Mead: Customs and Traditions

Polish noblemen enjoying mead. By Wandalin Strzałecki - Photographed by Kpalion, Public Domain,

Mead, often termed honey wine, is the oldest alcoholic drinks known to man. It is made from honey and water via fermentation with yeast. It may be still, carbonated, or sparkling; it may be dry, semi-sweet, or sweet.

Meads (being wines) are drunk in small quantities. The amount of alcohol we can make in meads is limited by the capacity of the yeast we add to withstand alcohol. And it is important to understand that yeast cannot live in a solution containing more than 14% proof (of alcohol by volume). This is the usual amount that will destroy the yeast. Under certain circumstances and with suitable yeast the percentage might be as high as 18% proof.

Historically, distilling was an art, as well as an arcane type of magic, regulated by custom, law, and superstition. Certain individuals were trained in this magic of turning honey into mead, a powerful conjuring that mystified the ignorant. The process by which the juice of the grape, the toil of the bee, or the grain of the field, were turned into mind altering substances was not well understood… Yeast as an entity was not understood at all until Pasteur explained the process of fermentation in 1841. Until then, yeast was known by many other names, including Godisgood, a name which implies the level of knowledge about the process at the time. The addition of yeast was not known to the ancient Jews, and is not a kosher addition to wines but the addition of yeast, especially certain selected strains of this magical fungus, is critical to the character and flavour of even the simplest fermented beverage

Depending on local traditions and specific recipes, mead may be brewed with spices, fruits, or grain mash. It may be produced by fermentation of honey with grain mash, mead may also be flavoured with to produce a bitter, Beer-like flavour.  Some producers have marketed white wine sweetened and flavoured with honey after fermentation as mead, sometimes spelling it “meade.” This is closer in style to a Hippocras. Blended varieties of mead may be known by the style represented; for instance, a mead made with cinnamon and apples may be referred to as either a cinnamon cyser or an apple metheglin. A mead that also contains spices (such as clovescinnamon or nutmeg), or herbs (such as meadowsweethops, or even lavender or chamomile), is called a metheglin. A mead that contains fruit (such as raspberryblackberry or strawberry) is called a melomel, which was also used as a means of food preservation, keeping summer produce for the winter. A mead that is fermented with grape juice is called a pyment.

Mulled mead is a popular drink at Christmas time, where mead is flavoured with spices (and sometimes various fruits) and warmed, traditionally by having a hot poker plunged into it. Some meads retain some measure of the sweetness of the original honey, and some may even be considered as dessert wines. Drier meads are also available, and some producers offer sparkling meads.

Faux-meads exist, which are actually wines with honey added after fermentation as a sweetener and flavouring. Historically, meads were fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria residing on the skins of the fruit or within the honey itself. Wild yeasts can produce inconsistent results. Yeast companies have isolated strains of yeast which produce consistently appealing products. Brewers, winemakers and mead makers commonly use them for fermentation, including yeast strains identified specifically for mead fermentation. These are strains that have been selected because of their characteristic of preserving delicate honey flavours and aromas.

Mead can also be distilled to a brandy or liqueur strength. A version called “honey jack” can be made by partly freezing a quantity of mead and straining the ice out of the liquid (a process known as freeze distillation), in the same way that applejack is made from cider. An expansive variety of meads exist from:

  • Acerglyn: A mead made with honey and maple syrup.
  • Balche: A Mexican version of mead.
  • Bilbemel: A mead made with blueberries, blueberry juice, or sometimes used for a varietal mead that uses blueberry blossom honey.
  • Black mead: A name sometimes given to the blend of honey and blackcurrants.
  • Bochet: A mead where the honey is caramelized or burned separately before adding the water. Yields toffee, caramel, chocolate and toasted marshmallow flavours.
  • Bochetomel: A Bochet style mead that also contains fruit such as elderberries, black raspberries and blackberries.
  • Braggot: Also called bracket or brackett. Originally brewed with honey and hops, later with honey and malt—with or without hops added. Welsh origin (bragawd).
  • Capsicumel: A mead flavoured with chilli peppers, the peppers may be hot or mild.
  • Chouchenn: A kind of mead made in Brittany.
  • Cyser: A blend of honey and apple juice fermented together.

