A modern approach to mead

RCM Mead
The CFWI Innovation Centre team, in collaboration with Royal Canadian Mead, produced four session meads during the research project: Niagara Peach (All Day Croquet); Ontario Cherry (Quarter Life Crisis); Ontario Wildflower (Awkward Dinner); and Hopped Buckwheat (Feels Like Fridays).

Mead – a fermented beverage comprised of honey, water, yeast, and occasionally other fruits, spices or botanicals – is the oldest known alcoholic beverage in history; and it’s undergoing an urban revival. With help from Niagara College’s Research & Innovation team, Ontario’s first pure session mead from Royal Canadian Mead is now on shelves at LCBOs across the province. 

“Feels Like Friday,” a hopped buckwheat session mead, hit the liquor store shelves this past June, and is enjoying early success, says Matt Gibson, president at Royal Canadian Mead, a new venture brand from New Skew, a food and beverage innovation enterprise.

While New Skew had wide-ranging business knowledge, they required expertise in both mead product development, and honey experience, which the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre could provide. 

“We knew from Niagara College’s reputation that they had the experience and tools to help turn what was in our heads into a reality,” says Gibson. “We thought the school’s unique breadth of knowledge of honey, bee-keeping, brewing, and winemaking would all be useful tools to create our final product.”

Working alongside Royal Canadian Mead, the team at the CFWI Innovation Centre first conducted exploratory research and competitive market analysis. They discovered an overall main demographic as urban professionals, aged 25 to 40, who enjoy food, fine dining, like to explore new things, and are looking for something new and unique. They also found a sub-set of target consumers: gluten-free shoppers and low-sugar/healthier alcohol drinkers.

Says Gibson: “Our product has less sugar than most ciders and coolers on the market and is naturally gluten-free, so we’re checking some boxes there.”

Next, the CFWI Innovation Centre team brought in faculty and staff experts from NC’s Teaching Winery and Beekeeping programs to help with recipe development and ideas to produce four session-mead products.

Gavin Robertson, Winemaker and Instructor at NC’s Teaching Winery, and Research Lead for the project, says his group collaborated with the team from Royal Canadian Mead to establish parameters for a first exploratory phase recipe development, which involved nearly 30 different products.

“We proceeded through two more development phases over several months, before honing in on the four recipes that satisfied our partners,” says Robertson.

RCM Sample Meads Niagara College
The CFWI Innovation Centre team brought in faculty and staff experts from Niagara College’s Teaching Winery and Beekeeping programs to help with recipe development and ideas to produce four session-mead products.

Session meads offer a lower alcohol content than the traditional meads, which are generally 12 to 14 percent alcohol. The Royal Canadian Mead offerings are about half that at 5.6%ABV, and also carbonated and refreshing. 

“We wanted to introduce people to the category of mead, but we wanted to meet them halfway,” explains Gibson. “People are already enjoying session beers and dry ciders, so we wanted to put mead in that same frame of reference. It’s light, crisp and very crushable.”

In addition to a series of batch trials, and product testing with both chemical and sensory analysis, the research team conducted parallel business development work provided by the NC beekeeping/honey experts. All recipes used 100 percent Ontario-produced honey and adjuncts, such as fruit and hops.  

Ultimately four session meads, all with distinct flavours were successfully produced by the CFWI Innovation Centre team: Hopped Buckwheat (Feels Like Fridays); Ontario Wildflower (Awkward Dinner); Niagara Peach (All Day Croquet); Ontario Cherry (Quarter Life Crisis).

The company’s in-house design team created contemporary naming and packaging for its cans to remove the typical mead-related imagery that people usually think of: Vikings, “Game of Thrones,” kings and queens. 

“We wanted to show that just because this is an ancient drink, doesn’t mean it can’t be thoroughly modern,” Gibson notes. “The names and can designs were intended to show that, and also be highly Instagram-able.”

Royal Canadian Mead’s Feels Like Friday product is selling in 85 stores across the province and in Toronto retailers, says Gibson. Sales are about $40 thousand since launching and they’re aiming to do more than $1 million in the next 12 months.

Its second product, All Day Croquet, was packaged in early August and will be released in bars and restaurants, with Royal Canadian Mead working on getting more listings in the LCBO starting next spring.

Gibson describes this past year of innovation with the research team at CFWI Innovation Centre as a “great experience.”

 “We loved the whole prototype and research process, and learned a lot alongside the Niagara College team.” 

For winemaker Robertson, this was a chance to explore a new fermented beverage category.

“While I had experimented with honey ferments on a small scale in the past for fun, this was an opportunity to approach mead production in a really systematic way, from the hive up,” he says.

“Royal Canadian Mead was an amazing company to work with in that they understood the unique dynamics involved with working with student researchers and they really encouraged them to think broadly and creatively about the possible formulations, and used the project as a two-way educational opportunity that was effective in achieving our goals in the end,” adds Robertson. “It’s so great to see all of the work by so many people result in well-received, commercial products.” 

“While I had experimented with honey ferments on a small scale in the past for fun, this was an opportunity to approach mead production in a really systematic way, from the hive up.”

– Gavin Robertson, Winemaker and Instructor at NC’s Teaching Winery

The project was made possible with funding by the Ontario Centres of Excellence’s College Voucher for Technology Adoption (CVTA) program.  

While it’s one of the fastest-growing alcoholic beverages in the United States, in Canada, the mead industry is very young, with only a handful of meaderies across the country. Royal Canadian Mead is intent on growing the industry and becoming a leader in the session mead category. 

Mead is a wildly diverse and adaptable product since each honey varietal has its own distinct flavour, colour, and aroma based on what the bees pollinate, explains Gibson. As with beer and cider, the flavour can come from the honey, the yeast type used, and additives like fruit, hops, spices, and herbs. 

“It can be light and crisp, heavy and sweet, still, sparkling, and even barrel-aged,” he explains. “We are focused on lighter, more refreshing and consumer-friendly styles to begin, but there’s no telling how far our imagination will take us.”

The history of mead:

Mead has been referred to as the “nectar of the gods” by ancient Greeks, many associating it with magical powers and immortality. The fermented honey drink has existed for thousands of years, with a vast history in China, Africa, Europe, and North America. The world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, mead has been enjoyed by Vikings, Romans, and royalty throughout the ages. 

New Skew is a Toronto-based food innovation company, which owns and operates a portfolio of craft food brands. Founded in 2017 by Alex Yurek, New Skew comprises a team of former advisors to consumer food brands who recognize the dearth of innovation in the food and beverage category.

For more exciting food and beverage innovations from the CFWI Innovation Centre visit the website.