Posted by: oysterculture | June 5, 2009

Mead: sweet, sweet nectar

photo from bunitedint.com

photo from bunitedint.com

Mead is a fermented beverage also know as “honey wine” because that is frequently made where grapes are not grown and has the simple ingredients of  water and yeast.  Although, mead is not technically a wine.  It has a long history and has been the stuff of legends, literally having been featured in Beowoulf.  Mead’s alcoholic content ranges from the equivalent of a mild ale to a strong wine. It may be still or flat, carbonated, or sparkling.  It runs the gamut from dry, semi-sweet, or sweet.  If you want to know what to look for when you sample mead, Michael Hall developed a treatise on mead tasting.

The diversity of this beverage is as endless as the possible combinations, depending on local traditions and recipes, it may be brewed with spices and fruits, or flavored with hops producing a bitter, beer-like flavor.  The type of honey also has a significant impact on the flavor and color of the final product.

History

photo from homebrew.com

photo from homebrew.com

Mead, while not necessarily a world traveler enjoys consumption and recognition on a global scale.  While its exact origins are unknown, its consumption has been documented in ancient times from Europe to Africa to Asia.  “It can be regarded as the ancestor of all fermented drinks,” Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat has observed, “antedating the cultivation of the soil.”  Claude Lévi-Strauss makes a case for the invention of mead as a marker of the passage “from nature to culture”. 

Archaeological evidence of mead production back to around 7000 BC, with pottery containing a mix of mead, rice and other fruits along with organic fermentation compounds in Northern China.

The first known description of mead is in the hymns of the Rigveda, a sacred books of the historical Vedic religion and (later) Hinduism dated around 1700–1100 BC. During the “Golden Age” of Ancient Greece, mead was the preferred drink.  Aristotle (384–322 BC) mentions mead in a few places including Meteorologica, while Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) called mead “militites” in his tomb Naturalis Historia and differentiated wine sweetened with honey or “honey-wine” from mead.  Columella the Roman-Hispanic naturalist, gave a recipe for mead in De re rustica, about AD 60.  Around AD 550, the Cumbric bard, Taliesin wrote the Kanu y med or “Song of Mead.”  The legendary drinking, feasting and boasting of warriors in the mead hall is echoed in the mead hall Dyn Eidyn (modern day Edinburgh)proves to be a recurring theme.  In Russia, mead remained popular as medovukha and sbiten long after its decline in popularity in the West, amd was often mentioned in the works of 19th-century Russian writers, including Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Mead also has a romantic history to it, having lent itself to the word “honeymoon” as a tradition started to give newlywed couples a supply of mead to last them 31 one days, or one moon’s supply to allow them to relax. 

photo from chestofbooks.com

photo from chestofbooks.com

Mead has a wide swath of flavors, depending on the source of the honey, additives (also known as “adjuncts” or “gruit”), including fruit and spices, the yeast employed during fermentation, and aging procedure.  Some commercial producers market white wine and honey as mead, often spelling it “meade”, a variation on the Hypocras style. Blended varieties of mead may be known by either style they represent, there is no rule of thumb, for example, a mead made with cinnamon and apples may be referred to as either a cinnamon cyser or an apple metheglin.

Mulled mead is a popular drink around Christmas, when it is flavored with spices and sometimes fruits and warmed.  Traditionally, warming involved the plunging of a hot poker, but if you do not have one handy, the microwave or stovetop do nicely.

Mead variants

Braggot — AKA bracket or brackett. Originally brewed with honey and hops, later with honey and malt — may have hops added. 

Black mead — A name sometimes given to the blend of honey and blackcurrants.

Capsicumel  – A mead flavored with chile peppers.

Cyser — A blend of honey and apple juice fermented together; see also cider.

Great mead — Any mead that is intended to be aged several years. The designation is meant to distinguish this type of mead from “short mead” (see below).

Krupnik  –  An example of mead made to a brandy, or liqueur strength, and is a sweet Polish liqueur made through such a process.  A version of this called “honey jack” can be made by partly freezing a quantity of mead and pouring off the liquid without the ice crystals (a process known as freeze distillation), similar to the method that applejack is made from cider.

