A brief history of mead, one of the oldest alcoholic beverages of all
Here at The Pulse we’ve previously covered honey liqueur, highlighting Wild Turkey Honey Sting and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey in past mixology pieces. Sounds exciting and novel, doesn’t it? Well, while adding honey to lace liqueur with its signature sweetness is relatively innovative, another honey alcohol has existed for thousands of years. Mead, made with fermented honey, is the oldest alcoholic beverage in existence, with a rich history in culture, mythology, and literature.
Like the Ethiopian goat herder discovering coffee, the first batch of mead was likely a happy accident. It’s estimated that early foragers stumbled upon a rainwater-flooded beehive that had fermented naturally with airborne yeast. The process was perfected in China, where pottery vessels containing evidence of the fermentation process, along with a mixture of honey, rice, and fruit, were discovered.
These vessels date anywhere back from 6,500 to 7,000 BC, making mead the oldest fermented beverage, pre-dating both wine and beer. The earliest known description of mead is found in the Rigveda, one of the four sacred texts of Hinduism, dated anywhere between 1,700 and 1,100 BC.
Mead was central to the culture in Ancient Greece for gods and mortals alike. Greeks believed that mead was the dew of the gods, causing many European cultures to view bees as messengers from the gods. Because of its heavenly associations, mead was believed to provide Olympian strength and wit.
Similarly, in Norse mythology, the mead of poetry was said to make anyone who drank it capable of reciting any information or answering any question. As awesome as that sounds in theory, the execution was less than ideal. After the Æsir–Vanir War, Norse gods sealed their truce as we all do, by spitting into a vat. From that concoction they created Kvasir, a man meant to symbolize the truce between the gods.
Because of his divine essence, Kvasir was capable of answering any question posed to him. One day, Kvasir visited the dwarves Fjalar and Galar. The dwarves murdered Kvasir and poured his blood into a vat. They mixed his blood with honey, creating a mead that would turn anyone who drank it “a poet or scholar.”
Mead also makes a cameo appearance in Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and The Lord of the Rings, among a multitude of others. Outside of literature, mead was favored among Queen Elizabeth, King Midas, and the Vikings.
Mead has permeated our language as well as our literature, as seen in the term “honeymoon.” Tradition dictated that newlywed couples would drink mead for an entire moon cycle, or “month,” as we call it in the modern world, to ensure the production of children. It was so important, in fact, that fathers would often include a month’s worth of mead in his daughter’s dowry.
Today, craft meaderies are on the rise, with over 250 inside the United States alone. Add that to its diversity—dry, sweet, sparkling, or still—and its ability to take on other flavors when fermented with herbs, flowers, or fruit, and it’s no wonder that mead was once considered the drink of the gods.
Photo courtesy Golden Coast Mead