Somerset based honey producer David Bates talks to Malcom Rigby about producing mead

PUBLISHED: 20:19 17 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013

Beekeeper dressed and ready for action, photo courtesy of BBKA

Beekeeper dressed and ready for action, photo courtesy of BBKA

Honey producer David Bates is frequently asked to provide bottles of mead for wedding-day celebrations. There is a European tradition that if a newly married couple are provided with enough of the honey-based drink for a month - hence the term hon...

Somerset based honey producer David Bates talks to Malcom Rigby about producing mead

The truth is that honey and mead are steeped in legend and history - not surprisingly, since cave paintings in Spain from 7000BC show the earliest records of beekeeping and there are fossils of honeybees that date back millions of years. The bee featured frequently in Egyptian hieroglyphs, mead was apparently a favoured drink in the heyday of Ancient Greece and the Romans used to give honey as a form of paying tax.

About 4,000 tonnes of honey are produced each year in Britain, but that's less than a sixth of the amount that we consume. David says there are commercial beekeepers with about 400 or 500 hives, hobbyists who will have one or two, and small producers like himself with 20. Under the name of Camelot Country Products he sells Somerset honey largely through local delicatessens and the internet. But he is also, as far as he is aware, the only producer of mead in the county.

His mead is brewed in the traditional way with just honey, water, yeast and a little citric acid or lemon juice, rather than the sweet white wine with honey added, which is sometimes called mead but should really be called pyment. The sweetness and viscosity could be compared to a sherry, so perhaps the best way to try it would be as an aperitif or as an alternative to a dessert wine. The alcohol level varies from about 7% to 15% (his is 12%) and he recommends serving it slightly chilled and keeping it closed to reduce oxidation.

Since mead has been such a universal drink and has been consumed throughout the ages, it seems strange that there is so little about today. "I suspect it is fashion," says David. "I think things go in cycles, and I think mead is one of those things that is beginning to come back again. People always want to try it but it's one of the things that needs to be displayed in a shop. I hope it's coming back."

He produces about 500 bottles a year but believes he could sell more if he had additional local honey. As we speak, he tells me, there are 200 litres glugging away in his conservatory. Being a small producer, carriage and the new licensing laws are a hindrance, so the mead is sold, like the honey, largely through local delis such as A Truckle of Cheese in Glastonbury and County Stores in Taunton.

David's mead is brewed in the traditional way with just honey, water, yeast and a little citric acid

David has been keeping bees ever since he moved to Somerset 20 years ago, but it has been a lifelong fascination since he was a boy of eight years old, when a man showed him his bees and gave him an old hive and a book on the subject. The lad went home and declared he was going to keep bees, but since they lived on a housing estate his father's response was: 'Oh, no, you're not'. The lingering desire remained, though, through many years of a career in the motor industry.

Since the demand in this country far outstrips the supply, you wonder why there are not more honey producers. David explains that despite the sometimes idyllic pastoral image of beekeeping, it is extremely hard work and you do get bad years, like last summer.

"The local beekeeping clubs have no trouble getting new members, the problem they have is keeping them. I suspect that what happens is that people get into their second or third year and the bees begin to swarm, and they haven't really got the experience; the wife complains and the kids get stung, and they pack it in and I think that's a shame. Really it's just a lack of knowledge."

The basic premise is that honeybees gather nectar from flowers and plants and carry it to the hive. The worker or housebees then take over, preparing it for storage by adding enzymes. Water evaporates away and this, together with the action of the enzyme, turns the nectar to honey. The beekeeper takes the surplus at the end of the season and sometimes feeds the bees liquid sugar to see them through to the spring.

A by-product of this process is beeswax, which has a multitude of uses from heavy sewing to furniture polish, and again there is an unfulfilled demand. David sells his beeswax largely through his website, which has provoked so much interest and enquiries that he now also promotes beekeeping books and equipment, as well as a range of skincare products that have been made with honey.

The population of the honeybee, as opposed to the bumblebee, has declined considerably since David's youth. It is a lamentable fact considering what a magical natural sweetener honey is - try mixing it with orange juice and yoghurt to make an energy drink, put it on your parsnips before you pop them in the oven to roast, or make a honey marinade for pieces of chicken. Then of course there are all the medical benefits. Honey has been used as a natural remedy for thousands of years. It has antiseptic properties and can be used in treatments for sore throats, burns and cuts. BY MALCOLM RIGBY

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