I first heard of Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey in one of my very first mead books – Acton & Douglas, perhaps, or Roger Morse. he was this mysterious figure, a black-robed monk who made near-ethereal mead. It was the mead against which all mortal-made mead would be judged, the standard I was meant to aspire to. All I knew for real was that he was a master meadmaker of old tradition somewhere in England, known to age his meads a minimum of seven or eight long years, never less.
A recent bit of information crossed my desk that brought him to mind again. Brother Adam had a favorite Maury wine yeast he used that became unavailable, inadvertently adding to his legendary status – mead like his would never exist again without his favorite yeast. He switched to Montpellier/K1V-1116 when he could no longer get Maury (which had become available only in large commercial quantities). But now, Brother Adam’s old favorite yeast strain is available again – as ‘terroir’ yeast Lalvin D-21 . (Here’s what a little research showed about D-21.) While I’m happily familiar with K1V-1116 for its hardiness and tendency to enhance fruity aromas (amazing what yeast can do whether there’s actually fruit present or not), I’ve never used D-21, and here it’s famous, at least to mead geeks.
So who was this Brother Adam? In 1910, he was a frail boy of 12 named Karl Kerle when he was sent to Buckfast Abbey in Devon, England from his native Germany to devote himself to the monastic life. I have no idea what he thought of that. At 17 he began to work in the bee yard; at 21 he took over responsibility for it. And thus a famous history began. Brother Adam worked with his bees for over 78 years, and became in international authority in the field. He took a spoonful of his own honey every day, and made his famously exquisite mead.
Brother Adam’s real-world fame comes from bee breeding programs. In 1915/16, thirty of Buckfast Abbey’s 46 colonies died of Isle of Wight disease, now known to be acarine or tracheal mites. The bees that didn’t die were of Italian origin, Italian queens crossed with black bee drones. The best of these bees formed the base for Brother Adam’s breeding program, which produced what is now known as the Buckfast bee.
“The extreme humidity as well as the chronic lack of sunshine make very special demands on our bees. A bee which is prone to trachea mite, nosema or paralysis cannot be kept in our climatic conditions.”
British black bees were known to be hardy but somewhat ill-tempered, but the Buckfast bees are normally gentle, good pollen gatherers, have less tendency to swarm (and thus fly away forever). They are resistant to acarine mites that exterminated their British brethren. Buckfast bees keep clean, neat hives, which helps them resist disease of the brood; they do well in most places but are particularly well adapted to areas with cold, damp winters (like Devon, where Buckfast is). They cross well with other breeds, but their offspring tend to keep a dark Italian appearance.
Brother Adam was eventually granted two honorary doctorates for his work with bees, one from the University of Uppsala, Sweden and one from Exeter University, England. In 1973 he was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) and a year later Bundesverdienstkreuz (Order of Merit) in the German Federal Republic. He was vice president of the Bee Research Association, which later became the International Bee Research Association, all while living a monastic life.
He traveled extensively looking for varieties of bees to cross-breed, going ever further afield, favoring bees indigenous to comparatively remote areas that might have retained their regional distinctions. In 1950-1 he went to Switzerland, Austria, France, Italy, Sicily, and Germany. A year later it was Algeria, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Libya, Cyprus, Greece, Crete, Slovenia, and the Ligurian Alps; then Turkey and the Aegean Islands. In 1956-7 He headed to the former Yugoslavia and a year later introduced his stock to a new combination of Greek origin. Then on to Spain and Portugal…Brother Adam traveled more than 100,000 miles for bees. “Our ultimate aim is the formation of a bee that will give us a constant maximum average crop consonant with a minimum of effort and time on our part.”
Over Brother Adam’s long tenure, honey production at Buckfast has had some rough years. Brother Adam blamed the drop in crops in South-West England on the deterioration of the flow as well as on climatic changes.
“Between 1920 and 1970 our average yield was about 25 kg. Since 1970 the average crop has only been about half that. There were several disastrous years, such as 1924, but from time to time there were also record crops, as in 1949. The average yield that year was over 90 kg per colony, from the heath alone 36 kg of honey.”
“Constant cold and unusually dry conditions until the beginning of July prevent the development of white clover and heather. Since 1970 there have been 10 years when we did not move the bees to the heath because there was no hope of a crop, in the previous 50 years this only happened once.”
There are short, enchanting film clips of him on YouTube – you can find pieces of The Monk and the Honeybee, and others as well.
Buckfast Abbey’s store does not offer mead or much in the way of honey products; indeed, their online shops have none at all, though there are some pictures online with tantalizing glimpses of jars of honey with the Abbey’s label.
Back in 2010, one BeeEarle wrote on Homebrewtalk‘s forum that he was lucky enough to have interviewed Brother Adam at Buckfast for six hours once on bee breeding, and was invited to taste a couple of his meads. The lucky man reported drinking two bottles with the learned monk, a dry still mead and then a sweet sparkling mead. Brother Adam was apparently fond of saying his mead was as good as the best wines on the Continent. He said he started the batches in the fall, and bottled in the spring so it would be ready to drink the following fall, so I guess he didn’t always age his meads seven or eight years after all. Apparently, despite his young arrival in England and long life there, he still spoke English with a heavy German accent. BeeEarle recalls Brother Adam saying all you need to make good mead is good honey, rain or soft water, a good French wine yeast like Maury and a used oak cask. His honey crop seemed to be based on clover and heather honeys. BeeEarle recalled the meads being very delicate.
Brother Adam resigned from the Bee Department at the age of 93, and died in 1996 in his 99th year. Today there are 320 honey-producing colonies at Buckfast Abbey, and they are still active in the bee-breeding scientific world; you can look up all the technical detail you could wish for on what frames they use, how many mating nuclei there are, and anything else you’d like to know from the apiarist viewpoint. And by happy chance the British black bee has recently been rediscovered in England and Wales; apparently it didn’t become entirely extinct back in 1919 after all.
Brother Adam is clearly remembered with great respect and affection for his long and careful work with the Buckfast bees.
Some sources about Brother Adam and Buckfast Abbey, all links last checked on 11/06/2012:
Buckfast Abbey has its own page on beekeeping.
Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey with a section on mead making, by Brother Adam. Northern Bee Books, England 1987. (on my Amazon wishlist of brewing books – please, Santa, I’ve been very good this year!)
The Monk and the Honeybee, by Paul Jungels, Luxembourg, trans. Prof. Gabrielle Weckering
R. Weaver Apiaries has a nice article
Erik Osterlund on Buckfast breeing principle (where I copied the picture of Brother Adam inspecting the frames)