned up on Chinese pottery dating back to 7000BC. But mead hasn't always been good.

"There's been a lot of crappy mead. It used to be very heavily sweetened, or heavily spiced, and just awful. It's nothing compared to what people are making in Sydney now," Purdie says.

Archie Rose's Eau de Bee takes the concept of mead one step further by cold-distilling honey into a spirit.
Archie Rose's Eau de Bee takes the concept of mead one step further by cold-distilling honey into a spirit.  Photo: Supplied

Archie Rose recently released Eau de Bee, a fermented honey distilled spirit using blue gum honey from Beechworth in Victoria. Their cold distillation process preserves the vibrancy of the honey, creating "a lovely, caramel toffee flavour", says Archie Rose master distiller Dave Withers.

"I was surprised, and impressed," Withers says. "It has this sensation of honey, but it's completely dry because all of the sugar was left behind in the still."

Marrickville brewery Wildflower harnessed leftover "honey wax" from acclaimed Blue Mountains beekeepers Tim and Emma Malfoy to create a barrel-aged golden Australian wild ale called Hive: Post Brood.

The Urban Beehive collects honey that's reflective of the Sydney terroir.
The Urban Beehive collects honey that's reflective of the Sydney terroir. Photo: Dean Sewell

Co-founder and head brewer Topher Boehm explains "honey wax" contains honeycomb, residual honey, bee bread (fermented pollen) and resin. The earliest iterations of mead involved washing honey wax with water and allowing it to ferment.

"Instead, we take that honey wax and wash it with barrel-aged beer," Boehm says. 

"Post brood honey is the creme de la creme of what [Malfoy's Gold] does, so it's an amazing thing for us to be able to use. The beer ends up tasting like pine needles and Christmas pudding, with all of this spice and earthiness."

Beesbucha is made with Sydney honey, organic banana and water.
Beesbucha is made with Sydney honey, organic banana and water.  Photo: Supplied

As mead evolves, it's becoming more accessible. The manager of Paddington bar Charlie Parker, Giacomo Franceschi, used lockdown to create Beesbucha, a non-alcoholic mead. 

The drink contains honey from Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park fermented alongside organic Queensland bananas.

"It's a very different, delicate flavour," Franceschi says.

"Most people don't realise how much potential honey has. We have more knowledge about the fermentation process now, so we can make something really beautiful.

"You don't need much, just fresh honey, clean water, and time."

Jaimee Edwards, the head fermenter at Annandale cafe Cornersmith, says the "explosion of interest" in sustainability and fermentation has encouraged swarms of Sydneysiders to take a fresh look at the age-old drink. 

"Our mead-making workshops are selling out," Edwards says.

"If you're a fan of natural wine, and have a taste for botanicals and funky flavours, then you're ready for mead."