Medovukha — Eastern Slavic variant (honey-based fermented drink)

Melomel — A generic name for mead made from honey and any fruit. Depending on the fruit-used, certain melomels may also be known by more specific names (cyser, pyment, morat).  This process served as an early form of fruit preservation. 

 

metheglin (photo from recipeezaar.com)

metheglin (photo from recipezaar.com)

 

Metheglin — Metheglin starts with traditional mead but has herbs and/or spices added. Some of the most common metheglins are ginger, tea, orange peel, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, cloves or vanilla.  Other additions include oregano, lavender and chamomile.   Its name indicates that many metheglins were originally employed as folk medicines. The Welsh word for mead is medd, and the word “metheglin” derives from meddyglyn, a compound of meddyg, “healing” + llyn, “liquor”.

Morat — A blend of honey and mulberries.

Mulsum — Mulsum is not a true mead, but is unfermented honey blended with a high-alcohol wine.

Omphacomel — A medieval blend of honey with verjuice

 

photo from andrewgough.co.uk

photo from andrewgough.co.uk

Oxymel — Another historical mead recipe, blending honey with wine vinegar.

Pitarrilla — Mayan drink made from a fermented mixture of wild honey, balche tree bark and fresh water.

Pyment — A blend of  honey and the fermented juice of red or white grapes. Pyment made with white grape juice is sometimes called “white mead.”

Rhodomel — Rhodomel is made from honey, rose hips, petals or rose attar and water.

Sack mead — This refers to mead that is made with more copious amounts of honey than usual. The finished product retains an extremely high specific gravity and elevated levels of sweetness. It derives its name, according to one theory, from the fortified dessert wine Sherry (which is sometimes sweetened after fermentation and once bore the nickname “sack”), while another theory is its name was acquired from the Japanese drink sake, being introduced by Spanish and Portuguese traders.

Short mead — Also called “quick mead”. A type of mead recipe that is meant to age quickly, for immediate consumption. Because of the techniques used in its creation, short mead shares some qualities found in cider (or even light ale): primarily that it is effervescent, and often has a cidery taste.  

Show mead — Refers to “plain” mead with a honey and water base, no fruits, spices or extra flavorings. Since honey alone often does not provide enough nourishment for the yeast to carry on its lifecycle, a mead that is devoid of fruit, etc. will sometimes require a special yeast nutrient and other enzymes to produce an acceptable finished product.  

Sima – a sweet mead connected with the Finnish Vappu (May Day) festival. It is usually spiced by adding both the pulp and rind of a lemon. During secondary fermentation, raisins are added to control the amount of sugars and to act as an indicator of readiness for consumption; they will rise to the top of the bottle when the drink is ready.

 

Tej (photo from travelblog.org)

Tej (photo from travelblog.org)

Tej — Tej is an Ethiopian mead, fermented with wild yeasts (and bacteria), and with the addition of the powdered leaves and bark of gesho, a hop-like bittering agent which is a species of buckthorn. A sweeter, less-alcoholic version called berz, aged for a shorter time, is also made. The traditional vessel for drinking tej is a rounded vase-shaped container called a berele.

Mead Names in Other Countries

(Note if the description had other enhancements to the mead, I left it in the varieties section)

Chouchenn – A mead made in Brittany

Czwórniak — A Polish mead, made using three units of water for each unit of honey

Dwójniak – A Polish mead made using equal amounts of water to honey

Gverc or Medovina —  A Croatian mead. The word “gverc” or “gvirc” is from the German “Gewürze” and refers to the added spices.

Hydromel — Literally “water-honey” in Greek. It is also the French name for mead. (Compare with the Spanish hidromiel and aquamiel, Italian idromele and Portuguese hidromel). It is also used as a name for a very light or low-alcohol mead.

iQhilika – A mead made by the Xhosa of South Africa.

Medica — Slovenian variety of mead

Medovina — Czech, Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian, and Slovak for mead. Commercially available in Czech Republic, Slovakia and presumably other Central and Eastern European countries.

Półtorak — A Polish mead

Trójniak — A Polish mead, made using two units of water for each unit of honey.  

 

Wassail!