Through to:

  • Pyment: Pyment blends honey and red or white grapes. Pyment made with white grape juice is sometimes called “white mead”.
  • Półtorak (TSG): A Polish great mead, made using two units of honey for each unit of water.
  • Red mead: A form of mead made with redcurrants.
  • Rhodomel: Rhodomel is made from honey, rose hips, rose petals or rose attar, and water. From the Greek ῥοδόμελι rhodomeli, literally “rose-honey”.
  • Rubamel: A specific type of Melomel made with raspberries.
  • Sack mead: This refers to mead that is made with more honey than is typically used. The finished product contains a higher-than-average ethanol concentration (meads at or above 14% ABV are generally considered to be of sack strength) and often retains a high gravity and elevated levels of sweetness, although dry sack meads (which have no residual sweetness) can be produced. According to one theory, the name derives from the fortified dessert winesherry (which is sometimes sweetened after fermentation) that, in England, once bore the nickname “sack”). Another theory is that the term is a phonetic reduction of sake the name of a Japanese beverage that was introduced to the West by Spanish and Portuguese traders.
  • Short mead: Also called “quick mead”. A type of mead recipe that is meant to age quickly, for immediate consumption. Because of the techniques used in its creation, short mead shares some qualities found in cider. It ispetillant and often has a “cidre bouchee” taste.
  • Show mead: A term which has come to mean “plain” mead: that which has honey and water as a base, with no fruits, spices or extra flavourings. Since honey alone often does not provide enough nourishment for the yeast to carry on its life cycle, a mead that is devoid of fruit, etc. will sometimes require a special yeast nutrient and other enzymes to produce an acceptable finished product. In most competitions, including all those that subscribe to the BJCP style guidelines, as well as the International Mead Fest, the term “traditional mead” refers to this variety (because mead is historically a variable product, these guidelines are a recent expedient, designed to provide a common language for competition judging; style guidelines per se do not apply to commercial or historical examples of this or any other type of mead.
  • Sima: a quick-fermented low-alcoholic Finnish variety, seasoned with lemon and associated with the festival of vappu.
  • Tej/Mes: Tej/Mes is an Ethiopian and Eritrean mead, fermented with wild yeasts and the addition of gesho. Recipes vary from family to family.
  • Tella/Suwa: Tella is an Ethiopian and Eritrean style of beer; with the inclusion of honey some recipes are similar to braggot.
  • Trójniak(TSG): A Polish mead, made using two units of water for each unit of honey.
  • White mead: A mead that is coloured white with herbs, fruit or, sometimes, egg whites.

The History of Mead

Mead is independently multicultural. It is known from many sources of ancient history throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, although archaeological evidence of it is ambiguous. Its origins are lost in prehistory; “it can be regarded as the ancestor of all fermented drinks. It antedates the cultivation of the soil.” Claude Levi-Strauss makes a case for the invention of mead as a marker of the passage “from nature to culture.”

The history of mead is as long and rich and captivating as the beverage itself. Mead is thought to be the oldest alcoholic beverages known to man. It was most likely discovered quite by accident, when some thirsty prehistoric people discovered an upturned beehive filled with rainwater. They could have drunk the sweet water completely unaware of what fermentation and alcohol were and experienced the first intoxication. Likely it was in a quest to replicate this experience the art of mead-making was begun.

Mead evokes images of heroes and romantic tales, of castle feasts and chivalry. Legends surround it, of golden nectar, swirling in a goblet chased with silver, with the heady, erotic aroma of honey caressing the senses. Vikings quaff great tankards of frothy mead after successful raids. Beautiful maidens hold stirrup cups in their lithe hands and offering them along with a shy smile and their voluptuous bosoms to the handsome knight preparing to go off to battle but let’s add some facts to this fantasy.

Unfortunately, fermentation was not understood until the mid-1800. Consequently, two things occurred: First, fermentation was very unpredictable. Second, fermentation took on mystical and religious qualities.

Classical Times

Mead is mentioned peripherally, and the information is fascinating for its insights into Greek and Roman influences on the Celtic culture, possibly illustrating some of the spread of mead as a drink.

Fermented honey drinks are illustrated in the civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas. Small wonder that the people who drank hot melted chocolate should also have discovered the wonders of mead!

The ancient Greeks called mead, ambrosia, or nectar (history gives us many names & varieties of mead). It was believed to be the drink of the gods, and was thought to descend from the heavens as dew, before being gathered in by the bees. Because of the believed ties to the gods, it is easy to see why the ancient Greeks believed mead to have magical and sacred properties. The Greeks believed that mead would prolong life, and bestow health, strength, virility, re-creative powers, wit and poetry. The bees themselves according to Virgil’s Georgics are driven to the sky to honour the goddess Aphrodite. The prophetesses at Delphi are suspected of drinking mead made from a honey from slightly toxic plants in order to induce their prophetic states, and visions of the future.

