Understanding Mead

Understand the history, origin, and unique story behind mead and why it is such a popular home brewed fermented beverage.

| October 2018

  • jars of honey
    In history, mead was discovered when people wanted to extract honey. The combs were crushed and rinsed creating honey-infused water that fermented and could be enjoyed as mead.
    Photo by Skyhorse Publishing
  • Jars of honey
    The taste of mead is highly influenced by the type of honey that is used for flavoring.
    Photo by Skyhorse Publishing
  • bee on a sunflower
    Bees and mead are very interconnected and it is a cause for concern that the number is bees has dropped significantly over the years.
    Photo by Skyhorse Publishing
  • book cover
    “The Joy of Brewing Cider, Mead, and Herbal Wine: How to Craft Seasonal Fast-Brew Favorites at Home” by Nancy Koziol guides readers through home brewing cider, mead, and herbal wine in simple, easy to follow steps. Readers learn about ethical consumption, sustainable farming and the science of fermenting all while waiting a matter of weeks for the brews to be complete.
    Cover courtesy Skyhorse Publishing

  • jars of honey
  • Jars of honey
  • bee on a sunflower
  • book cover

Understanding Mead

What Is Mead?

“Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for forty days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.” — Columella

The nectar of the gods, mead, is a storied drink that, like many things in history, has been attributed to a group through popular culture references. In the case of mead, it is tied to the Vikings. These Scandinavian seafaring explorers who traversed the Atlantic are often pictured drinking the fermented honey from goblets. But the Vikings were most active between 700–1100 AD and Columella was writing about how to home-brew the drink nearly 700 years earlier. Believe it or not, mead is even older than that. It may, in fact, be the oldest alcoholic beverage on earth.

Each glass of mead you drink holds a long history. But what exactly is mead?

A Simple Recipe, a Complex Drink

At its core, mead is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from three ingredients: honey, water, and yeast. It was likely discovered by accident, as most alcoholic beverages were. Chances are, water that had sat in a hive and fermented with the help of airborne yeast was drunk. In addition to being tasty, the drinker likely felt pretty good. It was only a matter of time before the process was figured out so that man could make it for himself.



When it comes to fermented alcoholic beverages, mead is most similar to wine. Just like a wine can be dry, sweet, or semisweet, and still or sparkling, so can a mead. Wine can be mixed with other spices, herbs, and fruits and, yes, so can mead.

Both wine and mead use three ingredients, two of which are water and yeast. But when making mead, the grapes are replaced with honey. One of the reasons people lose interest in mead is they assume that it can’t be very complex or express itself in myriad ways. But they are wrong. And this is even more true when making mead at home. Mead is just as complex as wine, thanks to a few factors.

Think of a wine you enjoy. For me, it’s Gewürztraminer. This white grape is grown in cooler climate wine regions like Alsace, Germany, and the Finger Lakes. While many are sweet and round, I find that I especially like semisweet or dry versions. My favorite, though, is the hard-to-find orange Gewürztraminer. This somewhat sour, somewhat tannic copper-hued wine is made with white grapes, but they are left in contact with the skins to impart both color and tannins into the final product. Most people don’t believe it’s a Gewürztraminer when they sip it. Many don’t even believe it’s wine. The complexity in a bottle of wine is borne of the varietal (grape), climate, when it was harvested, the fermentation temperature and vessel, how long the wine ages, and more. At the end of the day, there are limits. A Gewürztraminer will never be a Pinot Noir. But a Gewürztraminer can be many things, just like a Pinot Noir.

Type

Color

Consistency

Taste

Use

Alfalfa

White or light amber

 

Standard “honey” taste

 

Avocado

Darker

Thicker

Rich Buttery

Dressings Sauces

Basswood

Watery white

 

Biting

 

Blueberry

Light amber to amber

 

Full Round

Sauces Baking

Buckwheat

Dark brown

Thick

Strong Deep

BBQ Sauce Baking

Clover

Watery white to extra light

Thinner

Delicate

The most common honey; the one in your kitchen.

Sage

White or watery white

 

Sweet

Served with cheese

Sourwood

 

 

Sweet & Spicy

Table honey Glazes

Mead is also expressed in many complex ways. The biggest influence on how a mead will taste is the type of honey used. If you’ve gotten used to getting your honey from the grocery store, possibly in a plastic bear, it’s time to venture out and find local honey. And not just one local honey, but a few different types. Each will have its own unique color, consistency, and flavor. And these play a role in how your mead will turn out.

Buckwheat honey, which is not enjoyed by many people because of its strong taste, makes the perfect spiced mead. This thick, dark honey has a flavor similar to molasses and is not what most people think of when craving honey. That said, it makes a delicious base for spiced meads. Clover and orange blossom, however, are lighter and have a more subtle taste, perfect for a light, quaffable mead.

Varieties of Mead

There are a few different variations of mead, but for this book we will mostly focus on the traditional mead, which is simply honey, water, and yeast. We do include some pairing ideas that use other types of mead. You may wish to explore these after getting your basic recipe down. For each variety, the second ingredient is fermented with the honey in the same vessel, at the same time.

Melomel refers to any mead where the second ingredient is fruit. If apples are fermented with the honey, it’s called cyser. When grapes are fermented with honey, it’s called pyment. You can experiment with any range of fruit, though I particularly like those with strong flavors, such as citrus fruits.

Metheglin is mead that has spices, herbs, or both added to the honey to be fermented. This is an excellent way to make meads for different times of the year.

