Meadmakers Corner: A History of Mead: A Tale Over 8 Millennia in the Making

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I often find that when I am a launching into a project, it can be very helpful to know the background and history of what I’m doing. So I’ve decided to begin with various notes about mead, and the natural starting point should be the history. We’ll take a look at how we came across this beverage and perhaps even a touch of how it has influenced the world that we are currently living in. So let’s go back a few years.

It Was a Way to Hide Honey


At its most basic level it is merely fermented honey. But that causes a bit of a problem. When bees make honey they keep it at a low enough water content that it won’t ferment, so it won’t go bad. That way they have a good source of honey for whatever lies ahead (Winter etc.). Honey has been found in Egyptian tombs that is still edible. Also if you take honey from a bee hive and have it out somewhere, the bees will come and take it back, most likely inflicting some stings in the process if you get in the way. Since our ancient counterparts didn’t have fancy squeeze jars that look like bears with tightly closed tops, they needed another way to keep the bees from retrieving the harvested honey.
Someone back about 8,000 years ago found that bees can’t find the honey if it is underwater. Also since the water is less dense then honey, the honey sinks to the bottom. Now you can have a jar full of honey out and the bees won’t take it away from you. Whenever some was needed all you had to do was reach in and pull some out. But this also raised the moisture level, and again without that air tight cap wild yeast were able to find their way to this honey water mixture. Imagine the surprise of the first person to reach in, thinking they would be merely pulling out some honey and find the first mead.

Ancient Drunken Gods


The first people that we have any record of having mead are the ancient Greeks. They referred to mead as Nectar of the Gods or Ambrosia. After having tasted this potent elixir they determined that this must be what their gods drank and that somehow the secret had been let out. This led to mead having a special place, being considered sacred and used in temples for rituals. There are some who have even put forth the idea that some of the prophets of Greece would make a mead mixed with slightly toxic (or perhaps mind altering) plants and consume it when it was time to enter into a prophetic state.
There are a number of themes there that repeat all over in regards to mead. In Norse mythology mead is a prize given to brave warriors by Valkyries when entering Valhalla. In Celtic mythology paradise featured a river of mead and the Anglo-Saxons believed that mead gave the drinker immortality. Through all of these cultures bees where viewed as messengers of their gods and mead continued to be a sacred drink, a treasure from those gods.

The Decline of Mead


The down side is that honey was expensive and harvests where not as much of a sure thing as crops such as grapes and barley. The grapes struck the first blow to the supremacy of mead. Grapes could be grown in many areas and after you got them established they would yield a fairly consistent harvest each year. This meant you could make wine consistently and less expensively than you could a mead.
However mead was still a special beverage. It became something that only royalty could afford to consume with any regularity. Of course it was still considered sacred and used in many religious customs. To be sure, the middle ages were a good time to be a mead maker if you could swing it. Some mead makers could receive about a third of the mead made for a client as their payment.
Though with such a small market, there were not many mead makers to go around. Also beekeepers found that they could just as easily sell their honey and wax without going through the process of making mead to sell. They undoubted would make some small amount for the home and that is how mead making continued to be passed along.

Don’t Call it a Comeback, Mead Has Been Here the Whole Time


Beekeeping is a growing hobby, so honey is easier to acquire than it ever was.
Of course in the 19th century there were a few updates in beekeeping. This allowed more people to easily keep bees as a hobby. And for the most part the way many now keep bees are mostly based those updates. But it simplified the process and didn’t destroy the hive to get anything out. This meant that there was an uptick in beekeepers and so there was more honey being harvested. Still honey was not cheap and so mead will have to remain a more expensive item than beer or wine, but many of those beekeepers would make mead for their family and friends.
As we have moved into modern times people have found ways to produce honey on a large enough scale that most everyone can afford to go to the store and pick some up. Sure, it may still be more expensive to make a batch of mead than a batch of your favorite ale, but when compared to the cost at points in the past when only the king could afford it, we have it good.
Now that we have a basic idea of where it came from, next time we can look at making some and perhaps even adding in a bit of spices to have a grand holiday beverage.
 

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