This is the first in a series of posts on mead. The first discussion of mead will answer basic questions - what is mead? Where did it come from? In future posts I will go into the different styles, traditions, and present day interpretations.
First, what is mead exactly? According to one viewpoint it is exceedingly simple - take water, yeast and honey and let them do their thing. The yeast will feed on the sugars in the honey, giving off carbon dioxide and alcohol (that is, fermenting or fermentation) and over time produce a beverage of honey diluted by the water that can change your temperament.
Mead is sometimes referred to as “honey wine." This term makes it more accessible as many people are familiar with wine. The process of making mead and wine are nearly the same. Both beverages come from fermenting a sugar and adding water to dilute it. However, calling mead honey wine may lead to the idea that mead is fermented grape juice with honey added. I believe it is simpler to consider mead on its own merits and to not confuse things by adding the term of wine.
The process of making mead can be extraordinarily simple: add the correct portion of water to honey, expose it to yeast and wait. If all of the conditions are correct you will get mead. For this reason mead is arguably the first fermented beverage devised by humans. There is much debate amongst beer, wine and mead enthusiasts as to which came first. However, I argue that because honey can be collected from wild sources it must be the first. Both beer and wine need an amount of grains or grapes for their processes that can only come from purposeful cultivation. That is they did not occur until after the invention of agriculture. However mead can (and most likely did) come about quite by accident.
There is also the notion that early fermentable beverages blurred the lines between the the three distinctions of wine, beer and mead. It is likely that some early beverages were fermented with sugars from rice, grapes and honey all at once. Yeast is not visible with the naked eye and therefore was not understood for quite some time. Who can know for sure what substances first absorbed yeast from the air and made an intoxicating elixir? However, reason dictates the simplest possible scheme most likely occurred first.
Consider the following scenario: A paleolithic hunter-gatherer goes to harvest honey from a wild honeybee hive some ten thousand years ago. They collect honey into a sack and then empty most of the honey into another container. The original container is left exposed to the elements and collects rainwater. It is forgotten and left to its own devices. Wild yeast collects inside and feasts on the remaining honey. A thirsty tribe member happens upon the sack and takes a sip. Behold! A semi-sweet intoxicating liquid is inside. Mead is invented!
It makes sense to me that this happened multiple times amongst early African, European and Asian tribal groups. Therefore mead does not arise from a single origin but was invented and possibly forgotten multiple times throughout human history.
Mead went on to become popular with Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Norse peoples among others. Eventually mead lost some of its appeal with the masses to wine and beer. I will explore in future posts why this is and why it is now experiencing a resurgence. Stay tuned for part two of this series and if you are in Savannah, don't forget to stop by our store on Broughton Street for a full flight tasting of our very own Honey Meads!
Submitted By: Jonathan Lee