by Sara Doersam
Most people know that beer is an age-old drink brewed from fermented grains, and wine is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting fruit, but few have ever heard of mead, often referred to as “nectar of the gods,” made from fermented honey.
Mead is almost certainly the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man and likely discovered before the wheel was invented. As long as there have been bees and honey there has been mead. Mead occurs naturally when honey is mixed with water and yeast. A chance occurrence of mead was likely produced during the Stone Age when honey became wet from rain and wild yeast in the air settled into the mixture.
Mead’s popularity has waxed and waned and is currently on the rise throughout the world. The history of mead has roots in royalty, religion, sex, and violence throughout the ages of time and cultures of the world. There are tales of Norsemen toasting one another with mead drunk from skulls of their slain enemies. According to Nordic mythology, the Norse gods lived wild lives of reckless abandon often given to lechery. Legends revealed stories of various gods giving goddesses cups of mead, which caused the goddesses’ resistance to advances by the gods to be reduced so the scheming gods could take full advantage of their physical delights.
The ancient Greeks honored Bacchus, who was widely regarded as the God of Mead long before he became accepted as the God of Wine. The Greeks respected a mead-making season after which the mead matured and was saved for an orgy which took place once or twice a year. The Moors considered honey to be an aphrodisiac while Pollio Romulus wrote to Julius Caesar that at 100 years old he attributed his full sex life to drinking copious amounts of metheglin — a spiced mead. During the Middle Ages, Queen Elizabeth possessed her own royal recipe for mead and Chaucer wrote of mead on more than one occasion. Shakespeare drank mead. In Germany, judges were served mead and army troops were provided mead for fortification.
But mead’s real claim to fame is in its origins in wedding celebrations, hence the word “honeymoon.” Mead was traditionally drunk during the month-long celebrations following weddings to insure fertility and the birth of sons. Some customs sent the bride to bed and then filled the bridegroom with mead until he could no longer stand. He was then delivered to the bride’s bedside to sire a son that very night. If, per chance, the bride did, in fact, bear a son nine months later, the maker of the mead was complimented on its quality.
As the popularity of beer increased through the centuries, interest in mead dropped off. Through the course of one thousand years, mead has been traced from the time of Beowulf and the Court of King Arthur to that of Charles II. And while mead began and ended as a royal drink, in its decline it was nearly exclusively used by kings and upper classes while beer became the drink of the commoners.
Honey comes from the nectar of flowers and is named according to the type of blossom from which the nectar is collected by the bees. While some believe the best meads are made from strong honeys like sourwood, others delight in the delicate flavors imparted from mild honeys like orange blossom.
Because mead has been around for so long, it is brewed in many forms and methods with different names. It can be sweet or dry, sparkling or still, fruity or spicy or neither. Mead in its mature state is quite similar to a good white wine, but can take up to two or three years to reach full maturity.
A basic mead of honey, water, and yeast — whether sweet, dry, sparkling or still — is called traditional. Once a meadmaker begins adding fruits, spices, and herbs it takes on an entirely different character and a new name. The following is a list of some of the numerous honey drinks that can be fun to make and drink:
- Melomel is mead made with fruit juices.
- Pyment is mead made specifically with grape juice.
- Cyser is mead made specifically with apple juice.
- Metheglin is mead made with herbs or spices or both.
- Hippocras is pyment (mead with grape juice) made with herbs and/or spices.
- Braggot is a honey-ale beverage made by fermenting honey and grains together.
- Sac Mead