Fermented honey water – commonly referred to as mead, hydromel and honey wine – is known from many different historic sources throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. While there is scholarly debate on what was the earliest fermented beverage — archaeological evidence points to a mixture of fruit, grain and honey beverages — fermented honey drinks are most often though to be the first alcoholic drinks made by primitive people due to its ease of fermentation. McGovern’s research into the origins of alcoholic beverages pinpointed the earliest chemical evidence for alcoholic beverages to 9,000 years ago in the ancient Chinese village of Jiahu. The analysis of the residues extracted from pottery fragments indicated that the people then were drinking a mixed wine-beer-mead-like beverage made with grapes, hawthorn fruit, rice and honey. This is similar to other Neolithic finds of mixed alcoholic beverages throughout Europe and northern Africa.[iv] In Bronze Age Greece, mead may have been a major competitor to wine, and, in Bronze Age Egtveld, Denmark, a burial mound was found which contained a mixed beverage consisting of fermented honey, fruit (cranberries and cowberries), leaves (sweet gale, also called bog myrtle) and grain. The first archaeological evidence for something resembling modern mead in Europe comes from the Iron Age royal burial site near Hochdorf, Stuttgart. The tomb is dated to around 525 BC and contained a 500 liter cauldron, about three quarters full when placed in the tomb, of which the residue indicated pollen from about 60 different plants. While the beverage could have been a mixed beverage like those found before, the amount of pollen in the residue indicates substantial honey content, suggesting mead or a mead mix. Two first-century drinking horns found in a peat bog in southern Jutland in Denmark contained traces of a wheat and honey drink, though it is unclear whether it is one horn with beer and one with mead, or both with a mixed grain & honey beverage.
The drink of the Gods
In Great britain where the honey bee is indigenous, mead has long been a treasured drink. The Germanic tribes regarded mead as the drink of the gods and the Celts believed there were rivers of mead in paradise. Mead features prominently in the Old-English poem Beowulf, which translates to “bee wolf.” Anglo-Saxon churches and the crown often demanded tithes and other taxes in the form of money and honey, which suggests the wealthy and powerful wanted access to good quality honey with which to make mead. The Irish Aislinge Meic Con Glinne described mead as “the relish of noble stock” and the Old Norse sagas mention alu (spiced mead), as the drink of the people, and bior (beer), as the drink of the gods. Mead consumption waned in medieval Europe as the production of honey slowed, prices rose, and the consumption of beer spread. The Little Ice Age, which lasted from about 1350 to about 1850, could have been part of the decline of medieval honey production, especially in short season climates like northern Europe and Scandinavia. With the increase in population and thus agriculture, old growth forests which provided nectar were cut down and wild flower meadows were planted with grains, which yield no nectar at all. By the fourteenth century, a gallon of imported French wine was cheaper than the honey needed to make a gallon of mead, and, by the seventeenth century, imports of cheap sugar from the West Indies mostly replaced the use of honey in cooking and brewing. Mead survived well into the eighteenth century in Northern Europe where honey was easy to get, and in different variants as a drink for the sick. It could well be that mead did not only decline because of cost or the improving quality of other drinks, it could also be because mead was said to be so good for the drinker’s health, which might have restricted its consumption to the sick.
Etymology of mead
The earliest written evidence for the word mead, mādhu, is believed to come from the Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns called the Rigveda, which is dated to 1700-1100 BCE. The word refers to both honey and honey drinks (including mead) but could also refer to a sweet drink. The Indian text Ramayana from the fourth to fifth centuries BCE mentions becoming intoxicated after drinking mādhu, likely indicating mead. In Greek, the word méthe is also used for strong (sweet) drink, and to make a distinction between honey and honey drinks, mèli was adopted for honey only, which became the Latin mel and the French miel. Anglo-Saxon adopted the word medo or medu; Dutch, old Frisian and Low German used mede; in Norwegian mjod; in Swedish mjöd; and in Danish miod. The words ale, alu, öl, and other variants might have come originally from the word for spiced mead, even though by the end of the ninth century, ale solely meant the drink made from malted grain, as it does now. Anglo-Saxon introduced a new word for honey as hunig, from which the Norwegian honning, German honig, Dutch honin,g and English honey derive. As the Greek méthe became to indicate all strong drinks including wine, new words appeared, first melίkātos and then hydrόmeli, of which the Latin and French hydromel and the Italian idromele derive. Pliny the Elder in his 77CE Historia Naturalis differentiates mead (hydromel) from wine sweetened with honey (mulsum). When searching databases and old manuscripts, it is good to be aware of alternatives to our modern word mead as translations and spelling varied.
