The history of Mead is as long and rich and captivating as the beverage itself. Mead is thought to be the oldest alcoholic beverages known to man. It was most likely discovered quite by accident when some thirsty hunter-gathers discovered an upturned beehive filled with rainwater. They drank the sweet water completely unaware of what fermentation and alcohol were and experienced the first intoxication.
Likely it was in a quest to replicate this experience the art of mead-making was begun. Unfortunately, fermentation was not understood until the mid 1800s. Consequently two things occurred: First, fermentation was very unpredictable. And second, fermentation took on mystical and religious qualities.
The ancient Greeks called mead Ambrosia, or Nectar (history gives us many names & varieties of Mead). It was believed to be the drink of the gods, and was thought to descend from the Heavens as dew, before being gathered in by the bees. Because of the believed ties to the gods, it is easy to see why the ancient Greeks believed mead to have magical and sacred properties. The Greeks believed that mead would prolong life and bestow health, strength, virility, re-creative powers, wit and poetry. The bees themselves, we are told by Virgil’s Georgics, are driven to the sky to honor the goddess Aphrodite. And the prophetess’ at Delphi are suspected of drinking mead made from a honey from slightly toxic plants in order to induce their prophetic states and visions of the future.
Mead declined in production in the south of Europe, where grapes were discovered as a less expensive, more predictable source of wine production. But in the north, where vine fruits were less available, the popularity of mead continued. In Norse/Aryan mythology a draught of mead, delivered by the beautiful divine maidens, was the reward for warriors that reached Valhalla. Bragi, the Norse god of poetry, is said to have drunk mead from a Bragi-beaker, later called the bragging cup. While the great Norse god, Odin, was said to have gained his strength but suckling Mead from a goats’ udder as an infant. Celtic mythology tells of a river of mead running through paradise, while the Anglo-Saxon culture held mead up as the bestower of immortality, poetry and knowledge. In fact the mythology of mead exists in our culture today, unnoticed by most. The very term “honeymoon” comes from the ancient tradition of giving bridal couples a moons worth of honey–wine. This was long ago thought to ensure a fruitful union. In fact the payment to the meadmaker was often increased, dependent on the promptness and the male-gender of the first-born child.
Bees were thought, by most European cultures, to be the messengers of the gods. Therefore, even as mead production declined it was still used for the temples rites, and the grand ceremonies, while ales were used for every day life. The same mystic properties that kept mead in the temples made mead a natural adjunct to early ideas of western medicine. In England there were a number of meads flavored with specific herbs that were used to cure any number of ailments. For example, mead made with balm was thought to aid digestion and expel melancholy, while mead made with borage was used to revive hypochondriacs and the chronically ill. The name for these spiced meads is Metheglin, from the Welsh word “medcyglin”, meaning medicine.
The middle ages took mead to different heights. The stature afforded to mead can be seen in the fact that the King’s mead cellar was under the direct care of the Steward of the household, who was the chief officer of the court. Payment for meadmakers was as high as one third of the mead made for the customer. Unfortunately, during this same time the demand by the church for bees wax candles helped the decline of mead-making by creating an economic incentive to rob the bee hives of their honey laden wax.
The tapestry of mead history is rich and wonderful. References are littered throughout history and literature. Chaucer speaks of making Claret sweeter with the addition of honey. In 1771 Smollett writes that knowledge of mead-making is considered one of the arts of a true country gentleman. Queen Elizabeth was known to have her own favorite recipe, including rosemary, bay leaves, sweet briar and thyme. But perhaps Howell, Clerk to the Privy Council, said it best in 1640 when he wrote, “The juice of bees, not Bacchus, here behold, Which British Bards were wont to quaff of old; The berries of the grape with Furies swell, But in the honey comb the Graces dwell.”
Reproduced by kind permission of Sky River Mead