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A history of Mead

By: Dark Rock Brewing Team

Home brew beer and wine-making experts
A history of Mead

Throughout history, humans have had an enduring love affair with beverages that lift the spirits and tantalise the taste buds. Among the oldest known fermented beverages is mead, a drink that has captivated civilizations for centuries. Mead has a rich and storied past that weaves through diverse cultures across the globe.

What is Mead?

We get asked a lot if mead is beer or wine, and technically, it’s neither. To be a beer, the sugar from malted grain is fermented into alcohol. A Wine ferments the sugar from fruits. As mead uses the sugar from honey, it’s a category all on its own. And let’s not forget that because the flowers bees visit help create variations in the flavour of honey, each and every mead can be unique too. Try clover honey with its light golden colour, to give the slightest hint of cinnamon notes or buckwheat honey for a dark robust almost molasses flavour. And of course, if you can get it, local wildflower honey will be distinct to your area too.

There are endless recipes that combine the best of the mead flavour with wine and beer-making techniques too. In Lithuania, they use grains and honey to make “Midus” a slightly bitter, medium-sweet drink that uses honey, grains and fruits and herbs.

Making mead

Mead is at its heart a very simple brewing recipe, which makes it a great brew to experiment with.

You only need a very basic set of equipment to have a go – sanitiser, a large pan to heat water, a demijohn and a bung and valve are pretty much all you need.

But, the easiest way to start making Mead is with a craft mead makers kit.

This kit contains everything you need to produce three different styles of mead so you can test the differences for yourself, or if you know your favourite – three gallons of one.

We’ve carefully paired the yeast to get the best flavour and all you need to do is add your preferred honey to begin your journey back in time.

Top kit tip: Add spices and fruits or try a Metheglin (spiced mead) recipe.

The origin of mead

Mead’s origins are shrouded in the mists of time, making it difficult to pinpoint its exact birthplace. It is believed to have emerged independently in various ancient civilizations. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Norse societies all embraced mead as a symbol of divine power and a drink for celebration. In Norse mythology, mead was even thought to grant immortality and poetic inspiration.

During the medieval period, mead-making flourished throughout Europe. Monasteries played a significant role in preserving the art of brewing and refining mead recipes. Monks cultivated honey and developed innovative brewing techniques, transforming mead into a refined and cherished beverage. Its popularity grew among the nobility and common folk alike.

Mead across the world

Mead, known as honey wine in many cultures, expanded beyond Europe’s borders.

In Africa, the indigenous mead-like beverages Tej (Ethiopia) and Búza (Sudan) have a long history. In Asia, the Chinese and Korean versions, known as “Mejus,” offered even more unique flavours and variations.

Additionally, the production of mead spread to the Americas, where Native American tribes developed their own recipes using local honey and fruits.

Bottles of Ethiopian Tej in "berele" bottles
Ethiopian Tej in “berele” bottles.

The Renaissance period brought significant advancements in trade, exploration, and the sharing of knowledge. These developments introduced new ingredients and flavours into mead production, such as spices and fruits.

British mead

Mead is entwined in the history of Britain. This ancient drink, often referred to as the “nectar of the gods,” weaved its way into the tapestry of British history, leaving behind a legacy that would be cherished for centuries.

The origins of mead in Britain can be traced back to the days of the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons. These early inhabitants of the land had a deep connection with nature and revered the honeybee as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. It was through their admiration for these industrious insects that they discovered the sweet elixir they called mead.

In those early times, honey was a precious commodity, and its scarcity made mead a drink reserved for the privileged few. It was often enjoyed by the noble classes and served during feasts and celebrations. The production of mead became an art form, with skilled mead makers using their expertise to create unique and flavoursome brews.

As time went on, mead became an integral part of British culture and folklore. Legends and stories emerged, depicting mead as a mystical potion with healing properties and the ability to bring joy and merriment to those who indulged. In the Arthurian legends, it was said that the great King Arthur himself was conceived after his father, Uther Pendragon, imbibed a potion of mead.

Medieval mead

During the medieval period, mead production reached its peak in Britain. Monasteries and Abbeys became centres of brewing excellence, with monks perfecting their craft and producing mead for both religious ceremonies and daily consumption. The honey used in mead production was often harvested from the hives maintained by the monastic communities, further solidifying the connection between the drink and the spiritual realm.

The popularity of mead continued to grow, and it became a staple beverage for all walks of life. It was enjoyed by farmers, soldiers, and explorers alike, providing sustenance and refreshment during long and arduous journeys. Mead halls, large gathering places where people would come together to drink and revel, sprang up across the country, fostering a sense of community and camaraderie.

A medieval reenactor drinking mead
A medieval reenactor drinking mead in a traditional glass.

Mead’s popularity

As time passed, mead began to lose its prominence. The introduction of other beverages, such as beer and wine, brought competition to the market, and mead slowly faded into obscurity. It became a drink associated with the past, confined to the annals of history and forgotten by many.

In recent decades, mead has experienced a remarkable resurgence. Craft Meaderies around the world have embraced traditional techniques while experimenting with flavours, styles, and ingredients. This renaissance has been fuelled by a growing interest in artisanal beverages, the rise of the craft brewing movement, and a desire to rediscover ancient traditions.

Mead’s comeback

Today, mead is once again being enjoyed by a new generation of enthusiasts. Its rich history and unique taste have captivated the palates of connoisseurs and the curious alike. From traditional meads made solely from honey to creative concoctions infused with fruits, spices, and herbs, the possibilities are endless.

As you raise a glass of mead, you become a part of the storied history that stretches back through the ages. You are reminded of the ancient traditions, the laughter of long-gone feasts, and the joy that comes from sharing a drink with friends and loved ones. In every sip, you taste the sweet memories of Britain’s mead heritage, a testament to the enduring allure of this remarkable beverage.

In conclusion, mead, the ancient and timeless beverage, has persevered through the annals of history, enchanting countless civilizations with its golden elixir. From the mystic rituals of ancient cultures to the cosy halls of medieval monasteries, mead has left an indelible mark on humanity’s collective memory. Today, as we witness its resurgence and reinvention, mead continues to captivate our senses and remind us of the beauty and artistry inherent in one of the oldest fermented drinks.

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