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Monday, September 19, 2011

The Mother of All Libations

Bottles of Russian mead.

Until the 12th century, sugar was not a common ingredient, although it had been extracted and refined for a couple thousand years.  Honey was the common sweetener, and was used medicinally and as a preservative as well.  Honey, mixed with water and perhaps a grain mash, then fermented, is the oldest known fermented drink.  Its origins are lost, but there is archaeological evidence of fermented drinks.  Science Daily reported in 2004 that pottery jars found with the remnants of a fermented beverage made of rice, honey, and fruit show that it was produced in northern China 9,000 years ago.

Honey, the basis of mead.

This drink is called mead, and the very word attests to its ancient heritage.  The word comes from the proto-Indo-European root *médhu, and it has an interesting range of meanings in Indo-European languages which all have to do with honey, sweet, intoxicating, or drunkenness.  The earliest surviving written mention of it is in the Rig Veda, the ancient Indian collection of Sanskrit hymns (1700-1100 BCE). Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote of it in his writings.  Columela, who lived in the first century CE in Roman Hispania and wrote on agriculture of the area, recorded the following recipe:

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius
of this water with a pound of honey.  The whole is exposed
to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire.
If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.

Mead can be found in literature, especially Celtic.  In Beowulf (circa 8th-11th century CE), warriors drink mead.  About 550 CE, Taliesin, a famous bard, wrote "The Song of Mead".  But in Norse mythology, there is the Poetic Mead or Mead of Poetry, also known as the Mead of Suttungr.  This is a mythical drink that renders anyone who drinks it a scholar, able to recite lore and answer any question.  This was a metaphor for poetic inspiration, said to have been created from the gods spitting in a vat.  They created a man from this spittle who was so wise he knew everything.  Two dwarves killed him and mixed his blood with honey, creating a mead that transformed anyone who drank it into a scholar or a poet.  (The dwarves told the gods that the man had suffocated in his own intelligence.)  Such is the stuff of legends and drunks!

An image from the 18th century Icelandic manuscript "SÁM 66",
showing Odin as a bird spitting "the mead of poetry" into a vessel.
Illustration by Jakob Sigurdsson.

Mead was the historical beverage of preference, until heavy taxation and regulations of the ingredients in alcoholic beverages caused the commercial production of it to significantly lessen.  However some monasteries, especially those in areas where grape production (and hence winemaking) wasn't feasible, engaged in making mead, although it was often a by-product of beekeeping.

A Polish mead, called Trójniak.

In Central Europe and the Balkan area, mead has always been popular.  The Polish name for it is miód pitny, or "drinkable honey".  It also remained popular in Russia, and is mentioned in the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol.  The Finns make a sweet mead spiced with lemon, then raisins are added in a second fermentation.  In Africa, Ethiopians drink tej, flavored with a species of buckthorn, and traditionally served in a rounded container called a berele.  There is a mead called iQhilika made by the Xhosa of South Africa.

A berele of tej.

Since honeys have so many different flavors, so do meads.  Taste also depends on the yeast used or created during fermentation, and the aging process.  In ancient times, meads were fermented by wild yeasts or the bacteria from the skins of fruits, but since these are so unpredictable, yeasts have been developed for use that preserve the honey flavor.  Additives, known as "gruit", also enhance the flavor. Some types of gruit are a combinations of herbs, seeds, and berries.  Others are a mix of fruits and spices.  The blending opportunities are endless, and making mead at home is enjoying a revival, especially since commercial meads, although more prevalent, can be hard to find.

Two types of Finnish mead, on the right is rhubarb-flavored.

There are a plethora of variants of meads.  Meads that contain spices or herbs are called metheglin.  If a mead contains berries, it is a melomel.  This was also a good way to use up summer fruit, in effect preserving it for the winter.  A mead made with fermented grape juice is pyment.  Bochet is an interesting mead where the honey is caramelized before added to water, giving a toffee flavor to it.

Homebrewed melomel.

There are wines made with honey, but these are not considered true meads, and are in fact called faux-meads.  Hypocras, is a drink made with wine, sugar, and spices (mostly cinnamon), which is strained.  It was popular in the Roman Empire, and highly prized in the late Middle Ages, and even inspired the Spanish to make Sangria, originally made with cinnamon, ginger, and pepper.

So, if you are looking for a hobby and are interested in starting a meadery, you will find plenty of help online, from supplies to advice.  What a great way to keep the past alive, and perhaps your mead will, like the Mead of Poetry, enlighten your fellow human beings.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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