Post-Classical Times

The Celtic peoples of the British Isles were said to have made mead with honey and the sap of a hazel tree. Some Christian saints were reputedly fond of a ‘wee drop o’ mead’ betimes. It is purported that St. Brigid turned water into mead at the court of the King of Leinster, using her magic cauldron. The Irish, from whom a great deal of our knowledge of the Celtic peoples arises, have long been famed for their ability to produce fine fermented beverages. The people that give us Guinness now also gave us their version of mead long ago, in the times of the heroes. Medb, speaking to Fiachu about parlaying with Cuchulain, one of the great heroes of Ireland, says, “He shall be recompensed for the loss of his lands and estates, for whosoever has been slain of the Ulstermen, so that it be paid to him as the men of Erin adjudge. Entertainment shall be his at all times in Cruachan; wine and mead shall be poured out for him.”

The faerie folk drank mead, and if you drank it with them, you might stay in their lands forever. The legends and myths of the Celtic folk are rife with references to mead. Though we don’t have any written records to prove it, it is not unlikely that the Druids might have used it in their rituals, perhaps adding some psychoactive substance to it to help them ‘see’ the gods.

Mead history in literature exists in profusion in the tales from the Scandinavian lands. Vikings have long been associated with mead, in stories and cultural myths by their descendants. You can find numerous mentions in Beowulf, the well-known and oft-translated saga of a man and his quest against the Grendel. Beowulf bemoans: “Then was this mead-house at morning tide, dyed with gore, when the daylight broke, all the boards of the benches blood-besprinkled, gory the hall: I had heroes the less, doughty dear-ones that death had reft.” The mead-hall seems to have been a central gathering place in Norse history, legends and mythology. Mead pervades their heritage, from their gods on down. It is said that Odin, the All-Father, imbibed nothing but mead. For him, say the tales, mead was both food and drink. In Valhalla, the Norse paradise, the heroes would dine upon the meat of a boar that renewed itself every night, and were supplied abundantly with mead from the she-goat Heidrun. Every day they would go forth upon the field of battle, to fight and die gloriously, and in the evening, they would be healed, to feast in the mead-hall again.

The Norse took their mead to heart. There is mead in the halls, mead with the gods, and mead in paradise.

Mead Halls

The mead halls function as a place of government and commerce. The mead hall has significant importance because of the activities that take place at the mead hall—one of them being the handling of military orders—a place where armies gather. In addition to military order, it is a place of commerce, where wealth and gifts are distributed. The mead halls, because of their government and commerce functions, could have been the first building to act like “city halls” in our modern age.

The mead hall is symbolic of the strength of a tribe: the more powerful the tribe, the more they conquer, the more wealth they obtain through those conquers and the greater the mead hall they are able to build. The mead hall is significant to the tribe because it serves as the central communication and cultural centre. It is where stories are read and it is a central gathering place for the tribe. The monster was creating fear at the mead hall—so great it was wrecking the symbolic powerfulness, functions and culture of the tribe. Enough so that the entire first half of Beowulf is devoted to this supernatural hero saving the mead hall—the most dramatic way the poet can describe their importance. The poem describes mead halls as great buildings, in which a king is best served during times of peace building a great mead hall. Hrothgar built it a great mead hall as the result of the successful wars and the building of a great army . The mead hall is symbolic of the virility, powerfulness and material wealth of a tribe.

In Norse/Aryan mythology a draught of mead, delivered by the beautiful divine maidens, was the reward for warriors that reached Valhalla. The Norse god of poetry, Brage, is said to have drunk mead from a Brage-beaker, later called the bragging cup, while the great Norse god, Odin, was said to have gained his strength but suckling mead from a goats’ udder as an infant. Celtic mythology tells of a river of mead running through paradise, while the Anglo-Saxon culture held mead up as the “bestower” of immortality, poetry and knowledge. Mythology of mead exists in our culture today, unnoticed by most. The term “honeymoon” comes from the ancient tradition of giving bridal couples a moons worth of honey–wine. This was long ago thought to ensure a fruitful union. In fact the payment to the meadmaker was often increased, dependent on the promptness and the male gender of the first-born child.

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages took mead to different heights. The stature afforded to mead can be seen in the fact that the sing’s mead cellar was under the direct care of the steward of the household, who was the chief officer of the court. And, payment for mead makers was as high as one third of the mead made for the customer. Unfortunately, during this same time the demand by the church for bees wax candles helped the decline of mead making by creating an economic incentive to rob the bee hives of their honey laden wax.

