The History of Mead
Mead may be the oldest alcoholic drink in the world. A tribe in Kenya; the Kikuyu, still ferment mead today from the honey produced by wild bees. The Hindu scriptures mention both honey and mead, and it was drunk by the ancient Greeks. Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, is said to have taught bee-keeping as a sideline.
Mead has been drunk in Britain since Celtic times. The writer Gildas tells us that the legendary King Arthur drank it, no doubt because Gildas thought it was a kingly thing to drink. The great Anglo-Saxon classic Beowulf talks of both mead and ale. Mead was drunk by kings in banqueting or mead halls and was imbibed from decorated horns. Chaucer praised mead in the Canterbury Tales. In the Miller's Tale, the merry priest woos his lady love with the best mead he can buy.
What is Mead?
In its simplest form, mead is just honey and water, fermented with yeast so that the sugars in the honey turn to alcohol. Originally, fermentation was left to wild yeasts from the air, or from the dregs of old stock. There are several variants of mead:
- Metheglin is a spiced variety which was supposed to have medicinal powers;
- Pyment is a grape wine, sweetened with honey (the Romans called it mulsum)
- Cyser is fermented apple juice and honey, perhaps a forerunner of cider;
- Melomel is a fruit mead - made for example, with raspberries,
- Sack Mead is sweeter than mead; honey and malt fermented together make an ale called bracket.
Of course mead attracted its fair share of legends. It was said that mead should be drunk during the first month of marriage. Hence the word “ honeymoon™ ”.
Meadhorns and Mazers
By the 17th century, imports of cheap sugar from the West Indies reduced the importance of honey in the domestic economy. It stopped being essential to keep bees, and mead-making never really recovered, since it meant that the supply of honey was considerably reduced.
The ancients drank from mead-horns, but the traditional mead vessel was called a Mazer. Originally the name referred to a cup made of maple wood. Chaucer mentions mazers, and of course the rich ensured their bowls were ornamented with gold and silver. But by the 14th century, a gallon of imported French wine was cheaper than the price of honey needed to make a gallon of mead.