Of myths, magic and mead

Mead to measure

Many moons ago, long before the reigns of the medieval dynasties that imposed their will upon Wales, the omnipotent Beli Mawr ruled the land.

A noble and powerful king, Beli the Great rose to become the Sovereign Lord of the Celtic Britons but little is actually known of the man who was widely believed by his subjects to be the God of the Sun, except for the fact he fathered four sons.

With ample heirs to take his place when he finally left this world for the next, he peacefully passed his crown and his castle to his eldest son, Llud. However, upon inheriting the Island of Britain, Llud soon discovered that his kingdom and people were stricken by three harrowing plagues. The stories of the first and third have no relevance to our tale, but the second, an unearthly scream, is significant.

The blood-curdling scream that haunted every May Eve not only penetrated the ears of the young and rendered them unconscious, it also crept into the wombs of those with child causing miscarriages, as well as leaving animals, trees and soil barren.

The source of the mysterious noise was eventually found to be two warring dragons, one red and one white, who fought relentlessly. As they did battle, flames licked and blistered their scaled skin and needle-like teeth burrowed into flesh, causing screams to fly from the mouths of both beasts.

A cunning king, Llud, accompanied by his younger sibling Llefelys, hatched a plan to catch the monsters and bring peace once again to the land. They dug a vast pit, filled it with a vat of mead and covered it with a sheet of fine satin.

The duelling dragons tumbled into the honey-sweet brew and were magically transformed into pigs. Upon swapping their leathered wings for trotters, the pigs succumbed to the lure of the mead, drinking the vat dry, and soon their eyelids became heavy and they finally yielded to their fatigue. Llud hastily wrapped the pigs in the satin, hauled them to Snowdonia and buried them, snout and all.

Pigs might fly

Upon swapping their leathered wings for trotters, the pigs succumbed to the lure of the mead, drinking the vat dry, and soon their eyelids became heavy and they finally yielded to their fatigue

The bizarre tales of Llud and Llefelys live on centuries after they were first told, recorded by medieval Welsh authors in one of the earliest examples of prose literature from Britain – The Mabinogion.

This story, and many other mead-soaked myths from The Mabinogion inspired a devoted team of brewers in the heart of Caerphilly to write a tale of transformation of their own as they set out to change the outdated perception of mead.

Like their forefathers, and those who brewed across Wales before them, the team at Mabinogion, whose logo displays the transformation of dragon to swine, are crafting small batches of mead, but bringing it into the modern era along with the stories that dance across the pages of their mythical manual.

“The mead industry is undergoing a huge transformation in the United States,” says Mabinogion’s creator and innovator, Tom Newman, a brewer who also heads up one of Wales’s largest craft breweries, The Celt Experience.

“Pioneers like Arizona’s Superstition and Michigan’s B. Nektar are now offering beautifully crafted mead alternatives to the traditional options.” Newman himself is a pioneer, having crafted the world’s first commercial mead collaboration with Superstition Meadery.

Long thought of as a drink gulped from golden goblets and horned cups by pillaging Vikings and barrel-chested Baratheons alike, mead is now enjoying a renaissance on our shores with the Welsh meadery among those leading the way.

Newman says: “The UK has adopted the US handmade, craft-led beverage industry with vigour. The opportunity to craft by flavours rather than by margins opens doors for innovative production.”

And so, by brewing a range of styles using an eclectic mix of ingredients, Newman and Mabinogion hope to help revitalise and rejuvenate what is thought to be the oldest fermented beverage in the world.

For mead is far from just honey, water and yeast. A range of spices, herbs, fruit and other ingredients can be added to the brew allowing a shift away from the sickly sweet perception that mead has suffered from. Methyglin is mead with added spices. Melomels have fruit added to the brew and capsicumels have added chilli peppers, while cysers use apples.

With a wide, and for many palates largely unexplored, spectrum of styles on which to experiment and innovate, Mabinogion hopes to do to mead in the UK what Superstition and B.Nektar have done in the States.

“With an abundance of fruit, spices and herbs growing in Wales, we intend to make a diverse range of big-flavoured, innovative styles like melomels, methyglins, cysers and even wild braggots (beer crafted with the addition of honey),” says Newman.

As such, the meadery’s range of ‘Bee Wines’ (similar in alcoholic content to more traditional meads, yet worlds apart in terms of taste) and ‘Bee Brews’ (lower ABV ‘session meads’, available in keg and bottle form) will consist of meads brewed with the likes of strawberries, bourbon-aged vanilla beans, oranges, hibiscus, apples, cinnamon and sour cherries.

That's not the cup of a carpenter

“We just want to reconnect the world with magical flavours in one of the historic homes of this bee-made beverage. This is, and will be, our legacy”

Regardless of additional spices and fruits used, however, the key component is, and always will be, the honey and Mabinogion is going the extra mile. In addition to sourcing all of their honey from local beehives, the roof atop their mead hall is home to more than 20,000.

“We are looking to invest in a number of Welsh honey farms and establish a sustainable and growing bee population,” Newman explains.

“Welsh honey is both rare and beautiful. Rare, due to a decline in European honey bee populations and the relatively low levels of honey per hive, however beautiful due to the growth of flora.”

The inspirational tales from The Mabinogion will also be introduced to a new audience. Each mead will shed light upon a different part of the book and will be accompanied by a surreal gouache painting by American artist Poxodd Walker on each bottle. The debut offering, Hounds of Annwn, highlights a legend surrounding the dogs of the otherworld whose growl foretold death to all those who heard it. It is brewed with unpasteurised Welsh honey and a bouquet of spices, and aged with Madagascan vanilla.

Transformation to Eagle honours Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a hero who transforms into an eagle and flies away when struck with a spear. The sweet, aged cyser is made from fresh apple and rested in cinnamon and myrtle pepper that gives a delicate, yet spicy finish.

Each bottle bares its own unique ‘Honey Finder’ QR code that informs the drinker exactly which hive produced the honey and which blossoms, plants and flowers were harvested of their nectar to create it.

Newman says: “We just want to reconnect the world with magical flavours in one of the historic homes of this bee-made beverage. This is, and will be, our legacy.”

With one foot firmly in the past and the other striding forward, Mabinogion Mead is transforming the way drinkers view this age-old drink, one golden goblet at a time.

Further reading:

The Mabinogion (Wikipedia)
• Mabinogion Mead
The Celt Experience
Superstition Meadery
Gosnells Mead