Hexagon Mead made from wild borage honey
Mountainhoney Kaikōura is a family business. In the 1950’s Archie Hislop brought a few acres South of Kaikōura at Peketa and set up a community, founded an organic flour mill, adding beehives soon after that. His brother Ivan (Nick’s father-in-law) came on board with his cousin, Jim Godfrey. They built up the beehive numbers and started Kaikoura Apiaries.
A change of name to Mountainhoney and a new business structure came later with a shift to certified organic status in 2002. Wild Blue Borage honey continued as the main floral source from the Clarence Valley where the plant grows in abundance. Manuka honey was collected from hives close to the foothills of the Seaward Kaikōura Range.
As a young man, Nick Parkinson (a teacher at the time) met and married Ivan’s daughter Helen. Soon Nick was helping out with honey collection. He remembers working alongside Jim, tasting the wild borage honey and suggesting they should try making mead – unaware at that stage of the secret mead brews in hidden barrels made by Archie. Shortly after, Jim invited Nick to taste a couple of glasses from a bottle of mead he’d brewed 20 years earlier. A few years on, Nick and Helen’s eldest son Jesse developed a passion for beer and wine making while at University in Christchurch. Impressing Nick with a honey brewed beer, Nick suggested he try a mead and the inspiration for making mead was relit, with Jesse’s enthusiasm leading the charge.
Hexagon Mead takes its name from a small hexagon-shaped hut on their Peketa property just south of Kaikōura. The hut was built in the 1970s in the shape of a bee honey cell.
Mead is an ancient drink with strong associations to the Middle Ages Mead. It is essentially honey and water, fermented with yeast. The growth of Renaissance Fairs in the America is driving a surge in mead production and sales there. Other core markets for mead are England, Japan and China. Hexagon Mead is working to secure international markets for their product; but they also want to grow the domestic market by educating Kiwis about mead. It is one of only a few boutique mead producers in New Zealand and the only one using certified organic single source honey.
Having control over the raw honey production is important to Hexagon Mead. It means they can ensure single source honey and can work with the flavour profiles each season, selecting flavours they want. Hexagon Mead tends to use wild borage for their honey as it creates a more delicate mead than many of the bush blends. Nick explains producing a fine mead starts with the best honey. He settled on a recipe from famous beekeeper, Brother Adam (1898 – 1996) of Buckfast Abbey, as a starting point.
While many mead producers choose stainless steel vats, Nick uses 220 litre French oak casks from local organic vineyards – often swapping honey for them. Unlike organic whiskey producers, organic mead producers can reuse barrels, after they have been reconditioned and flamed. Handling the barrels is intensive manual labour and they have to be cared for while not in use. A cleaning solution is used and sloshed around to keep the timber moist and healthy - Nick refers to this as “dancing with the barrels”.
French oak adds tannins and vanilla notes to the flavour profile. They use barrels from white wine production as red wine barrels affect the taste and colour of the mead. Barrels are reconditioned, sterilised and ‘flamed’ to their requirements. Flaming is a technique that uses an open flame or gas torch to caramelize the sugars in the wood fibres. A ‘heavy toast’ will create a charred vanilla taste. Hexagon have experimented with the barrels, using a heavy toast for Mānuka honey meads, and a lighter one for the wild borage mead.
Mead takes a year to mature. Hexagon Mead began with a couple of barrels and now they’re up to about nine, with a plan to double production as they gain access to more markets.
After the Kaikōura earthquake in November 2016, they thought they’d lost their vintage, as the barrels were thrown around in the big shake, stirring up the lees (that normally settles at the base of the barrel. But research showed that there was a technique for stirring yeast lees to create different flavour profiles. So, after another year and some more trials they produced a dryer mead with a roundness and mellowness. This was packaged as the Earthquake Batonnage and Nick reports it is selling well.
An extra unexpected upside of that devastating earthquake is the abundance of wild borage. Nick explains wild borage likes unsettled ground and it has been rapidly colonising the slips caused by the earthquake since 2016.
Hexagon Mead have a licence that allows them to sell from the property. Head up to their ‘shed’ off the beaten track and you’ll get a tasting, alongside the “Two dollar tour”, where you’ll be regaled with the history and legend of the Peketa property. Or head into Kaikōura to the quirky concept store, the Bee Box. It is in one of the container shops set up after the 2016 earthquake. Nick’s nephew, Quinton Hislop, serves up tastings alongside a chat through the history of Mountainhoney and Hexagon Mead.
In November 2019 Hexagon Mead was one of the local products showcased at Kaikōura’s Memorial Hall for a visit by Prince Charles. The prince showed an interest in the organic honey mead and left with two bottles of mead and a three of jars of honey. Nick suggested Charles should, “give his Mum a taste”. We’re yet to hear what Her Majesty thought of the Kaikōura honey and mead!
In the future Nick and the family are looking to production of a mead liqueur and an apple-based mead – or ‘Kaiser’ - with the heritage apples on the property. The experimentation that began with Archie and his hidden barrels of mead, will continue.
Showdown Productions Ltd – Rural Delivery Series 15 2020