Mead: a treasured drink
Mead was a treasured drink, and the ruling classes did their best to have a constant supply: not only honey could be required as rent payment; brewed honey could as well. If mead was not available as part of the food rent, then double the amount of braggot was to be provided or four times the amount in ale, strongly indicating mead was preferred. In medieval and Renaissance times, honey would be most often be used to brew plain mead, metheglin (with herbs), and braggot (with ale, not wort or malt). The combination of honey, fermentation, and different kinds of fruit juice was known, though the practice was not common enough yet to have coined our modern terms melomel (fruit mead), cycer (apple mead) or pyment (grape mead). While melomeli was known to the Romans as a wine made from honey and fruit juices, and the word possibly came by the Greek melimelon or melomeli for apple-honey or treefruit-honey, it does not seem to have been adopted into the English language as such until after the Middle Ages. The first-century manuscript Historia Naturalis mentions a grape must and honey ferment, “Another wine of the sweet class is called honey-wine; it differs from mead because it is made from must,” which is fermented together instead of using the honey to sweeten wine (which otherwise would make mulsum or hippocras), as does the tenth-century manuscript Geoponika with an Oenomeli from must, fermenting (grape) must with honey. In A Profitable Instruction by Thomas Hyll (1579), oenomel is explained “as the drinke made with wine vnlayde, or without water, and hony, they aptly name Oenomel,” or fresh undiluted wine mixed with honey. The same looks to be the case for Geoponika’s “Concerning Oenomeli,” offering two versions of which one is “set it in the sun at the rising of the dog-star during forty days. Some call this nectar,” indicating fermentation. It is not obvious oenomel is a fermented drink, but context would indicate it is, from using must or unfermented grape juice, undiluted wine which can easily re-ferment, and letting it sit in a warm place for a prolonged amount of time.
My personal favorite is from the tenth-century manuscript Geoponika, the Preparation of hydromel, which lists two versions of fermenting with apples and honey: one with crushed apples and one with pressed apple juice. The 1597 manuscript Van de Byen by Theodorus Clutius also has two similar recipes, one To make wine-like honey-water with juice of quince and another, “To make red wine-like honey-water,” which back ferments mead with added fruit juice, “mix this together and set it to rise as above,” to make a medicinal mead, using the juice of amarellen (sour, dark red cherries with long stems) and gives alternatives like the juice of currants, red and black cherries, grapes, apples and pears. Of course, fermenting with fruit, an easy to come by sugar often with their own ambient yeast strains, is not at all uncommon and fruit wines were known to be made by settlers of the foothills of the Alps as early as 2000 BCE from wild grapes, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, bittersweet nightshade and cornelian cherries. Cider and perry, or fermented plain apple and pear juice, are also well known and mentioned in numerous historic texts, including the Bible, and in “without sider and wyn and meeth men and wommen myght lyve full long”, quoted from Peacock, 1449. The combination of fruit juice and honey might not be common practice, but thankfully for us modern melomel enthusiasts a handful of interesting early examples does exist.
A little bit about the chemistry of mead
Honey is a blend of simple sugars, including the monosaccharides glucose and fructose, the disaccharides maltose and sucrose, and other compounds including a variety of amino acids (proteins), fiber, and trace minerals. This makes honey both an easy and a complicated sugar to ferment. The glucose and the fructose are easy to digest by yeast, but the maltose and sucrose first needs to be converted, or broken down, before fermentation can take place. This can slow down initial fermentation, witnessed by the often extended period of time between pitching yeast and seeing significant activity, and is why modern brewers often add a yeast nutrient or energizer to promote a fast start.[xxxv] Here, gently heating the honey must o about 120º F (49 C) helps break down the disaccharides and aids general fermentation.
Slow start of fermentation is less of an issue when brewing fruit meads, modernly called melomels, as the added fruit sugars, or fructose, are monosaccharides and significantly boost the available amount of immediately fermentable sugars. This explains why modern brewers often prefer to brew plain mead first and add fruit juice only after fermentation slows down, about a month later, to make sure most of the fruit flavor is saved for the end product. Otherwise, the yeast will eat the fruit sugars first, and start on the honey sugars only after the fruit sugars are all consumed. Cyser, or apple mead, for instance, is generally much faster to mature than standard melomels, because not only does the added fructose aids aggressive fermentation, the apple enzymes help break down honey disaccharides. A note about melomels: fermenting with honey and fruit is not common to medieval and renaissance age, but not completely unknown either. This could be attributed to the idea that while honey and its many products is regarded as healthy and medicinal, fruit is not as such, as voiced by Thomas Cogan “considering that fruites doe ingender ill humours” in his Haven of Health.
- Cogan, Thomas. The Haven of Health, 1584. London: Anne Griffin, 1636 https://ia800500.us.archive.org/22/items/havenofhealthchi00coga/havenofhealthchi00coga.pdf
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