The History of Mead – When Was Mead Invented?
The history of mead may go back more than 8,000 years. The oldest known meads were created on the Island of Crete.
Wine had not yet been created. Mead was the drink of the Age of Gold, and the word for drunk in classical Greek remained “honey-intoxicated.”
Mead in Medieval Europe
Mead was once very popular in Northern Europe, often produced by monks in monasteries in areas where grapes could not be grown.
It faded in popularity, however, once wine imports became economical. Especially partial to it were the Slavs. In Polish it is called miód pitny (pronounced [mjut pi:tni]), meaning “drinkable honey”.
Mead was a favored drink among the Polish-Lithuanian szlachta (nobility). During the Crusades, Polish Prince Leszek I the White explained to the Pope that Polish knights could not participate in the Crusades because there was no mead in Palestine.
In Norse mythology, mead was the favorite drink of the Norse gods and heroes, e.g. in Valhalla, and the mead of the giant (Jotun) Suttung, made from the blood of Kvasir, was the source of wisdom and poetry.
The nectar and ambrosia of the Greek gods are often thought of as draughts of fermented honey.
In Russia, mead remained popular as medovukha and sbiten long after its popularity declined in the West. Sbiten is often mentioned in the works by 19th-century Russian writers, including Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Some beer producers attempt to revive sbiten’ as a mass-produced drink in Russia.
In Finland, a sweet mead called Sima (cognate with zymurgy), is still an essential seasonal brew 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.
Mead in Early History
Ethiopian mead is called tej and is usually home-made. It is flavored with the powdered leaves and bark of gesho, a hops-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.
Evidence exists that mead was also made in India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, and Central Africa. Mead is also mentioned in many old north Anglo-Saxon stories, including in the epic poem Beowulf, and in early Welsh poetry such as Y Gododdin.
The word “honeymoon” in English is supposedly traceable to the practice of a bride’s father dowering her with enough mead for a month-long celebration in honor of the marriage.
Mead in Modern Times
Mead is still manufactured in Britain, France, and various other locations, though the traditional status of most such manufacture is dubious.
One of the most famous producers is the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in North East England, where mead has been produced since Anglo-Saxon times.
Varieties of Mead
Mead can have a wide range of flavors, depending on the source of the honey, additives called “adjuncts” or “gruit” (including fruit and spices), yeast employed during fermentation, and aging procedure.
Mead can be difficult to find commercially, though some producers have been successful marketing it. Consumers must bear in mind that some producers have marketed white wine with added honey as mead, often spelling it “meade.”
Blended varieties of mead can be known by either style represented. For instance, a mead made with cinnamon and apples can be referred to as a cinnamon cyser or as an apple metheglin.
Some meads retain some measure of the sweetness of the original honey, and some can even be considered as dessert wines. Drier meads are also available, and some producers offer sparkling meads, which (like champagne) can make for a delightful celebratory toast.
There are a number of faux-meads, which are actually cheap wines with large amounts of honey added, to produce a cloyingly sweet liqueur. It has been said that “a mead that tastes of honey is as good as a wine that still tastes of grape”.
Historically, meads would have been fermented by wild yeasts and bacteria  residing on the skins of the fruit or within the honey itself. Wild yeasts generally provide inconsistent results, and in modern times various brewing interests have isolated the strains now in use.
Certain strains have gradually become associated with certain styles of mead. Mostly, these are strains that are also used in beer or wine production. Several commercial labs, such as White Labs, WYeast, Vierka, and others have gone so far as to develop strains specifically for mead.
Mead can also be distilled to a brandy or liqueur strength. Krupnik is a sweet Polish liqueur made through just such a process.
List of Mead Types
Different types of mead include, but are not limited to:
- Braggot – Braggot (also called bracket or brackett) marks the invention of Ale. Originally brewed with honey and hops, later with honey and malt – with or without hops added.
- Black mead – A name sometimes given to the blend of honey and black currants.
- Cyser – Cyser is a blend of honey and apple juice fermented together. See also cider.
- Great mead – Any mead that is intended to be aged several years, like vintage wine. The designation is meant to distinguish this type of mead from “short mead” (see below.)
- Hydromel – Hydromel literally means “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.
- Melomel – Melomel is made from honey and any fruit. Depending on the fruit-base used, certain melomels may also be known by more specific names (see cyser, pyment, morat for examples)
- Metheglin – Metheglin starts with traditional mead but has herbs and spices added. Some of the most common metheglins are ginger, tea, orange peel, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, or vanilla. Its name indicates that many metheglins were originally employed as folk medicines. (Though the Welsh word for honey is medd, the word “metheglin” actually derives from meddeglyn, a compound word comprised of meddyg, “healing” + llyn, “liquor”.)
- Morat – Morat blends honey and mulberries.
- Omphacomel – A medieval mead recipe that blends honey with verjuice; could therefore be considered a variety of pyment.
- Oxymel – Another historical mead recipe, blending honey with wine vinegar.
- Perry – Perry-mead blends honey with milled, ripe pears. (See entry for the modern drink Babycham.)
- Pyment – Pyment blends honey and 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 from the fortified dessert wine Sherry (which is sometimes sweetened after fermentation, and in England once bore the nickname of “sack”.)
- 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 – A term which has come to mean “plain” mead; that which has honey and water as a base, with no fruits, spices or extra flavorings. (Since honey alone does not provide enough nourishment for the yeast to carry on its life-cycle, a mead that is devoid of fruit, etc. will require a special yeast nutrient and other enzymes to produce an acceptable finished product.)
- Tej – Tej is an Ethiopian mead, fermented with wild yeasts (and bacteria), and with the addition of gesho. Recipes vary from family to family, with some recipes leaning towards braggot with the inclusion of grains.
- Mulsum – Mulsum is not a true mead, but is unfermented honey blended with a high-alcohol wine.
- Medovina – Macedonian (of the Republic of Macedonia) for mead. Unfortunately, very few people still brew this for their own consumption. It is not available commercially.
- Medovukha – Eastern Slavic variant, very alcoholic. In principle, a vodka with distilled honey addition.
- Półtorak – A Polish mead, made using two units of honey for each unit of water
- Dwójniak – A Polish mead, made using equal amounts of water and honey
- Trójniak – A Polish mead, made using two units of water for each unit of honey
- Czwórniak – A Polish mead, made using three units of water for each unit of honey
- Gverc or Medovina – Croatian mead prepared in Samobor and many other places. Word “gverc” or “gvirc” is from German “Gewürze” and it refers to different spices added to mead.