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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.
Although the process of making mead is as easy or easier than brewing beer, the fermentation of mead takes much longer than the fermentation of beer, so mead lovers must be patient to reap the full benefits of their labor. The equipment used is the same.
The American Mead Association's Meadmakers Journal '95 cites 28 active commercial meaderies worldwide. Nevertheless, commercial meads are not readily available on retail shelves, so the best way to find it is to scour a well stocked wine or beer store, befriend a home meadmaker or make your own. Homemade mead can be of excellent quality -- often better than commercial. The popularity of meadmaking is today where home beer brewing was about 15 years ago.
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.
There are increasingly more books available on meadmaking. Making Mead (Honey Wine) by Roger A. Morse has been around since 1980 and is a bit outdated but is where many a home meadmaker found his or her humble beginnings. Brewing Mead: Wassail! In Mazers of Mead is basically two books in one with an extensive history of mead by Lt. Col. Robert Gayre followed by step-by-step meadmaking instructions by Charlie Papazian. Another book entitled Making Mead by Bryan Acton and Peter Duncan offers meadmaking techniques and instructions as well as recipes for not only mead but also other honey drinks as listed above.
Another great source of information on mead and meadmaking is the American Mead Association (AMA). It publishes a quarterly magazine entitled Inside Mead, and a yearly publication entitled Meadmakers Journal. The AMA sponsors the Ambrosia Adventure, an annual national home meadmaking competition while the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) sponsors an annual home meadmaking competition dubbed the Mazer Cup. (A mazer cup is a traditional mead drinking vessel.)
Mead has also found its way to the Internet through the Mead Lover's Digest, an open forum for discussion of meadmaking and consuming. To subscribe, send email to email@example.com with your name and email address in the body of the message.
If you like wine or beer, chances are you will become a mead fan once you sample the pleasures of this enticing beverage.
For more information about mead, contact the American Mead Association at PO Box 4666, Grand Junction, CO 81502 or 800-693-MEAD.
Traditional Sweet Mead
12 lbs. (1 gallon) of honey
1 package Wyeast sweet mead yeast
4 gallons of ice cold spring or filtered water
1 tsp. yeast nutrient in 2 ounces of water to form a slurry
1 Tbsp. acid blend
Make a yeast starter about 24 hours before making your mead by combining 16 oz. of spring or filtered water, 4 oz. of honey and the sweet mead yeast in a sanitized jar. Keep the lid loose on the jar so the pressure of the carbon dioxide won't build up inside.
Boil one gallon of water in a kettle, then turn off the heat and add 12 lbs. of honey. Turn the heat back on as needed to hold temperature of must (honey and water mixture) at 190 degrees for 20 minutes to pasteurize. Add yeast nutrient slurry 10 minutes before end of must pasteurization.
Fill a sanitized five-gallon carboy with 2 gallons of ice cold water. Add acid blend to carboy then rack (siphon) must into carboy and top with remaining ice cold water to make 5 gallons.
Cool must to 78 degrees as quickly as possible then pitch yeast starter.
Place a sanitized fermentation lock on top of the carboy and place the fermenter in a cool, dark place for five weeks. After five weeks rack off settled yeast into another sanitized carboy for ten more weeks. After 15 weeks, rack periodically as needed until mead is clear then bottle or keg.