Produced with a minimal carbon footprint, Indian meads rely on existing bee colonies on farmlands, and are slowly making a buzz in the country
What is the most sustainably produced alcoholic beverage? It is a non-grain recipe, once known as the elixir of the gods: Mead. Crafted from honey and water and fermented by yeast, mead leaves a small carbon footprint since it depends on bees and nectar already available on existing farmlands, unlike grains that are cultivated specifically for beer, rum or whiskey.
In terms of alcohol content, mead is closer to wine than beer, ranging between eight to 20% ABV (the amount of alcohol/ethanol in a drink). Mead is widely thought to be one of the oldest alcoholic beverages, with evidence of a fermented beverage made of honey, rice, and fruit dating to 7BC in China.
Over the past decade, meaderies in India have slowly been taking this story forward in some pockets of the country. In barely a year since it opened, Nashik-based Cerana Meads is supplying to select hotels and restaurants in Mumbai, Pune, Thane and Nashik.
Pune-based Moonshine, which holds the distinction of being Asia’s first meadery, has been around since 2018 and retails its experimental wares across retail at about 200 stores and 200 restaurants across Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad, Nashik, Navi Mumbai,Thane and Goa.
“We began with just two tanks when we were testing the waters for mead, then we scaled up with two larger tanks and now we have 20,000 litre tanks like the ones at wineries, at our factory. Our idea is to have a pan India footprint and build a global brand,” says Moonshine co-founder Rohan Rehani. Clearly, mead is in demand.
Built by curiosity
For Yoginee Budhkar and Ashwini Deore, co-founders at Cerana Meads in Nashik, starting a meadery in 2020 was a natural progression of their interest in beekeeping and their fascination with fermentation. Yoginee explains, “While doing my doctorate in Food Engineering and Technology, I had a fortuitous introduction to meads while visiting a professor in the UK. My friend and fellow PhD scholar Ashwini was enthusiastic about creating an innovative product from agricultural resources, and her love for wine and spirits led us to Cerana Meads.”
Along with its flagship mead, the meadery has collaborated with breweries in Maharashtra and Karnataka to make braggots, melding malt and mead, and also makes India’s very first pyment — a mead using grapes. Their version uses chenin blanc grapes from Nashik.
Cerana’s melomels, which are fruit-infused meads, highlight both local produce and natural honey, “Our jamun (black plum) melomel uses local jamuns and jamun honey, which is earthy and spicy. For our pomegranate melomel, we have a lychee honey that has floral notes. We also use multi-floral honey from forests in Himachal Pradesh, where you find citrus fruits and flowers,” says Yoginee.
All of Cerana’s offerings are priced at ₹180 a pint except for their Yule spice sold in winter at ₹450. The products find takers among the 25-40 age bracket, largely upper middle class consumers who have travelled and are curious to try out homegrown craft beverages. Says Cerana customer Shilpa Brahme from Pune, “Their jamun melomel and yule spice continue to be my favourites. Being a home-baker, I have also used Yule spice for cake preparations when I’ve invited friends for dinner and dessert.”
Business of bees
The founders at Cerana have undergone training in beekeeping. In every natural hive, a portion of the honey is used as food for the bee larvae, and the surplus gets stored in the upper one-third of the structure.
Manmade bee-boxes mimic this ingenious design. The upper one-third of the bee-box, called the super, is where honey is stored. The lower two-thirds, called the brood box, houses the queen and worker bees. “It took us painstaking effort to convince beekeepers to start using only the supers for their honey collection, instead of invading the brood box, and we buy only that honey for our mead production,” states Yoginee.
‘Bee Whisperer’ Akshay Borse at work for the Moonshine Project. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU
Honey is also important to entrepreneur duo Rohan Rehani and Nitin Vishwas, who started Moonshine. Back then, meads did not exist in the Indian excise lexicon. Now Moonshine Meadery in addition to its regular stream of meads in the market, has branched out to a special Moonshine Honey Project.
Moonshine has its own ‘bee whisperer’, Akshay Borse, “with two years of experience on the field, 10 harvests across the country, and probably 1,000 bee stings, Akshay has made it his mission to change the way beekeeping is practised in the country,” adds Rohan. The Mustard honey harvested from Doonda, Rajasthan, in January 2021, tastes like a lemon glaze, quite counterintuitive to the memory of pungent mustard.
“Our latest harvest was in March, an acacia honey which we will use for the next edition of the Project X mead, to highlight the wonderful single-origin honey that our country has to offer,” states Nitin. To revive beekeeping, bee-boxes have been set up in and around Pune, and the Mulshi valley.
The post-processing filtration and packaging is carried out below 38 degrees Celsius, to preserve all the bio-enzymes produced by the bees. The lockdown has been busy at Moonshine, with the launch of MeadLABS, gluten-free meads celebrating seasonal fruits andhoney, priced between ₹130 in Goa to ₹190 in Maharashtra. The meadery plans to expand retail in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala by 2022.
Moonshine’s grilled pineapple mead is made with rum-soaked pineapple that has been grilled over coal and combined with a multi-floral honey. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU
The grilled pineapple mead is made with rum-soaked pineapple that has been grilled over coal, combined with a multi-floral honey. For the guava-chilli variant, white and pink guavas meet multi-floral honey and the feisty Naga ghost chillies. The bourbon-soaked apple mead is crafted by ageing Moonshine’s apple cyder mead over bourbon-infused French oak chips.
Shinchita Majumdar, a regular mead patron says, “Moonshine Meads are pure art in a pint. The guava chilli, grilled pineapple and coffee and my current favourites.” Rohan agrees, “Meads lend themselves to so many iterations; combining Indian flavours and Indian honey is a thing of beauty.”