This golden nectar has a wonderful sweet, smooth taste and an usually high percentage that can induce merriness pretty quickly. Made by fermenting honey with water, each brewer adds their own unique blend of herbs, spices and grains, which means mead can have as many variations as beer.
But where did mead come from? Is it really just a tasty medieval tipple, or do its origins go back even further? To find out, I stumbled off on a journey that took me from ancient China to modern-day Manchester. Let’s go!
The earliest evidence for the production of mead goes all the way back to 7,000 BC China, where archaeologists found traces of a fermented honey, rice and fruit beverage through the chemical analysis of pottery. Mead also appears as an immortality-bestowing alcohol in the Rigveda (1,700 BC- 1,100 BC), a collection of Sanskrit hymns, where it is referred to as Amrita (without death).
The ancient Greeks also called it ‘ambrosia’ which meant immortal, and believed it to be the drink of the gods. The Romans also believed mead had powerful properties of preservation, calling it ‘nectar’, which is derived from the Greek for ‘overcoming death. The Norse are famed mead drinkers and have a rich mythology built up around it. Odin is said to have accidentally bestowed mead upon mortals after he stole three draughts of the Mead of Poetry from the giant Suttingr.
The association of mead with poetry continued with skalds (poets) who believed they did their best work whilst under the influence…! I know a few archaeologists who might agree…
Mead was a popular drink in medieval England. They had bees in abundance due to the huge amount of wax required for candles, and so plentiful honey. Many different varieties of mead were made and some were thought to have medicinal properties, like being able to cure melancholy and hypochondria.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and in the 16th century the introduction of sugar from the West Indies started the gradual decline of mead production, and now it’s a drink you rarely see outside Christmas markets and specialty stores.
The good news however, is that seems to be changing. I spoke to Aaron Darke, owner and Mead Master (now that’s a job title I’d like to have!) at Zymurgorium about mead and its current rise in popularity.
I first started brewing alcohol whilst doing my Zoology degree. I wanted a hobby that used science. The first drink I brewed was gorse flower dry mead that finished with a beautiful coconut/vanilla scent/taste and I was hooked.
Eventually I decided I preferred brewing to my course, but my Celtic/Nordic heritage and love of ancient history probably also had something to do with it!
Surprisingly, it’s on the rise. In the USA, 250 meaderies have open in the past 3 years a 2500% growth in sales in that same period – probably one of the largest manufacturing increases I’ve ever seen! I think there have been a number of factors for this; firstly, peoples tastes have changed and they are looking for something new and tasty rather than wasting money on just a quick drink, secondly, it features heavily in series like Game of Thrones and Vikings.
The most important thing is the yeast. There are so many yeast varieties out there, but most have a metabolism that is too strong and will breakdown most of the molecules we are looking for in mead, so you really need to make sure you get the right type.
You can start with honey from the local supermarket, as it will be pasteurised. Honey is low in nutrients, especially filtered honey so you’ll need to add nutrients. A classic combination is orange peel and raisins.
One of the wonderful things about mead is that there are no shortages of recipes online that range from long term investments to simple, quick meads that can be made in less than a month. I chose this recipe for its fruity taste and simplicity to concoct!
You don’t need any specialist equipment, and the ingredients can be found in any supermarket. After 3 weeks, you’ll have 2 litres of delicious mead to quaff with your friends and family!
Equipment: an empty 4-pint milk bottle, a balloon
Ingredients: 2 x 340g bottle/jars of clear honey, half an orange, 12-15 washed raisins, spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice), warm water, dried active yeast (the author used Young’s all-purpose dried active yeast for wine and beer-making)
1) Make sure everything is clean, as any dirt or contaminants will spoil the mead
2) Pour two pints of warm water into the fermentation chamber (milk bottle), and add the honey. Put the lid on and give it a good shake to dissolve the honey.
3) Cut the half orange into small segments, and add them to the fermentation chamber. Then add a small pinch of cinnamon, a small pinch of nutmeg and a small pinch of allspice.
4) Wash the raisins, and then add them to the mix.
5) Add more warm water to the fermentation chamber, until it’s about 3.5 pints full. Then add the dried active yeast.
6) Replace the cap, and thoroughly shake the bottle to aerate the mix.
7) Prick 3 holes in the top of the balloon. Uncap the bottle, and then stretch the neck of the balloon over the mouth. This acts as an airlock to let CO2 out.
8) Set the bottle in a warm place and within an hour you should see the balloon inflate and foam developing on the top of the mix.
9) Store in a warm, dark place and leave it to ferment. If the balloon begins to perish, replace it.
10) Over time the mead will become clearer, and after 3 weeks you can siphon off a dark, golden, clear mead to enjoy immediately, or store it in a demijohn to further mature!
H/T to AmazingMead for the recipe!
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