What is Mead? The Drink of the Gods

21.05.2017. 20:00

Mead is an ancient beverage, thought by many to be the first fermented beverage. Mead is made by fermenting honey, water, and yeast.

Another term often used is "honey-wine". Though, some cultures differentiate honey-wine from mead. For example, Hungarians think that mead is made of honey, water, and beer-yeast, while honey-wine is watered honey with grapes or other fruits. There are many different types of mead, depending on added spices, fruits, and grains. What is mead made of is influenced by culture. Different cultures add different spices and herbs. It was a sacred drink in many early cultures, in every corner of the world. What is mead used for is heavily influenced by the culture using it. The Greeks claimed it bestowed virility. In the Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxons were convinced it induced creativity. Mead was especially prized for the honeymoon because it was believed that the “sweeter” the mead the more “fruitful” the union. Its unique taste made it the most popular celebration drink since Renaissance. The population enjoyed it so much that it was known as Nectar of the Gods, or the Drink of Celebration. The main characteristic of mead is that the majority of its sugar comes from honey. Using raw, unpasteurized honey in the production gives mead a healthy boost. This shows to be beneficial as healthy benefits depend on what is mead made of. Since mead is not heated, honey keeps its beneficial nutritional properties. Healthy properties and unique taste make mead an amazing addition to any celebration. It's no wonder that popularity of mead is rising, even today.

What is the history behind it?

The history of mead is as long and rich as the beverage itself. What is mead most famous for is being an alcoholic beverage. But it wasn’t always like that. Mead originated from African continent more than 20 000 years ago. It was most likely discovered by accident, and it all started with honeybees.

The honeybee has always gathered nectar and pollen and engaged in battle against yeast. Syrups with low sugar content, like nectar, sometimes react with wild yeast. The result is a fermentation of honey. The honeybee has no use of fermented honey as it needs sugars from the nectar. With time honeybee adapted and learned how to reduce the possibility of fermentation. Using their wings honeybees dry the honey, increasing its osmotic pressure. Osmotic pressure is a measure of the tendency of a solution to take in water. Because of that honey can take water from molecules of bacteria and yeast. Without water, their cells shrivel up and die. But, some yeast could survive in such environment which proved useful for future wine and beer fermentation.

Africa's extreme weather conditions, dry and rainy seasons, had an impact on vegetation. During the dry season, the bees would nest hollow trees, and during the rainy season, the nest would fill with water. With time water, honey, and yeast fermented and the first mead was created. African bushmen gathered both honey and mead. They drank the mead and experienced the intoxication for the first time. But, they were unaware of what alcohol and fermentation were.

As waves of people left Africa, they took with them some knowledge of mead and mead making. With time, mead making became well known in Europe, India, and China. As people became urbanized mead making died out. One of the main ingredients, honey, wasn't easily available. Often it was very expensive and available only to royalty. The tradition of mead making was preserved only in the monasteries of Europe. Monks were making ceremonial candles, and other beeswax necessities and surplus honey was used to make mead. Some monasteries in Great Britain have over 400-year tradition of mead making.

The Industrial Revolution and the invention of centrifugal honey extractor resulted in an even bigger decline of mead making. Before the mechanized extraction of honey, the honey was removed by crushing honeycombs. Crushed beeswax was rinsed out with warm water, and that became mead. Mechanization reduced the amount of left over honeycomb.

Since the mid-1800’s mead making has survived as a craft void of large-scale commercialization. Today an organization  IMA (International Mead Association ) is representing the global mead market. The IMA sponsors the International Mead Festival (IMF) and is becoming the main focus of the global mead industry. The existence of IMF represents the effort of mead makers to get the mead into the mainstream alcoholic beverages. What is mead industry trying to achieve is worldwide acceptance and commercialization of mead. This is both a challenge and a huge responsibility.

Is mead good for you? What is mead all about?

Through history, mead was associated with health and good life. Ancient Greeks believed that mead was the drink of the gods, sent to Earth from the heavens. Odin, the Norse god of healing and battle, gained his strength by drinking mead from a goat while he was a baby. Beautiful maidens would reward Viking warriors who reached Valhalla by giving them mead. In parts of Europe it was common for people to tell their problems to the beehive so they would reach the ear of God faster. As the popularity of mead recently started rising, many wondered how healthy it might be. Health benefits of mead come from the ingredients used during production. Main ingredients are honey, water, and yeast. But, what is mead making loved by many is the variety of ingredients. Besides the main ingredients, different fruits, herbs, and spices can be added.

Recent research suggests that mead was a powerful medicine in ancient times. In the old days, LABs (lactic acid bacteria) might have been beneficial for human health. These bacteria are a living factory of medicine, releasing compounds that target and kill pathogens. LABs are present inside the honeybee’s crop and in raw honey. The honeybee's crop is a special stomach devoted to nectar collection. To be able to produce honey from nectar, bees need to lower the water content. As honey water content drops below 20 percent, sugar and salt become very concentrated, and the LAB cannot survive. Eventually, only mature, sterile honey is left. It is possible that, back in the day, humans were getting those benefits through mead. Young honey is full of LABs, and they could not know which honey they are collecting. Digesting honey with LABs helped keep their immune system healthy and more efficient.

