Mead is an alcoholic drink that is made by fermenting honey, yeast and water with a few spices and fruits added in for flavor.
Mead is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks known to man and it has been consumed and cultivated for almost 40,000 years. Wine, in comparison, has only been around for 6,000 years.
The History of Mead
The origins of mead can be tracked back to the African continent.
The honeybees at the time would gather their pollen and nectar then have to deal with the issue of keeping their honey from being broken down by wild yeast which is very effective at fermenting syrups with low sugar-content such as nectar.
The honeybee needs to keep this fermentation from happening therefore it breaks complex sugar-molecules down into simpler molecules in its stomach.
The digested sugar-molecules are more resistant to fermentation by yeast however the native yeast adapted to the honeybee’s tactics over time and osmotolerant versions of yeast started to appear in the wild.
Osmotolerant yeast is what is used to make fermented drinks such as mead and wine. About 20,000 years ago in the African bush, a series of fortunate events led to the bushmen discovering mead.
During dry seasons, the elephants would rip out parts of the baobab and mimosa trees which bees would then use as shelter.
When the storms came the hives would fill up with water and osmotolerant yeast which fermented the honey. The natives who found these hives were blessed with both honey and mead.
The African locals took their knowledge of mead with them to the rest of the world and it gained popularity in Europe, India and China. They loved it at first however over time it became a luxury because honey could only be afforded by the very rich.
By the time sugar-cane started being cultivated in in Europe in 1300 A.D, mead was relegated to a treat offered in monasteries as a by-product to the beeswax that they also made.
Before the industrial revolution, honey was extracted by simply crushing the comb. This left a lot of honey-residue mixed in with the comb which was rinsed out with warm water.
The leftover water became a valuable resource for making mead. When mechanized extraction of honey was introduced there was no left-over honey-water therefore mead production fell.
Modern-day mead cultivation in an apiary is incredibly rewarding. A medium-sized winery would require extensive mechanization in order to remain competitive because the process is costly and results in more humans being replaced by machines.
An apiary in comparison is much more labor intensive. The work that must be done to produce mead requires carefully tending to the bees by hand which provides more jobs for the local economy.
Mythology and Tradition
Mead has been referenced in tales of religion, royalty and violence by numerous cultures from across the world. For example, tales from Scandinavia tell of Norsemen who would toast each other with mead drunk out of the emptied skulls of their fallen enemies.
Legends from their mythology also revealed stories of gods who would gift a goddess with a cup of mead so as to seduce her when the alcoholic beverage reduced her inhibitions, much like what happens in nightclubs right now.
Mead is also mentioned in Greek mythology. They reference Bacchus who was long known as the God of Mead long before he was touted as the God of Wine.
The Greeks loved mead so much that they would make it every year to be enjoyed during their yearly orgies because of its properties as an aphrodisiac. Queen Elizabeth also partook of mead regularly and even had her own special recipe.
But the most popular use for mead was during wedding celebrations which is where the term ‘honeymoon’ originates from. People would drink lots of mead right after weddings in order to bless the newly-wed couple and promote their fertility.
In some cases the bride was sent to bed early then the brides-groom was filled with mead before being sent to his wife to consummate the marriage. If the wife got pregnant that very night then the mead-maker received compliments on the quality of the mead provided.
Over time mead’s popularity gave way to more affordable drinks such as beer.
The quality of the mead is often dependent on the types of flowers that the bees drew the nectar from.
Sourwood is generally considered as the best type of honey to use for mead however some people are fond of the light flavors that mead gets from milder honeys such as orange blossom.
Over the centuries numerous brewing methods and ingredients have been used to make mead. The end result can be sweet, sparkling, fruity or spicy. A well-matured mead can be similar to white wine however it can take up to three years to reach full maturity.
The best way to describe how mead tastes is like very intense honey. Honey is said to taste like a blend of every plant flavor possible which is why there is such a variation in how different meads taste.
Most people assume that mead will be sweet like honey however the type of honey used and the variety in brewing methods means that it can taste very different than expected.
The type of yeast used also has an effect and is usually the factor which defines whether it will be dry, semi-sweet or semi-dry. Sweet meads tend to be thick while dry meads come out lighter.
Traditional mead is made up of yeast, honey and water and can be either dry or still. When spices and fruits are added then it becomes a completely different drink with a new name. Some of the most common mead-like drinks made from honey are:
– Hippocras, which is mixed with grape juice and spices,
– Cyser, which is mead made with apple juice,
– Melomel, which is made with a variety of fruit juices,
– Braggot which is made by fermenting honey with grains,
– Metheglin, which is mead with spices and herbs.
When tasting mead you want to inhale its bouquet then wait for about 20 seconds for your olfactory system to reset.
You can then take a smell sip and hold it in your mouth for few seconds to let the flavor settle on your tongue and try to see if you can identify the flavors.