The History Of Mead
The oldest fermented drink !
On paper, mead is a simple fermented drink. Honey, water, yeast. Ferment and voila!
A luscious golden libation.
But beneath the veneer of simplicity, because crafting a tasty mead requires a bit more effort,
is not only a complex beverage, but one with a rich history. Call it a product of being one of the
oldest alcoholic beverages on the planet.
Mead or “honey-wine” is a fermented honey drink with water that has been produced for
thousands of years throughout Europe, Africa and Asia.
The Bell Beaker culture is an archaeological
culture named after the inverted-bell beaker
drinking vessel used for mead at the very
beginning of the European Bronze Age.
Sometimes it seems like mead gets the middle child treatment in a trio of alcoholic beverages,
with beer being the star athlete and wine a musical prodigy. In reality, mead might be older than
both of them, and its history is one of legacy and regality.
Mead’s exact birth will send enthusiasts and scholars rushing to the courtroom floor, but it's
safe to say that the oft-nicknamed the nectar of the Gods is as old as the gods
themselves. Or, at the very least, as old as the honey bee.
Ancient pottery found in both Asia and Europe suggests that mead has been around for the past
8,000 to 9,000 years. And given its short list of base ingredients, it’s certainly not difficult to imagine
ancient civilizations enjoying hearty glassfuls of mead.
Some historians suggest that mead
was discovered by accident! Honey mixed with water during a rainstorm, fermented via natural wild
yeasts, and produced something drinkable.
During the Golden Age of Ancient Greece, mead hydromeli proceeded wine and was
a stable beverage of Grecian culture. Hydromeli was even the preferred tipple of Aristotle, in
which he discussed mead in his Meteorologica.
Ancient Greeks honored Bacchus, long considered the God of Mead before the God of Wine. Evidence
of mead has also been traced to the sacred confines of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt, and the drink
frequently appears in popular literary works. It’s widely consumed in the epic poem Beowulf,
referenced in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and even shared by characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s
Lord of the Rings.
Mead aquamulsum or just mulsum was also common during the Imperial
Roman era and came in various forms. Mulsum was a freshly made mixture of wine and honey, called
a pyment today, or simply honey left in water to ferment; and conditum was a mixture of wine, honey
and spices made in advance and matured — arguably more a faux-mead).
Hispanic-Roman Mead Recipe
From Around 60 BCE
“Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a [Roman] 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 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rainwater, then boil spring
Mead became present in Europe between 2800 to 1800BC during the European Bronze Age. Throughout
this period, the Bell Beaker culture or short Beaker culture was producing the “All Over Ornamented” and
the “Maritime Type” beaker pottery. The beakers are suggested to have been produced primarily for
alcohol consumption, with some examples of these pottery forms containing chemical signatures for
Popular media has the world convinced that the Vikings drank mead like water. A bit of an exaggeration,
but it’s probable that everyone’s favorite Scandinavian raiders dabbled with mead making.
Known for their beekeeping practices, the Vikings would gather pure honey by placing honeycombs
in a cloth bag and allowing them to drain. Afterwards, these combs were crushed with the beehive
into water for a second-tier mead. Less in quality, but cheaper to produce.
The fact that the Vikings produced two different types of mead, with pure honey versions reserved only
for royalty, underscores why mead declined in popularity during the 1600s as it was too expensive to
make. Moreover, it was impossible to meet growing demands for honey. Extracting the substance from
honeycombs took time.
The earliest recorded evidence dates from 7000BC, where archaeologists discovered pottery vessels
from the Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province, China that contained the chemical
signatures of honey, rice and compounds normally associated with the process of fermentation.
Today, mead is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Brick-and-mortar meaderies are on the rise,
and the drink is a highlight of medieval festivals around the world.