Ancient Artisanal Beverage
Mead is experiencing a renaissance, both as a commercial alcoholic beverage and a home-brewer’s delight. Meaderies are springing up all over Europe and North America, and Alberta is in the forefront in Canada.
Today’s Mead is not the overly-sweet funky stuff you may have tasted at a renaissance faire circa 1976. Modern Mead-making is following in the footsteps of today’s wine world. It’s now made at all levels of sweetness, from dry sparkling champagne-style Meads, to sweet apertif dessert-style Meads, that are complex, subtle, and full of beautiful flavors.
The history of Mead is rich. The oldest archeological evidence comes from China circa 9,000 B.C. Many historians believe it was being made and enjoyed in the Neolithic Period, 3000 years ago. It’s referred to in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, Turkish, North-African, Mayan and Roman historical documents. Mead is now known to have been the primary beverage of ancient Greece and Rome. Grape wine was actually the secondary and less-savored option.
It’s believed that the first Meads were likely to have been discovered as the result of natural causes. As bees naturally hive in hollow tree trunks, that would have fallen or become filled with water, natural fermentation would have taken place and Mead would have eventually been ‘discovered’.
Entire communities around the Ephesus and Ionian Mediterranean regions, now Turkey, are known to have kept bees and had Mead and Honey as their primary source of livelihood, commerce and spiritual reference. Mediterranean art and writing reflects this in it’s frequent images and references to Mead, Bees, Honey, and the Hive, as objects of worship from this time period. These specific communities are believed to have been matriarchal in nature, with their members acting as both beekeepers and priestesses.
Meads ample presence in Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Gaelic and Celtic historical documents began around 500-700 A.D. It’s included in tales of war, love, marriage and death rituals, and even childbirth. Most of us think of Mead from this Beowulf crowd and their tales. Indeed, the lore and folktales of Northern Europe are a wealth of information about Mead and it’s central importance to the cultures of this time and place. In Eastern and Northern Europe Mead never ‘disappeared’. It’s remained a beverage of choice there, available in many much venerated and ancient styles from table Mead to liquers. The term “honeymoon” also finds its origin in those times and cultures where a newly wed couple was given honey and honey wine for the duration of a full moon. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac and lead to pregnancy.
Mead’s dominance as the beverage of choice is thought to have been usurped by beer and grape wine sometime around 800-1000 A.D. Mead became too expensive for the common person when communities became more organized and governing groups began taxing that which was most enjoyed by it’s communities members. It remained a beverage enjoyed by the upper-classes and royalty, and it also remained present as an option for peasant country folk that had their own sources of honey and their own initiative to home-brew.
Many of today’s wonderful Mead styles come from adapting these early home-brewed styles of the past.
Metheglin – Mead brewed with Herbs and Spices. Often used medicinally. Braggot – Mead brewed with Hops or a herbal mix called Gruit. Cyser – Mead brewed with Apple Juice. Great Mead – Mead that’s aged for years. Melomel – Mead made with fruits or fruit juices. Pyment – Mead made with Grapes or Grape Juice. Sack Mead – Mead made with a high concentration of honey to water.