Not many people are lucky enough to turn a hobby into a career.
But that is what Matt Newell, 30, has done, using honey from his beehives to make mead – an alcoholic drink – that is now on sale across the Wye Valley.
Mr Newell, from Chepstow, launched his business, Wye Valley Meadery, a year ago after gaining mentoring and advice from the Prince’s Trust Cymru, which supports young people in business.
He is now the winner of the trust’s NatWest Enterprise Award, after transforming his idea into a “sustainable business”.
“I’ve been beekeeping as a hobby for 15 years, and have wanted to make mead commercially for such a long time,” Mr Newell said.
“But I had no business experience, so needed help with that and also how to market such a niche product in a competitive market.”
Mr Newell’s interest in beekeeping began in his teens, when a commercial beekeeper asked him to help out with his 500 hives.
“I loved it immediately,” he said. “It seems so confusing at first, all the bees swarming everywhere, but behind it there is complete order.
“It’s like a whole super organism working together for one goal – creating food for the winter and the expansion and survival of the colony.”
Mr Newell’s formal enterprise only began in earnest, however, after he quit a job in construction.
Determined to put his mead idea into action, he spent months testing recipes, before hiring space in a local brewery.
His brother Kit, 29, an app designer, began helping out and now the duo produce 2,000 litres (about 3,500 pints) of sparkling mead a month.
The drink, which has a 5.5% alcohol content and comes in a variety of flavours, is now stocked in 25 shops.
Mr Newell said: “Some people don’t know what mead is or even that it comes from honey.
“But it is often popular with modern craft beer drinkers, and also female customers.
“We plan on making a low or non-alcoholic version soon, as this is where the demand is.
“We hope to help bring mead back into the mainstream and raise knowledge of the importance of bees too.”
In order to produce enough honey for the mead, Mr Newell owns 130 hives, each containing roughly 60,000 Welsh honey bees.
The brothers also buy other local honey.
Mr Newell believes the fact mead is made with the honey from bees is appealing to customers who like environmentally sustainable products.
“Most people love bees,” he said. “They are essential to society, with a third of our food pollinated by them.
“Their habitats are often under threat, though.
“Bees love brownfield sites, which are often filled with ivy, buddleia and other purple flowers which they are attracted to with their ultra-violet vision.
“But these are frequently built on, which is damaging to bees and all pollinators.”
He admits, though, that being self-employed in the bee industry does have its challenges.
“I work all the time,” he said. “And I also get stung a lot, but that’s because I choose not to wear gloves so I can do the fiddly bits in the hive.
“Bees also instinctively fear the brown bear – their only predator – so if they see something brown and furry, they go crazy. That’s when you don’t want to be around them.”
The brothers are not the only ones trying to promote mead.
In America, brewing company Anheuser-Busch – behind beers such as Budweiser – has recently begun producing mead.
And in England, the conservation charity English Heritage claims to be the UK’s largest retailer of mead through its gift shops and online. In 2018, it said it sold a bottle every 10 minutes.
Elsewhere in Wales, a heather mead produced by Afon Mêl Meadery in Ceredigion recently won “Best Product from Wales” in the Great Taste Awards, the first time a mead has won the accolade.
The meadery, based on New Quay Honey Farm, has been running for two generations and supplies independent shops across the UK.
Director Sam Cooper, said: “I know of four new meaderies in the UK that have opened in the past year. But the biggest change we have seen is in the awareness of customers.
“Young people now know what mead is, largely, I believe, thanks to Game of Thrones, on which it was often drunk.”
Sophie Atherton, a beer sommelier, said: “I see the increase in the popularity of mead as linked to the craft beer boom and the surge of interest in gin.
“Our culture today is full of desire for tasting new things and experiencing new flavours.
“Perhaps there’s also an element of adding an ‘instagramable’ historic setting and you’ve got a drink everyone wants to be seen supping.”
Mr Newell was presented with his Prince’s Trust award on Thursday in Cardiff.
Philip Jones, director of The Prince’s Trust Cymru, said: “Matthew is one of around 4,000 young people supported by The Prince’s Trust in Wales last year.
“His passion for beekeeping, combined with the support of our staff and volunteers, made him a more than worthy winner of our NatWest Enterprise Award and we are excited about what he can achieve in the future.”
A brief history of mead
Mead or honey wine is the oldest known alcoholic beverage, known to be drunk by the Vikings, Mayans, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans alike.
It is made from just three ingredients – honey, water and yeast for fermentation – although other flavours, such as hops or elderflower can be added.
The earliest archaeological evidence for mead comes from 9000BC in northern China; in Europe, the first traces date to 2800-1800BC.
Mead also appears in classical literature, memorialised in the mead-halls of the epic poem Beowulf and also in The Mabinogion. It has also been mentioned by Aristotle, Dostoevsky, Chaucer and, more recently, JRR Tolkien.
Mead was popular during medieval times, however the rising cost and scarcity of honey soon made it too expensive for most, and its popularity waned.
Tej, the national drink of Ethiopia, is also a form of mead, drunk out of a traditional vessel called a berele.