This Ancient Drink Shares Its History with the Honey Bee
Many consider the alcoholic drink known as ‘mead’ to be one of the oldest in the world.
Made with fermented honey and water, it has a long and glorious history. It is referenced in the ancient cultures of all these countries – China, India, Greece and Egypt.
The earliest documentary evidence suggest that a fermented honey beverage was drunk in India some 4000 years ago.
The ancient Greeks called mead ‘ambrosia’ or ‘nectar’ and it was believed to be the drink of the gods, coming down from the Heavens as dew, before being collected by bees. This belief makes it easy to see why the ancients thought mead had magical and sacred properties.
Of course the basic ingredient of mead is honey from the honey bees and we all know how threatened populations of bees have become. A single honeybee produces just one/twelfth of a teaspoon of honey per day and, with mead requiring up to two gallons of honey, every drop is precious. The honey used determines the different flavors of the mead, and can vary according to a honey bee’s particular diet of nectar and pollen.
One old story about mead that you might not realize is that the mythology of mead still exists in our culture today with the term “honeymoon” coming from the ancient tradition of giving bridal couples a month’s worth (or ‘moon’s worth’) of honey–wine. Long ago, this was thought to ensure virility and fertility – and an extra bonus could be paid to the meadmaker if there was a male baby promptly born to the newly wed couple.
The process for making mead
- Mead making is a delicate balance between science and art! Yeast must be combined with spring water, then freshly foraged honey is added before the mixture is allowed to ferment and become alcoholic.
- Next, it goes through a second fermentation process which enhances the honey aromas while encouraging bubbles to form.
- The bottles are then riddled. This means that they are slowly turned upside down so that the yeast falls into the neck.
- The mixture is finally disgorged when the cap is removed and the top (where all of the yeast has settled) is forced out under pressure.
The process is similar to that of making champagne but usually without the headache the next day that come with drinking champagne!
Does mead offer any health benefits?
Though similar to beer, wine or cider, mead occupies a beverage category on its own since its primary fermentable sugar is honey. While basic mead comprises honey, water and a yeast or bacterial culture, ingredients such as fruits, herbs, spices, grains, roots and flowers can be included too.
Mead’s alcohol content varies but is typically around 5 to 20%. Its flavor profile ranges from very sweet to very dry, and it’s available in both sparkling and still versions.
Certain types of mead (made with herbs or spices) were used medicinally in early England. Infusing herbs into a sweet mead made them more agreeable, and different varieties were thought to improve digestion, help with depression and alleviate good old-fashioned hypochondria. These types of spiced herbal meads are called metheglin, derived from the Welsh word for medicine.
Mead is growing in popularity
When many of us think of mead, we think of medieval banquets and feudal carrying-ons back in history but now mead is enjoying a comeback. In the USA, consumption is up by an impressive 42%. Drinking mead has become popular with the young upwardly mobile TV gazers – and without any advertizing either!
It could well be that ‘Game of Thrones’ has a lot to do with it!
Here in the UK, the Northumberland Honey Co is just one of the new young companies paving the way for good honey mead production. The owners dream of moving to a farm of their own, saying that it will be like a vineyard – but for bees with sprawling meadows. They point out that in the current mead industry, people don’t really talk about the provenance of honey. With wine, it is all about the base ingredient. But the owners emphasize that they treat their mead the same way.
Mead customers can not only enjoy a deliciously different drink but can also feel confident that, with every sip, they’re helping to protect precious pollinators.