Furthermore, scientists have discovered that honey is providing many health benefits. Honey contains many different substances including vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants and sugars. Production of mead often includes raw, unpasteurized honey. That way honey might be keeping its antibacterial benefits. A 2014 study concluded that mead made of raw honey reduces resistance to antibiotics. It was even effective on very resistant MRSA. According to study, the main source of antibacterial activity are LABs. Using unpasteurized honey is beneficial because pasteurization destroys them. Raw honey also contains pollen which has more proteins than meat. If you're curious how to recognize a pure honey, there are several ways to spot it. Just read How to check the purity of honey at home? Also, most meads are gluten-free, making them a good option for those who are sensitive to wheat. Mead might be a great alternative for people who suffer from wine-induced migraines. Many experts believe that it is caused by a substance in grape skin.

You might wonder what is mead making doing to the environment. Mead making is having a positive impact on the environment. Its production doesn't need the cultivation of land, which minimizes the impact on the environment. You are helping beekeepers in keeping honeybee population alive. Honeybees are important for sustaining our agriculture. One-third of all the food we eat requires pollination by bees.

  

Various spices, herbs and fruits added to mead add even more benefits. They are what is mead making even more beneficial to us. The right herbs can heal the body and are the inspiration for most of the today’s pharmaceuticals. In Ayurveda, medical system of India, honey is believed to enhance the medical qualities of plants. It is known as  ‘Yogavahi,' which means "the carrier of the healing values of the herbs to the cells and tissues." Mead makers still call any mead made with herbs or spices a  metheglin - the Welsh word for medicine.

Despite many benefits, mead should be used in moderation as it is still high in calories. Some recipes on 12-ounce serving reach more than 400 calories. The makers of mead are not obliged to list the percentage of all ingredients used. If not listed on the bottle's description, the only way to find it out is by asking a mead creator.

How is mead made?

Mead is easy to prepare, but the fermentation might take a while. Full fermentation may take a month, years, or a lifetime depending on the recipe. There are many recipes to make mead, but they all involve more or less the same steps. What is mead offering us are the amazing taste and health benefits which make it a great gift for your loved ones. It might be a great time to start brewing and surprise everyone with this tasty beverage. 

Mead is usually drunk in small quantities, and because of that, they are made strong. The amount of alcohol in the mead dependent on the yeast added. The higher the capacity of the yeast to withstand alcohol, the higher the percentage of alcohol. It is important to remember that yeast cannot live in a solution containing more than 14% of alcohol. Some special circumstances and suitable yeast might manage to raise the alcohol content to 18%. An amateur might reach maximum 16% because higher percentage requires laboratory conditions. Constant monitoring of fermentation is needed, as well as keeping favorable temperature and scientifically balanced must. In our recipe, the must is a mixture of water and honey. That is the first step in winemaking.

The three main elements

Honey

Honey is the main ingredient of any mead. The type of honey usually used for mead is clover honey. Clover honey gets its name from bees using clover flower nectar. Any variety of fruit honey can be used (raspberry, peach, apple, orange...). The type of honey used dictates the flavor and coloring of the final product. Strongly flavored honey, like wildflower and orange blossom, work best for Metheglin mead. Clover honey gives a delicate flavor and light coloring, making it suitable for fruit meads. Very light honey, like alfalfa, are not suitable for mead as they give poor flavor and only light coloring. You should be careful with the dosage of honey. If you use too little honey, the mead will be dry, and if you use too much, it will be sweet. If you want your mead sweater, you can add more sugar like corn sugar, the cane sugar will work also but not as good. Making traditional mead (only honey and water) requires using strong flavored honey as that will be the only thing giving flavor. The recipe explained here uses raspberry honey.

Water

Tap water can be used for brewing, but if it tastes bad, then the best choice would be either filtered tap water or bottled water.

Yeast

Selecting yeast is one of the most important decisions because it defines what is mead going to be like. While selecting several factors should be considered: potential alcohol and sulfur dioxide production. The type of yeast used greatly affects the strength, flavor, and type of mead produced. The best choice would be the yeast that has a high tolerance to alcohol, like Vierke and Maury yeasts. These yeasts take a long time to ferment, but they can produce mead with 18% or more alcohol content. If mead yeast cannot be found, then any wine yeast will be fine. The initial uncovered aerobic fermentation is the primary source of yeast reproduction. The initial reproduction cycle needs to build up a large yeast colony. Yeast colony needs to be large enough to sustain the fermentation and overpower other yeast or bacteria. During the initial build up of yeast, the must should remain uncovered for at least 24 hours. The must should be periodically shaken to get extra oxygen which is important for reproduction process. After sealing the fermenter with an airlock, the oxygen supply is cut off. As a result, the yeast enters the anaerobic type of fermentation. Without the supply of oxygen, the yeast is forced to use sugars in the must for reproduction. Products of this type of fermentation are sugar and carbon dioxide.

What do you need for mead making?

