Nectar of the Gods……Drink of Poets…….Drink of Love, these are all terms that have been used to describe mead throughout the ages, and for good reason, for it is an exalted beverage that has been all but forgotten in the industrial age. In different places and at different times throughout history, this was not the case. Honey has been gathered and used as a food and a fermentable since the beginning of recorded history. Honey is mentioned as a fermentable in the Hymn to Ninkasi from the nineteenth century BCE and in the Rig Veda of India from the fifteenth century BCE. Mead was held in high regard by the Romans in the centuries immediately before and after the Christian Era and wines were often compared favorably to meads, indicating perhaps a preference for mead by some. Mead held a special place in Greece during the classical period and many scholars interpret the word ‘Ambrosia’ as referring to mead. Mead is mentioned heavily in the Norse Edda and Beowolf, and clearly played a significant role in early Norse culture. Indeed all across northern Europe and the British Isles from pre-Roman times through the Renaissance, mead figured highly in the inhabitants social and religious lives. Births, deaths, betrothals, marriages, victories in battle and new alliances were all consecrated with copious quantities of mead.
In the late fourteenth to early seventeenth century, the use of mead declined in all but a few areas of the world (Poland, European Russia and Africa). There was apparently a honey shortage in Northern Europe during this period that may have contributed to, but does not fully explain the decline. Impovements in viticulture, brewing and shipping most likely all played a role in the decline of mead. The death knell of mead was probably sounded when the Normans of France, conquered much of Northern Europe, bringing with them their preference for wine, ciders and perries.
But all was not lost. In some areas of Africa homebrewed mead is still used to celebrate important life events as it has been for centuries. Commercial production is also starting to gain a foothold there. Isolated, mostly family-owned, meaderies have operated in Europe many using traditional methods of apiculture and mead production all but lost to the rest of the world. And as with beer and wine recently, North America may again be leading the charge in bringing this wonderful beverage back from the brink of extinction. Although an exact count is difficult, there are about sixty meaderies operating in Canada and the United States.
Many of these new meaderies are applying new techniques to the production of mead that were unavailable to our early forebearers. The tremendous advances in scientific knowledge of fermentation made since the discovery of yeast by Louis Pasteur in the mid eighteen-hundreds are now being applied to the making of mead. While mead making shares some similarities with the production of beer and wine, it is still very different from both. We are just starting to understand the chemistry involved in the production of mead and are modifying our techniques to accommodate the natural processes.
We still have a lot to learn, but the palette of flavors and aromas available to mead makers are broader and deeper than with wine or beer. Traditional meads (honey and water only) can be made with a tremendous number of varietal honeys from single floral sources such as Basswood, Sourwood, Tupelo, Tulip Poplar, Orange Blossom, Purple Sage, Black Button Sage, Gallberry, Raspberry Blossom, Blackberry Blossom and many others. Honey made from these different floral sources produce amazing arrays of unusual flavors. In addition to the tremendous number of varietal honeys available to make the base mead, we can add any fruit, herbs or spices in sometimes dazzling combinations. Have you every tried a Cherry, Marionberry Cyser? We can also blend mead with beer (braggot), wine (pyment), apple cider (cyser), or distilled beverages to great effect. In short, anything that can be safely consumed by humans can be used to make mead.