Looking into the long history of mead

Mary O’Riordan looks at the long history of honey wine — aka mead.

he importance of bees to life on earth takes a different but convivial twist in the uplifting and tasty drink of mead. Probably the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, mead is essentially fermented honey and water and has a long and glorious history.

It is referenced in the ancient cultures of 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, descended from the Heavens as dew, before being gathered in by the bees. 

Because of this belief, it is easy to see why the ancients thought mead had magical and sacred properties and would prolong life, bestow health, strength, virility, re-creative powers, wit and poetry.

Closer to home the legends from Germany, Norway and the Celts have gods and mortals alike knocking back mead from cow horns, goblets or ceremonial vessels, often bestowing magical powers and ritual importance. 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 month’s worth — or ‘moon’s worth’ of honey–wine. This was long ago thought to ensure virility and fertility and 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.

And this drink, though reminiscent of medieval banquets and feudal brawls, is on the verge of a comeback. News headlines in the US tell us consumption is up a huge 42% and is the “in thing” among the young upwardly mobile TV gazers and this staggering rise has been achieved without the expense of advertising.

‘Game of Thrones’, the fantasy TV series featuring warring dynasties, dragons and damsels in various states of undress, is thought to be responsible and as Series 5 hits Irish screens, the future for mead over here looks somewhat rosy. 

While awaiting this market turnaround in Ireland, the current production and consumption of mead seems to be confined to beekeepers and the fraternity who indulge in historical re-enactments. Mead is nowadays the choice at medieval tournaments, Viking society meetings and of course, at Bunratty Castle banquets.

Mead was presumably made in ancient times by diluting honey with water in clay or wooden vessels, then leaving airborne yeasts and those found naturally in the honey to do the rest. Today commercial mead producers tend to use a mix of honey, fresh yeast, lemons and water. 

Some not-so-traditional brewers start off the ferment so they can say their mead is ‘traditionally brewed’ but then add pure alcohol to bump up the alcohol and avoid a maturing period. Like beer, traditional mead is sometimes flavoured with fruits, spices, grains or hops. 

After fermenting it needs to be kept at least a year before drinking, but at around 16%, it will keep indefinitely. Mead is produced in a variety of sweetness levels, from bone dry to lusciously sweet and it can be still or sparkling.

In years of a plentiful honey supply, which was not so in 2015, many beekeepers make a gallon or two of mead shortly after they harvest the honey. At Irish honey shows, there are always competitions for sweet and dry mead and visits to such shows will quickly reveal who are the best producers of mead in Ireland.

However, commercial craft, mead producers have not to my knowledge emerged in Ireland yet, but it’s got great potential, in the same way that craft beer has secured a great niche market. 

If interested in exploring this potential market and getting started then, just like beekeeping, the first thing the burgeoning entrepreneur should do is purchase a book on winemaking which will include mead making.

Only a few essential inexpensive items of equipment are necessary in order to start making mead and these include a one gallon glass jar, air lock, plastic tubing, wine bottles and corks, yeast, and a few sterilising agents.

Usually 2 kilos of honey with 3.5 litres of water will give 5 litres (1 gallon) of medium mead. Initially, the honey and water are boiled to kill off the wild yeast, though modern technology is beginning to use ultrafiltration rather than boiling. Afterwards lemons and tea may be added to give a darker colour. 

This mix is then fermented for 4 to 6 weeks using fresh yeast. The mead is then racked off in bottles and corked. After 12 months the mead can be stored for a further 12 months, and by this time it will be more mature and very drinkable. 

Currently, there are no Irish stockists of traditional mead. An internet trawl will reveal that Bunratty Meade is available at some outlets but this “meade” appears to be white wine with honey and herbs added.

Mead is the fastest growing segment of the American alcohol beverage industry, so to you budding entrepreneurs and beekeepers, it seems that this fermented honey drink is tiptoeing out from the shadows and has the potential to amass you a fortune — so get brewing.

Fiann’s tips

* As you harvest root crops, leeks, Brussels sprouts and winter cabbages, be soft-footed, the ground is still so soggy that compaction is inevitable.

* You can rake over any empty beds to disturb any weed seeds and trigger their early germination. Think of it as making them show their heads above the parapet. Your hoe can lop them all off in a few weeks’ time before you direct sow this year’s new crops.

* Now is the time to think about sowing some indoor modules of early crops. Try beetroot, spinach and salad leaves but really there is no wrong edible to start now to plant out in warmer weather.

* Order your seed potatoes and if you have some already It is possible to start chitting. Chitting is pre-germination — letting an eye form a sprout to get a head start come warmer weather but don’t fret if you have enough windowsill — a potato with an eye will self-chit when planted anyway.

* The mild weather has been kind to pests and diseases that may be overwintering in greenhouses and polytunnels – a clean and a bit of ventilation will diminish the threat.



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