The exact date when mead production was begun has been lost to history. Many scholars believe that the honey wine called mead was the first fermented beverage, pre-dating even the cultivation of the soil. Evidence shows that it was developed independently, in one form or another, in virtually every area of ancient civilization.
Archaeological excavations have found evidence of mead production dating to approximately 7000 B.C. Pottery shards and vessels have been found in China that showed evidence of mead and fruits as well as compounds produced by fermentation. By 2400 B.C., the fermentation of mead had spread to Europe. In fact, the “Bell Beaker Culture” named for its unique style of pottery may have developed its unique beakers for consuming mead, since trace elements have been found in many of the vessels. These beakers have been found in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, England, and most countries in Europe.
The written record begins around 1700 B.C. with Rig-Veda hymns dating to that period. The ancient Greeks seemed to prefer mead to all other beverages, and Aristotle wrote about it during the fourth century B.C. Pliny the Elder discussed it in his writings of the first century A.D., during which Columella penned a recipe for the drink. During the sixth century A.D., the poet Taliesin composed the “Song of Mead.” The beverage was also mentioned in “Y Gododdin,” a poem dating to about 700 A.D. and in the epic “Beowulf.”
The brewing of mead developed in so many isolated areas at different time periods that there are numerous variations found. Mead can be carbonated or still, sweet or dry, and as alcoholic as strong wine or mild beer. It may contain spices, grain mash, honey, hops, or fruit. Every location and many individuals have developed their own special recipes for brewing mead.
High taxes and government regulations led to a decline in the popularity of commercially brewed mead during the nineteenth century. One exception was the Yuletide mulled mead, a drink with added spices and fruits served warm. In recent times, it has again become a beverage of interest in the western world. However, in some countries, homemade mead has continued to be popular, with techniques and recipes handed down through the generations.
In Finland, the May Day festival is still linked to mead. A sweet brew is normally spiced with the rind and pulp of lemons. Raisins added during the second fermentation act to control the sugars and to gauge when the mead is ready, since they will begin to float when ageing is complete. In Ethiopia, mead is normally made with a type of buckthorn that serves as ersatz hops. A sweeter version with a lower alcohol content is also brewed. Russian authors, such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, mention mead often in their works, proving that it was still a popular beverage in Russia far longer than in the western world.
In the past, mead was made by fermenting the bacteria and wild yeasts present in the honey or on the fruit rinds. This led to unpredictable results, since wild yeasts are not consistent. Modern brewers have managed to isolate specific strains for the production of mead. Special mead yeasts tend to produce a less bitter brew.
Historically, mead has been made that had a variety of flavors. The honey’s source, spices and fruits added, the yeast, and the method of aging all impact the final taste. Among the spices and herbs that have been used are nutmeg, ginger, cloves, lavender, hops, cinnamon, and oregano. The most common fruits used were strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, although grapes have sometimes been used as well. Other variations of mead have included the addition of maple syrup, malt, chili peppers, and juniper berries. Acorns, vanilla, and mace have also been used.
Mead recipes have been developed to allow for different aging periods. Short mead or quick mead is aged quickly and can be consumed almost immediately. At the other end of the spectrum are the great meads, which are aged for several years. Many cultures in history have produced both types during the same time period, while others have focused on brewing only one or the other.
Contrary to popular belief, early man seldom produced alcoholic beverages for the sole purpose of intoxication. Some civilizations reserved mead for priests and leaders, who felt that drinking it opened their minds to the unseen world. As people began crowding together into more urban settings, the ground water often became polluted. Fermented beverages were much safer to drink. Today, mead is prized for its variety and taste as well as for its rich history as the forerunner of all alcoholic beverages.