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Glorious Obscurity TO Modern PRODUCTION:

Mead is without a doubt the most magical of alcoholic beverages. Although both beer and wine have their ancient and gloried past, neither can match the romance of mead, probably the oldest fermented drink known to humans.


Celebrated in prose and verse for centuries, this potent concoction made from heavenly honey is a central part of the mythology of Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, and the British Isles. Nor is its heritage limited to Western Europe. The peoples of Sumer, Ethiopia, Egypt, and India also made mead. Indeed, the word honeymoon is derived from the Babylonian tradition of providing newlyweds with enough mead to last a lunar month and so to promote fertility (and supposedly produce male offspring as well). Mead is mentioned in the writings of Plato, as noted by Stephen Harrod Buhner in his book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: “Plenty (was) drunk with nectar (i.e.,mead), for wine was not yet invented.”


In ancient Britain, the indigenous Picts brewed a heather ale from heather and heather honey that was actually a form of mead. Mead is often mentioned in the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It was a popular beverage of the Middle Ages, and even, apparently, in Middle Earth as Gandalf the wizard “had...drunk at least a quart of mead” at the house of Beorn in J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit.


The Vikings also consumed great quantities of mead and ale. All Norse poetry and song was thought to have originated from the “mead of inspiration” accidentally dropped to Earth by Odin, chief of the gods.


The word “mead” itself is derived from the Old English word “medu” and the Middle English term “mede,” which also meant meadow. In Sanskrit, “madhu” is the word for honey; in the Icelandic language, mead is “mjöthir.” Our word “honey” itself comes directly from the Middle English “hony” (“hunig” in Old English). The Dutch and Germans called it “honig;” it was “hurrang” in Icelandic.


Just as humans “tamed” barley and grapes, the domestication of honey production was surely one of the hallmarks of early civilization. Honeycombs were often found in the hollow trunks of trees, and ancient beekeepers cut these down and carried them to more desirable locations. Such primitive hives gave way to man-made wooden or ceramic cylinders called skeps. Cross pieces were added inside for the attachment of the honeycombs. So-called bar hives with movable combs were mentioned in a book published by Giovanni Rucellai in 1590. Movable frames were added to the basic box shape in the late 1700’s. As agriculture spread to the United BY ALAN MOEN P 30-33-57 mjzy00-Commercial_30-33/57 mjzy00/Commercial 12/9/12 4:45 PM Page 30 About Mead States, beekeeping followed, since bees were used for the pollination of many crops. This author’s grandfather kept hives at his farm near Rainier, Washington. His “beekeepers bible” was The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture by A.I. and E. R. Root, first published in Ohio in 1878. Grandpa collected some remarkable honeys in his time (fireweed was his favorite.) Unfortunately, he never made mead.


In our era of communications and computers, science has supplanted much of the mystery of natural foods and alcoholic fermentations. Nevertheless, mead retains a legendary, almost spiritual place in human culture.


One reason for this is probably the relative scarcity of commercial examples of meads today. Supermarkets regularly stock hundreds of beers and wines, but few meads are available to consumers, even in specialty shops. Breweries and brewpubs rarely make mead. Because of mead’s similarities to wine, small wineries have become the major purveyors of mead across the U.S. Many of them are located outside the largest wine-producing regions. Yet meaderies per se do exist, and their number has slowly grown, although mead production is still minuscule compared to that of breweries, wineries, or even cideries.


Fortunately, as many homebrewers know, excellent mead is still being legally produced at home in most states. Perhaps as the health benefits of both honey and alcohol are better known, mead will regain more popular acceptance in the marketplace as well.


As well it should, since honey itself, the principal ingredient of mead, is truly a mysterious and wonderful substance. Manufactured by bees from nectar gathered from the flowers and sugary secretions of plants, honey is the most readily accessible natural sugar on Earth. The National Honey Board gives it this definition; “Honey is the nectar and sweet deposits of plants as gathered, modified and stored in the honeycomb of honey bees.”

By Alan Moen

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