Historically, mead is the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man. The Romans knew it as Hydromel, later Latin had it as Muslum. Old Swedish has it as Mjod and the ancient Welsh as Medd. Metheglin is also Welsh being a mead flavoured with herbs and spices, the word derives from old Welsh ‘healing potion’.
When homo-sapiens first made its presence felt on this planet, walking upright without dragging its knuckles on the ground, it looked for things to make its daily grind a little less fraught. The accidental discovery of fermenting fruit and honey sugars to produce alcohol was very early in prehistory and the consequent development of fermentation knowledge came with it.
Alcoholic beverages have been known and enjoyed for many thousands of years. Their protective, preventative, hygienic and sterile properties (apart from enjoyment factor) were well known on battlefields ancient and not so ancient. Beer was consumed in preference to water in Victorian times as being safer, purer, free from contaminants, bacteria’s and other nasties that would be found in drinking water then and equally so now.
Hippocrates the Greek (lived about 400BC on the Greek island of Kos) – he who laid down the basic rules that all doctors abide by (the Hippocratic Oath) – used wine for headaches (to cure, not cause), for sciatic pain, for heart and circulation, as an antiseptic when dressing wounds, to give strength to convalescents, as a sedative. The ancient Egyptians drank beer (made from old bread and called “heck”) and regarded it as something of a religious beverage and held it in great reverence.
Mead was certainly being produced prior to 7,000 BC, made from fermenting honey with water. Early fermentations, being uncertain and crude, resulted in beverages that varied in alcohol content from about 2% to whatever the fermentable sugars could support, maybe more than 20%. You can see why fighting soldiers, Vikings and suchlike were keen on drinking mead rather then ale or beer where the brewing process led to beverages with alcoholic contents less than 10%. High alcohol beers have been made from ferments where extra sugar has been added, (same goes for wine, the process being called chaptalisation), the fermentable sugars from grain are relatively weak, producing an ale or ‘wash’ of perhaps 3 – 8%, the fermentable sugars derived from honey are strong, honey being 70% sugar.
Mead was produced in ancient history throughout Europe, Africa and Asia and was said to be the preferred drink of ancient Greece. Aristotle (300 BC or thereabouts) was a mead enthusiast, and the accident-prone Roman Pliny the Elder (he got too close to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD) differentiated, in one of his written works on agriculture, about wine sweetened with honey and how it differed from mead. The Roman naturalist Columella gave a recipe for mead in about 60 AD as follows (this translation into English stems from Victorian times)
‘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 rain water, then boil spring water’. Rainwater kept for several years must have been alive; perhaps this added to the flavour.
Mead has played an important role in ancient beliefs and mythology and is featured in myths and folklore as well as in works that draw on these myths. It is often featured in books using a historical sort of Germanic/heroic/pitched battle/Daniel versus Goliath/ good versus evil/ prehistoric High-Noon confrontational settings; notable examples include books by J.R.R.Tolkien, Charles Ludwidge Dodgson and similar. Charles Ludwidge Dodgson was a Victorian academic in Oxford (as was the much later Tolkien) who, as a hobby, wrote fantasy books for children under the name of Lewis Carrol. “Alice in Wonderland” contains many weird and wonderful characters who could well be befuddled by intakes of mead, never mind going mad because of mercury. The Mad Hatter was so inflicted because of the use of mercury in the hat making process.
Mead features In Viking writings, and cinema, such as The 13th Warrior (Antonio Banderas) where the consumption of alcohol (mead and ale) was copious in the extreme; Viking sagas starring Kirk Douglas and others, portrayed alcohol fuelled battles and ceremonies. Vikings going into battle were regarded as being “berserk”, alcoholically stupified and, as a consequence of their drinking, semi naked or without their shirt – “no shirt” becomes “ber-serk” in old Norse. In the Scots dialect, the Norse “serk” becomes “sark” and a “cutty sark” is a short shirt or chemise which became the name of the famous Scottish built Clipper Ship, the Cutty Sark. The figurehead on the ship depicts the witch Nan from Robert Burn’s Tam O’Shanter, wearing her short shirt, her ‘cutty-sark’.
TYPES OF MEAD
Metheglin: Metheglin is traditional Welsh mead with herbs or spices added. Some of the most common metheglin flavours are ginger, tea, orange peel, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla. Many metheglins were originally employed as folk medicines.
Sack mead is mead made with a richer honey base, the finished product having higher-than-average alcohol. Meads at or above 14% are generally considered to be of sack strength and often retains a high level of sweetness, although dry sack meads, which have no residual sweetness, can be produced. Dry Sack is also a Sherry term, particularly that fine dry amontillado Sherry produced by Williams and Humbert named Dry Sack.
Short mead: Also called “quick mead”. A type of fast maturing mead for immediate consumption. Because of the techniques used in its creation, short mead has much in common with cider being naturally petillant or slightly fizzy.
Gosnells, London’s first meadery, gives us a delicious modern take on the age-old drink.