Australian mead maker fights rare olfactory condition to produce the unusual fermented beverage
Wollongong mead producer Joel Robinson has battled a rare olfactory dysfunction to become a mead maker. (ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)
Joel Robinson is one of Australia’s few producers of the beverage mead — and he is doing it with an extremely rare olfactory condition that makes almost everything smell like rotting flesh or burnt rubber.
What is parosmia?
- A term used to describe health conditions that distort your sense of smell
- Can cause a loss of scent intensity and make everyday smells strong and putrid
- Caused by damage to olfactory neurons by a virus, health condition or brain injury
- Sometimes the sense of smell returns once the cause is treated
- Little is known about long-term parosmia recovery
When Mr Robinson fell at home in Wollongong and suffered a traumatic brain injury last year, it could have swiftly ended his dream of winding back his life as a boat skipper to become a mead maker.
The fall left him with parosmia — a rare condition that distorts his sense of smell to the point where everything smells putrid.
It is not stopping him from producing the fermented beverage of mead though — in fact, he said that it could even be helping his condition.
“This industry is one of the better industries for me because smell training is important for people with what I have,” Mr Robinson said.
“Otherwise, those parts of the brain become defunct and taken over.”
A highly rare condition
Mr Robinson jokes that his condition is so unusual that after the two leading medical experts in Australia, he is the third most knowledgeable person about parosmia in the country.
Joel Robinson uses roasted herbs and flowers to give different flavours to his mead. (ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)
Further compounding the situation, the injury happened just before his son was born.
“Initially it was about understanding what was happening and once I knew what it was and there’s not a great deal of research into it, that was a hard time for us as a family moving forward,” he said.
“If it wasn’t for my partner, Nerida, and my three kids, I don’t know if I’d still be here.”
A sense of humour and a patient partner are some of the many ingredients needed to deal with his condition.
“My partner is the one living with someone with that condition and the love and support of my family and friends and maybe continuing on with a dream or a plan to create a legacy for our kids [kept me going],” Mr Robinson said.
“There was a time where we didn’t get on with life at all, and I knew what I had wasn’t life-threatening, but the idea of living with this was very hard.”
Making mead as a form of ‘smell training’
Mead is an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with yeast and water, while sometimes adding fruits, spices or grains to taste, making for a great diversity of flavours.
Mr Robinson is holding onto the hope that his sense of smell may return and said that being in the business of producing mead — a beverage that relies on smell — could be just what he needs.
“Being able to smell things and get feedback from other people is allowing my brain the ability to repair itself,” he said.
Mr Robinson said he relies on “modern science” to try and get the correct balance in his meads, but has gravitated towards sour flavours that he can actually enjoy.
Fermented drink set for popularity boom
Mr Robinson said the days of meads being simply sickly-sweet fortified dessert drinks are over.
Mead producers are enjoying experimenting with craft beer-inspired methods.
Mr Robinson’s mead is produced in small batches from his Illawarra-based meadery Hunter and the Harp, and he aims to source all ingredients from within the region, south of Sydney, New South Wales, to give the beverage a local flavour.
Served chilled, his mead is often dry and relies on different yeasts to give different flavours.
“If we can make a mead that’s from local honey, yeast and water, there’s nothing that represents terroir or location more,” Mr Robinson said.
“How can you put any more country or culture into a beverage when 100 per cent of it was made here?”
Wollongong mead producer Joel Robinson has to take extra care in his quality control of flavours in his mead while living with parosmia. (ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)
Mr Robinson said mead is a fast-growing mainstream beverage in the Americas and Australia is following the lead of diversifying away from traditional alcoholic beverages.
“There are no rules with how we make mead, so for us who like to experiment, that’s quite exciting,” he said.
“It’s all there and there’s a movement happening in this country where we’re not just associated with beer or wine.
“We want to help restore the health of the honey bee industry and a way for us to do that is to make this style of mead.”