History of Mead

Imagine a plain near rivers. There, small communities live in singleroom homes dug partially into the earth. They are simple people, reliant on farming and the breeding of animals to live. They supplement this with fish caught in nets, and hunt the area’s deer and boar. These are the Jiahu of Neolithic China, a part of the larger Peiligang culture of prehistoric China. They are important because they created some of the region’s earliest pottery, in which a beer/wine/mead hybrid was born.

Chances are that mead was actually discovered earlier, in Africa. Wild bees would store their honey in places that would fill with rainwater and then be collected. As people left the earliest human civilizations in Africa, they would have brought the knowledge of this honey water with them to other places, which could explain why we see early versions of mead in places like India and Europe. But China appears to be the first home of intentional mead-making.



Mead was first made in Northern China. We know this, thanks to Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania museum. McGovern and his team are responsible for analyzing preserved liquids from this period. The liquids remained because of the tight seals of the pottery.

McGovern discovered that the liquid was fermented from rice, honey, grapes, and hawthorn, a shrub. Molds were responsible for fermentation, which is a distinctly Chinese trait in fermented beverages. These core ingredients later found their way into beer, sake, mead, wine, and herbal wine. The early version of mead seen in China had many more ingredients than just honey, and was flavored with flowers such as chrysanthemums.

Why do we associate mead with the Vikings? Similarly to the ancient Africans discovering mead accidentally, the northern Europeans likely experienced a similar beautiful mistake. The northern Europeans kept bees in skeps, which are domed baskets that behave as hives. Unlike in modern hives with removable racks for taking honey, the bees had to be killed in order to get the honey. The best way to do this, they found, was by drowning the bees. The rinse water likely fermented into mead.

If mead has been around so long—possibly 40,000 years—why is it that we drink beer, wine, and spirits so much more frequently? Technology is to be blamed for mead’s lack of popularity these days.

If we look at any civilization that made mead, we will find that the production and enjoyment dropped off significantly when technology advanced. The Industrial Revolution is a great example of this.

Before machines were used to extract honey, the first using centrifugal force, the combs were crushed. They were then rinsed, creating honey-infused rinse water that was fermented and enjoyed as mead. But as extraction advanced there was no need for the time consuming process of rinsing the comb and, because honey was expensive, mead production declined significantly.

Mead: The Most Sustainable Fermented Beverage?

As people become more aware of their consumption and its impact on the earth, mead is making a comeback. This is likely due to two concerns: honeybees and other resources.

Honeybees are gaining attention as their numbers drop significantly around the world. Beekeepers began noticing this in the 1990s. A diminished number of bees is cause for concern: bees are pollinators and help sustain crops. While “no farms, no food” is a great bumper sticker, the same could be applied to bees. They are necessary to human, animal, and plant life.

But the ethics of mead go beyond saving the bees and includes other resources. A vineyard, for example, requires substantial land, water, and fertilizer, and often a tremendous amount of energy is used. Turbines are used to control climate, machines are used for destemming and maceration, and so on.

Mead, though? It's one of the most primitive forms of brewing, requiring little to no human interaction, and does great things for the environment. Where there are bees, crops do well. From apples to flowers, bees spend their days collecting pollen and making honey. Mead is easy to make right in your kitchen with few ingredients—as the ancients proved, as little as honey and rain.

Nancy Koziol is a lover of all sorts of fermented drinks: wine, beer, cider. She began writing about wine for two emerging wine blogs: Winedom: The Wine Dominion and Wine Turtle. She has also traveled extensively through various wine-producing climates touring, tasting, and learning. She works in Digital Marketing as chief content writer for a small firm and is working toward her first fiction publication. Nancy lives in Bennington, Vermont with her husband, two dogs, a cat, and a lot of beer

More from The Joy of Brewing Cider, Med, and Herbal Wine:


Excerpted with permission from  The Joy of Brewing Cider, Mead, and Herbal Wine: How to Craft Seasonal Fast-Brew Favorites at Home (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018) by Nancy Koziol. Koziol’s book guides readers through trying their hands at home brewing. Broken into 3 sections including: mead, cider, and herbal wine readers learn about basic equipment they’ll need, ingredients, and step by step instructions to achieving different homemade brews. Readers have the opportunity to try simple honey mead, apple or pear cider, or a wine from herbs foraged in your backyard, all of which are brewed in a matter of weeks instead of months.Nancy Koziol is a lover of all sorts of fermented drinks: wine, beer, cider. She began writing about wine for two emerging wine blogs: Winedom: The Wine Dominion and Wine Turtle. She has also traveled extensively through various wine-producing climates touring, tasting, and learning. She works in Digital Marketing as chief content writer for a small firm and is working toward her first fiction publication. Nancy lives in Bennington, Vermont with her husband, two dogs, a cat, and a lot of beer. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Make mead like a viking

Brewing Natural Mead

Ancient societies brewed flavorful and healing meads, ales and wines for millennia using only intuition, storytelling and knowledge passed down through generations—no fancy, expensive equipment or degrees in chemistry needed. In Make Mead Like a Viking, homesteader, fermentation enthusiast and self-described “Appalachian Yeti Viking” Jereme Zimmerman summons the bryggjemann of the ancient Norse to demonstrate how homebrewing mead—arguably the world’s oldest fermented alcoholic beverage—can be not only uncomplicated but fun. Armed with wild-yeast-bearing totem sticks, readers will learn techniques for brewing sweet, semi-sweet and dry meads, melomels (fruit meads), metheglins (spiced meads), Ethiopian t’ej, flower and herbal meads, braggots, honey beers, country wines, and even Viking grog, opening the Mead Hall doors to further experimentation in fermentation and flavor. In addition, aspiring Vikings will explore:Order from the Grit store or by calling 800-803-7096.

 






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