Mead: A History

On paper, mead is a simple concoction. 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.

Ready for your history lesson?

Ancient Roots

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 its safe to say that the oft-nicknamed “nectar of the Gods” is as old as the Gods themselves. Or, at the very least, as old as the honeybee.

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. In fact, 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.

Talk about one heck of a discovery.

It’s the Bee’s Knees

Given bees’ connection to honey and mead’s necessity of the nutrient-rich substance, it’s no surprise that the histories of mead and bees are intertwined.

When there’s been bees, there’s been honey, and when there’s been honey, there’s been mead. While fermented honey was originally consumed on its own, it wasn’t long before it was deemed (by accident or not) an ingredient for alcohol production.

Mead’s endurance speaks for itself. 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.

 

The Vikings

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. Check out our full post on Viking mead here

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: it was too expensive to make. Moreover, it was impossible to meet growing demands for honey. Extracting the substance from honeycombs took time.

These complications combined with the growing popularity of beer and wine (both of which could consistently be made for cheaper) to render mead a drink to be remembered instead of routinely consumed.

A Legacy

Despite mead’s fall from popularity in the 1600s, it still remained a regal drink with an illustrious history. After all, how can one forget a beverage that single-handedly coined the term honeymoon? That’s right - it’s not just the one-week Hawaiian vacation with your hubby. Honeymoon came from the ancient tradition of giving newlywed’s a month’s worth (or moon cycle’s worth) of honey-wine. AKA: mead.

And there’s plenty of reason for the ancient Greeks referring to it as the “nectar of the Gods.” Be it the veritable medicinal functions (largely a product of the nutrient-rich honey) or its mystical capabilities of strength and wit, mead cemented its place atop the pedestal of alcoholic creation.

On the Upswing

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.

Some consider this “rebirth” a product of popular shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones, which aired its final season in 2019. Others, though, will tell you that it’s simply a matter of tradition. Mead is a royal beverage that proudly wears the tales of kings, queens, knights, and Vikings like medals of honor.

And who doesn’t want to feel like royalty every once in a while?

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