Alas, when sugar became more readily available after the reign of Elizabeth I, mead began to decline in popularity and wine arose in its stead. Mead declined in production in the south of Europe, where grapes were discovered as a less expensive, more predictable source of wine production. But, in the north, where vine fruits were less available, the popularity of mead continued.

Bees were thought, by most European cultures, to be the messengers of the gods. Therefore, even as mead production declined it was still used for the temples rites, and the grand ceremonies, while ales were used for everyday life. The same mystic properties, that kept mead in the temples, made mead a natural adjunct to early ideas of western medicine. In England there were a number of meads, flavoured with specific herbs that were used to cure any number of ailments. For example, mead made with balm was thought to aid digestion and expel melancholy, and mead made with borage was used to revive hypochondriacs and the chronically ill. The name for these spiced meads is metheglin, and comes for the Welsh word “medcyglin”, meaning medicine.

Cup of honey drink (mead). By Konstantin Makovsky - [1], Public Domain,
Cup of honey drink (mead). By Konstantin Makovsky – [1], Public Domain Source

In Literature

Westerners today usually associate mead with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Indeed, mead references in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare confirm that honey-based drinks were popular with publicans of the day. “Mention of mead comes from many sources, throughout mankind’s written history. Virgil and Plato mention it in their writings. It comes up in ‘Beowulf’ and the ‘Rig-Veda’. The Norse sagas are littered with mead references, as are many of the old Celtic tales. Looks like mead is indeed the stuff of legend!” Chaucer speaks of making Claret sweeter with the addition of honey. In 1771 the novelist Smollett wrote that knowledge of mead-making is considered one of the arts of a true country gentleman. Queen Elizabeth was known to have her own favourite recipe, including rosemary, bay leaves, sweet briar and thyme. But perhaps Howell, Clerk to the Privy Council, said it best in 1640 when he wrote, “The juice of bees, not Bacchus, here behold, Which British Bards were wont to quaff of old; The berries of the grape with Furies swell, But in the honey comb the Graces dwell.”

Mead Is the Beverage of Love

The phrase “honeymoon” comes from the revel-some wedding celebrations of the Norse, who danced and drank until the mead and ale ran out, and woe be unto the host that didn’t have sufficient supplies to last the full cycle of the moon! The drinking of mead has also been held responsible for fertility and the birth of sons, a very important consideration when the male offspring accounted for much status in the warrior clan. It was thought that if mead were consumed for one month (one moon) after a wedding, then the first child born to the couple would be male. Considering that the alcoholic content of mead often runs to twelve, or even fourteen percent by volume, this would prove to be quite a party. Successful male births were cause for further celebrations, and congratulations went out to the maker of the mead, as well as to the groom, who could now boast of his power, potency, and manliness. The use of special cups formed into tradition, and these cups were handed down through the generations, as if the cups and their contents were somehow responsible for the birthing of sons.

The idea that the drinking of mead could somehow influence the sex of the child is not as far-fetched as it may seem at first. Some suggest that the acidity and the sweetness of the drink can influence the mother-to-be’s body acidity, based on the idea that the acidity or alkalinity of the female body during conception can influence the sex of the new-born.

Other traditions called for the use of communal cups, called mazers, which were typically large, open vessels, usually the size and shape of a communion cup. The mazer was passed from hand to hand, with each person drinking from the cup offering a toast or prayer in passing.

Honey, and by association, mead, have been attributed with such powers as that of an aphrodisiac, and it has been said in times gone by that it imbues the drinker with attributes such as life, wisdom, courage and strength. Mead can be found all throughout recorded history, in all corners of the world. Its variations are legion. Many, if not most, cultures that mention mead, imbue it with mystical properties. The word ‘honeymoon’ is purported (but not proven) to have been derived from the custom of gifting a newlywed couple with mead as they went into their ‘moon’ or month of seclusion, presumably to create an heir to their name. There are many myths of gods giving mead to their followers as a gift. Bees were considered sacred messengers of the gods in some cultures, and an entire group of soothsayers, called “Melissas”, were keepers of bees.

In literature, the spread of mead is even more obvious. There are mentions of mead in the Rig Veda, a collection of ancient Sanskrit hymns where speculation is that the intoxicating drink soma was in fact mead. Look at this verse from the first book of the Rig Veda: “Adored, the strengthens of Law, unite them, