A drink for the ages

Following last issue’s special focus on mead, Christopher Mullins got in touch to right a few historical wrongs...

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As the sole employee of The Rookery – Craft Mead, I often get asked, “So, what is mead?”. I mean, I get asked this a lot. I might answer this question three or four hundred times in a weekend, so I’m probably really well placed to write this article. So here goes. Ready?

Mead is fermented honey.

There. You are now an expert on mead.

It really is this simple. Honey, left to its own devices, is trying to become mead. Honey is hygroscopic; it draws moisture in from the atmosphere. Because of this, bees and humans put a lot of effort into keeping the moisture content of their honey down. Otherwise, honey becomes a food source for all the lovely yeasts in the environment, resulting in mead.

Honey-bees first appear in the fossil record around 34 million years ago and so mead is probably about this old. Once humans came along, they realised how amazing honey was, and we have depictions of wild honey harvesting as far back as 10,000 years ago (Valencia cave paintings). Inevitably, Neolithic honey gatherers may have come across a damaged or deserted hive with fermented honey, and this is probably how humans first got drunk. About a day later, we have the first hangover.

This was probably fine, until someone ran out of mead. People learned how to recreate the conditions of the damaged hive, and we started making our own mead. The earliest evidence of a deliberate fermentation comes from Northern China (you thought it was going to be Cornwall, didn’t you) about 8,500 years ago, where residue evidence suggests a fermentation of honey, rice and fruits. Indeed, we find mead in the archæological record of almost every part of the planet, with European cultures such as the Neolithic Bell Beaker People, Ancient Greeks and Romans, and Celts and, of course, Vikings all being synonymous and intertwined with the story of mead. All before the monks got their hands on it!

I like to think that the magic potion brewed by Getafix the Druid that got Asterix through his adventures may well have been a little bit honey based. Joking aside, there may be some truth in this. Just looking at mead in Scotland, we see evidence of brewing as far back as 5,000 years ago with evidence of malting taking place at the Barnhouse site on Orkney. There are several finds of pottery with residue suggesting a brew of cereals, honey, flowers, tree saps and other plant elements, including the occasional hallucinogenic substance. Remember when I mentioned Getafix...

By the time we get to the Mediæval period, we see Vikings marauding across the globe, fuelled by mead (theirs was likely a cereal and honey fermentation, something we now call a braggot). Although there is no surviving recipe (each farmstead would probably have had their own), mead is enshrined in the culture through the mythology of Odin and Thor. In fact, poetic skill is explained by the brewing of a magical Mead of Poetry.

So prevalent was mead in European society, that by the High Mediæval period, many monastic orders adopted mead-production as a way of using excess honey from the making of candles for the faithful. From this practice, we associate mead with monks of this era, the most famous of whom is Friar Tuck. By the Tudor period, mead has become heavily spiced and richer, satisfying the fashion of this period, and incorporating many new flavours from new worlds. However, by the time we reach industrialisation, honey production for brewing just cannot keep pace with a growing population, while brewing, particularly with the preservative effect of adding hops means the man in the street can get drunk for a penny instead of a shilling. And so, mead starts to fade.

Mead is so much a part of the development of human society, being our first, teenaged hangover, our early adult dabbling with mind- altering experiences, it becomes an every-day part of middle age before fading into memory. New, exciting things like wine and beer, then port and liqueurs catch our eye, but we humans just love us some fermented honey.

Mead is still around, just. In fact, it’s becoming quite fashionable; it’s the fastest growing drinks sector in the US, and its renaissance in the UK is seeing it moving away from sugar-laden 70s kitsch into a high-quality, hand-crafted niche market, trail- blazed by dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts, who are in it for the love, not just the bank-balance.

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