The history of mead is quite long. Seeing as how it’s origins are some twenty to forty thousand years ago I just skimmed the surface in my first post. Mead making was popular amongst the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and many European peoples so there is much to tell. As I described in my earlier post mead making can be a simple procedure. However, domesticated beekeeping was a time and labor intensive process. Although the rewards are great it was difficult to execute on the same scale as grain, grape and sugar cane production. The use of honey in fermented beverages was the choice of the wealthy and royalty. Eventually mead lost favor to wine and beer. It survived in European monasteries, who were also raising bees to make beeswax candles.
The earliest written evidence of honey in an alcoholic beverage is the first written recipe for beer. There was a lot of overlap in early fermented beverages. The Sumerians, an ancient people that inhabited the fertile crescent of present day Iraq, worshiped a goddess of fermentation. Her name was Ninkasi. There is a clay tablet from the nineteenth century B.C. that features “The Hymn to Ninkasi” and is in fact, a recipe for making beer. Honey is mentioned as a fermentable and the drink in question was likely a honey beer.
The Greeks celebrated honey beverages as divine. They make several mentions of ambrosia, the “nectar of the gods”. Sometimes ambrosia was referred to as a food and sometimes a drink. It seems that surely a drinkable nectar is either mead or a wine sweetened by honey. The Greeks also added many Mediterranean herbs to their meads and wines. These are the predecessors of metheglin, or spiced mead.
Roman culture owes a great deal of debt to the Greeks, and this holds true for mead. In addition to spicing their meads they continued the tradition of blending wines and honey. This practice foreshadowed the popularity of pyment, or grape mead. History has since been written by Italian wine enthusiasts, who prefer dry wines. Still, Roman honey sweetened wines were certainly often more mead than wine.
Wild honey gathering and mead making also appears throughout northern European peoples. Evidence of mead goes back to at least 1,000 B.C. in what is now Germany and the British Isles. The most famous of this is in the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, which dates to around the eighth century A.D. The poem describes the struggle between the Scandinavian hero Beowulf and the monster Grendel. It appears the monster threatened to destroy the king’s meadhall, and Beowulf was summoned to stop him. Mead is first mentioned in the fourth line and appears frequently in the following 3,178.
As grape and grain cultivation became more widespread mead making lost some popularity. However, bees were still prized for their beeswax which made a far superior candle to tallow, or animal fat. By this time the Catholic church was the dominate power in Europe and their monks raised bees. Honey was extracted from comb by crushing it. In order to get the last little bit of honey from the comb water was added. This water honey mixture was then fermented, making mead. Many thanks to the monasteries for keeping the tradition of mead making alive!
It was not until the nineteenth century that yeast was discovered to be the agent that converts sugar into alcohol. It turns out bees don’t want nectar to ferment, which is why they dehydrate it and make honey. However, some yeasts have co-evolved with honey bees to survive in environments with little hydration. This means they don’t need as much water to reproduce. So, it turns out the best yeast for making mead is cultivated from inside the beehive!
Mead is presently experiencing a resurgence. It spans many different styles that draw from the long history I’ve described so far. It can be sweet, dry or somewhere in between. It can be still or sparkling, low alcohol or high, and contain all types of fruit, grain and spice additives. Mead is right there with wine and beer in the spectrum of possibilities. So please, experience these for yourself at our Broughton street mead bar! Then tune in to my next post where I will explore the different styles in detail.
Read Part One
Submitted By: Jonathan Lee