WHAT IS MEAD?
Mead is a honey based alcoholic beverage, like wine and beer. Whereas wine converts grape sugar into alcohol, mead converts honey into alcohol. Like other beverages, Mead can also be distilled or fortified to craft Brandy and Liquor, however, I’m sticking with the Mead variety.
Mead comes in two main varieties; the Melomels, which are the fruit infused mead, and the Metheglins, which are herb or spice infused mead. However, the addition of specific ingredients created a whole lot of sub categories.
For a mead to be a melomel, it must contain at least one fruit in its Must. Citrus fruits provide a natural supply of citric acid to aid yeast cultivation, so I add oranges in small quantity to the Must regardless of the category.
I would like to point out that there’s a difference between the terms Fruit Flavored and Fruit Infused. Fruit Flavored refers to when fruit are added to the fermenting Must in either the middle or last phase of its fermentation in order to extract specific amount of flavor from the fruit to add its taste. Fruit Infused, however, refers to when fruit are included in the Must recipe from the start, thus bonding its flavors to the mead itself, and a completely different and unique taste is obtained.
Melomels are usually identified by adapting the name of the fruit used to create it, for example: a pear melomel, a plum melomel, and a melon melomel tell us directly what fruit was used to craft it, although, the brewer usually names his melomels.
There are melomels that became so popular that specific names ware given to them, such examples include:
- The Cycer (apple melomel)
- The Pyment (grape melomel)
- The Bilbemel (blue-black berry melomel)
- The Rubamel (rasberry melomel)
- The Perry (pear melomel)
And much more.
Metheglins are slightly more complex to craft and good knowledge of spices and herbs is required, because, these have their own specific characteristics and properties. Some are suitable to be infused in a Must, while, others are suitable only to extract the flavor. Some can be left in the Must for months, and others for days, depending on the strength of the spices or herbs used.
Among these spices and herbs, the most popular and commonly used are; cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, ginger etc. But some metheglins can be crafted from native and even rare herbs, which makes them quite costly to buy.
Metheglins usually include fruits, fruit juice or zest in their recipe as well. A lot of world famous metheglins include fruits in their recipe in fact. Unlike melomels, metheglins are given more elaborate names, usually with historical backgrounds and traditional significance behind them.
Such famous metheglins are:
- The Barenfang: literally means “bear catcher”, which originated in East Prussia.
- The Braggot: a hops infused mead, with slight bitter taste of beer.
- The Dandaghare: a metheglin from Nepal, which contains Himalayan herbs.
- The Gverc: a Croatian metheglin with native Croatian spices.
- The Rhodomel: a rose hips or rose petals infused metheglin.
- The Gulepp liquor: a metheglin from Malta, made from carob honey, and local herbs.
And much, much more.
HISTORY AND ORIGINS
Throughout history, mead was always renowned and popular with both the nobles and the royalty to the peasants and the workers. In manuscripts from all over the world there’s mead mentioned someplace, from the Far East, to Europe and Africa, and all the way up to America.
Early Historic Records
Mead goes back to around 5000 BC, and its believed to be the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man due to the availability of honey. Probably, mead was discovered by huntsmen who while on a hunting trip came across a beehive submerged in water with fermented honey and drank from it, and thus mead was discovered.
From Greek manuscripts, honey and mead were believed to hold a divine connection to the ancient Gods and that they had mystical properties. Beekeeping, in fact, may have originated from there. Temple priests kept beehives as an honor to the Gods and the honey produced was utilized in various ways, including mead brewing. In turn, all honey products produced were sold to the people for a reasonable price. The Romans use to trade using mead, house lords would offer their best mead to other house lords as a sign of good faith. The sweeter and refined the mead was, the greater recognition the house lord obtained.
Up in the North, mead had a special place for the Norse. It was endlessly used during festive ritual gatherings and as medicine. It was believed by the Norse that the fallen warriors who go to Valhalla would be rewarded the best Mead for their bravery by the Norse gods. It was also responsible for the creation of the Honeymoon festivities newly weds enjoy today. Back then, the tradition was that a newly wed couple would drink mead everyday for a month in order the increase the woman’s fertility and conception chances. If the wife got pregnant within that month’s time, the brewer would get special recognition and better business.
Hence why the term Honey-moon, it referred to the time needed for the moon to complete a cycle and to the consummation of mead for fertility.
The Medieval Times
In medieval times, mead was still quite a popular beverage, but as fashions changed, so did the demand for mead, and with the discovery of grapes and wine, mead had some competition to keep up with. Mead production was still good, however, people started to craft other beverages composed of honey, and this gave birth to the Pyments, the Hippocras, and the Metheglins.
Pyments were designed by amateurs who wanted a shot at wealth and popularity by selling honey based concoctions to “heal” specific alignments and illnesses, but mostly to bitter ends with severe consequences. These beverages became a get-drunk-quick drinks for peasant drunkards to enjoy. Pyments, nowadays, is the category name given to all the mead-wine hybrids in production. There are pyments that survived from those times, among these is the famous Queen Elizabeth’s Mead, which was a horrendous beverage that was crafted in the name the queen. Later, this beverage was refined and improved and over the years it become quite a renowned pyment that every mead lover would enjoy.
Hippocras and Metheglins originated during the middle ages as well. The Hippocras dates back to ancient Greece. It was designed by the famous Greek priest- physician Hippocrates, who studied the properties of various herbs and spices, and, infused them with honey and grapes to craft specific pyments for medicinal purposes. All his research was then used by medieval physicians to prescribe hippocras to their patients as medicine. Metheglins, trace their origins to Wales, where the word Metheglin literally means medicine in Welsh. Like Hippocras, Metheglins were beverages crafted out of honey and herbs to create medicines to cure minor and major alignments. Trying to combine the various properties of honey and herbs, these physicians manage to craft actual remedies and even nowadays, some metheglins are renounced to have specific effects on us.
Mead also has an abundant rich history in medieval legends. The most famous amongst these is the Irish legend of St. Brigitte. It was said that when the King of Leinster visited her, they ran out of beverages to drink, and so, she took a large barrel of water and turned it to mead, similar to the biblical story of Kana. Nowadays, this saint is considered to be the patron saint of mead and wine brewers in Ireland.
The Napoleonic era
During the Napoleonic wars, mead was still in production and in fact there was a mead similar to an ale, because, hops was part of its recipe thus more of a beer crossover then a mead.
Back then sugar was still quite expansive to acquire, making honey the official sweetener used by the majority and so was mead production. The war brought with it the need for inns and taverns to constantly replenish their mead stock alongside ale and cider. This increased demand, and so mead was constantly being produced. Until the 18th century, mead and honey were still popular, but with the opening of the sugar cane plantations in the West Indies, sugar became available in bulks for purchase, and this brought with it the downfall of honey and all related beverages that utilised it, including mead.
Honey prices were going up and so was mead, and since it became cheaper to produce malt beer then mead, then obviously malt beer became the popular drink on the streets, putting the guillotine on mead nearly to elimination. It is thanks to the armatures who kept the hobby of mead brewing that mead and all its related products survived.
To conclude our history lesson, mead exists nowadays thanks to the perseverance and love by the brewers that still wanted to brew it back than. It is thanks to them, that we’re still enjoying this beverage today.