“Wassail” is a toast, an expression of good will, much as a beer drinker might offer “Prosit” or “Cheers”. The word derives from Old Norse through Middle English, and means “be healthy”. A modern German cognate would be “wacht heil.” The dictionary lists two pronunciations (wahs’ul, wah-sale’).

 

New Blog Update:  Its looking good, but taking longer than anticipated.  I lost the ability to have pictures on the front page, which is no fun.  I disregarded the rule of programming of only makiung one change at a time: I added several plug-ins in one go.  So I continue to chug along, and apologize for the lack of activity, but hope to have something to show for my efforts soon!

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Responses

  1. Very informative, thank you very much!!

  2. I was introduced to mead a few years ago at a bonfire party on the beach on a cold and windy night on an SF beach. It was delicious. The soles of my shoes melted that night because I left them too close to the fire. I was in honey heaven and didn’t care.

  3. Interesting! Next time, my mulled mead must be heated with a hot poker!

  4. I’ve never had honey wine, but I have heard of it. That’s a pretty neat look at the history of it.

  5. Wow this is more info on honey wine than I’ll ever MEAD! But I appreciate your scholarly pursuits nonetheless. What kind of hangover must you have! GREG

  6. This would be a nice addition to recipes…or other cocktails.

  7. I want to try Mead now! It sounds so delicious especially the apple and fruit flavored ones.

  8. I’ve yet to try mead. And who knew there were so many different kinds. I’ll have to try one soon, so that I can get to all the different ones.

  9. Great info! When we were in New Zealand we tried a mead made of manuka honey – it was pretty incredible!

  10. haha, that’s funny. as soon as I read the word “mead” I was thinking of Beowulf! But ignorant me, I had no idea there were so many different kinds of mead from all over the world!

  11. Burpexcuzme – Me too! 😉 Its like an instant connection between that story and mead. The varieties of mead are a bit awe inspiring, but I you can never say, “I’ve tried one mead, I’ve tried them all.”

    Natasha – We had the manuka honey when we were in NZ and I can only guess how tasty the mead was you consumed. The honey was phenomenal.

    Carolyn – Better start, I sense a book in the works with all the tastings. My internet research convinced me that there some passionate souls out there.

    Reeni – I want mead now – too! 🙂 I agree the apple and fruit versions sounded lovely.

    Duo – The possibilities are endless in your creative hands.

    Greg – I did not want you to think I had shortchanged you in anyway. I am typing this in a darkened room, the better to squint at the screen. 😉

  12. B+B – Thanks, I suspect you might like it.

    Lisa – I’m with you, I felt compelled to dash to Sur La Table to see if they carried said poker.

    Gastroanthropologist – Phew! I thought I was the only one that did something like that. My soles did not completely melt, but it was obvious they suffered some untold damage of some sort, and the questions I got as a result. I’d love to have experienced my first mead at a bonfire on what I assume was Ocean Beach. What a neat experience that must have been.

    KennyT – Thanks!

  13. Very interesting post! You have great info in your blog and I enjoy reading every post.
    Thank you.

  14. A post loaded with great info as always. The idea of honey wine already sounds delicious, but the variants you’ve listed sound even more so. I’d be interested in trying the Capsicumel — I love the combination of hot and sweet.

  15. What an interesting post! I have never heard from this before,…So I will be on the lookout for it! Thanks so much!

  16. I never knew that there were so many different kinds of meads (though I shouldn’t be surprised, given how long it has been around). There are several in there that I would be keen to try – the capcisumel and cyser are top of the list!

  17. Meads are one area I am not savvy…but I have tasted a few good ones…we attend wine tastings and I am about to host one in august, and I thought about making something with mead…Nice post!

  18. Chef E – Meads, I think deserve another look, especially when you consider the seemingly infinite possibilities.

  19. We brought some home from our trip to Ireland – our own little late honeymoon! Wouldn’t mind going back for more.

  20. TN – Ireland is suppose to be a big producer of mead. If Mom and I have room in our luggage, I’ll see if we can squeeze a bottle in. Hope the paper writing is going well.

  21. really wonderful article! if you are ever in Ohio, come visit for a taste of our meads and a tour of our production space. We’d love to connect over a drink with you! Wassail!


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