  • 2 - 5 gallon Glass Carboy (NOT PLASTIC, even the smallest scratch will harvest bacteria even after being sanitized) - used to ferment the mead.

  • Carboy Handle - not required but can be useful as 5g Glass carboy can get heavy

  • Siphon tube - used to siphon the must into clean fermentation vessels and to fill bottles

  • Thermometer -  checking the temperature of the must before adding the yeast and making sure the temperature is not too high or low during fermentation

  • Hydrometer -  later used to determine the alcoholic percentage

  • Airlock - used to seal the fermenting must from the outside air and to trap the carbon dioxide gas in the fermenter

  • Pot - for simmering the must, enamel or stainless steel pot in the 6 gallon range is recommended

Disinfect your equipment

Before you start with anything, it is important to disinfect all the tools and containers. The environment encouraging fermentation can also encourage the growth of unwanted bacteria left behind. The best sanitizer to use would be tasteless and odorless. You can make the cleaning easier by using the spray bottle to spray everything. After cleaning let the products sit for few minutes and then rinse clean all the equipment.

You are ready for preparation

 

  1. Prepare the must - mix approximately 3.5 pounds of honey with 1 gallon of distilled water. Do not boil or heat the mixture. Now you can add fruits or spices to the must. Doing so will drastically change the flavor of the mead.

  2. Rehydrate the yeast of your choice following manufacturer's directions, then add it to your must.

  3. Put the must in a glass carboy. Making sure that there is enough space for fermentation is important. If there isn't enough space, a ferment can leak and cause a mess. You need to prevent air from getting into the container, but also let carbon dioxide escape. The way to do it is to buy an airlock from a local brew store or online. They are reusable, and won't disintegrate over time.

  4. Let it sit at an optimal temperature range, depending on the yeast you choose. If you have a hydrometer and know the starting gravity of your must, you can determine the sugar breaks of your fermentation. Determining your three sugar breaks has several steps. Take your original gravity and determine what your final gravity should be based on the ABV tolerance of your yeast. Break the total number into thirds. Let oxygen inside at least once daily during the first sugar break, the more times, the better.

  5. Determining when the mead is done. The best way to know is to measure the specific gravity with a hydrometer when you first mix it. Measure it every two weeks. The chosen yeast has a published ABV tolerance. The hydrometer reading can be used to determine what is the final gravity of your mead. When the mead reaches its final gravity, wait a minimum of 4-6 months before bottling. That has to be done to ensure all CO2 that was in the mead has degassed. If there is too much CO2, the bottle in which mead is transferred can explode. If you're using an airlock, wait until three weeks after it stops bubbling.

  6. When fermentation is completed transfer the mead to the container. It is useful to use siphon during transfer so that the sediment doesn't get into bottles. The less space the container has, the better it is for aging. That way there is a smaller area that oxygen can get into. The average aging wait time is eight months.

  7. Transfer the mead into bottles.

There is more than one type of mead

What is mead making interesting as a beverage is its versatility? There is a wide variety of flavors and types depending on added herbs, spices and fruits. Mead can have an alcohol content of 19% or as low as 3 or 4 percent. It can be carbonated like a beer or like a sparkling wine. Can be aged for years or drunk two weeks after the start of fermentation. Mead works well as an aperitif, dinner wine or after dinner cordial. We will mention several most common varieties.

Traditional mead

The basic mead is made with only honey, water, and yeast. But the lack of spices doesn't mean that all traditional meads taste the same. The taste varies due to different variations in the fermenting time, temperature, type of honey used etc.

Braggot

Braggots are made with malted grains, and are a cross between craft beer and mead.

Metheglin

Spices and herbs added were used as medicines, they were added to make mead go down smoother. Today those herbs are added to improve the taste of mead.

Melomel

It is made with fruits or fruit juices. This category also includes many other types of mead. For instance, pyments are made with grapes or grape juice, cysers with apples or apple juice, and black mead with blackcurrants. You could try many different melomels and never taste the same mead flavor twice.

Unfortunately, mead does not give us superhuman powers

The ancient cultures believed that mead could give superhuman strength and vitality. People believed that many gods gained their powers from drinking mead. But, what is mead really bringing us? Research done so far shows that old cultures were on to something. Unfortunately, mead does not give us superhuman powers. But, it indeed can help in keeping our body healthy. Mead's main ingredient, honey, brings us all its benefits. But, to be able to get all the benefits it is important that raw honey is used and mead wasn't heated. Honey might give you an energy boost, help to keep your immune system healthy, prevent cancer and health disease, and much more. Since many herbs and spices also can be added to the mead, there are many varieties of mead. Certain kinds of herbs or spices added to metheglin meads are thought to improve digestion and help with depression. Besides its many benefits, mead also has an amazing taste. It goes well with any activity, especially with celebrations and any picnic-like or music playing activities. Existing wide variety of mead means that everyone can find a mead to their liking.

Don't get discouraged if you don't like the taste first few times. That just means that you should try some other type. It might take you several tries till you find the one you enjoy, but it is well worth it. Find your best mead and enjoy what many believed was a gift from heaven.

Read More Raw honey vs regular honey: what's the difference between the two?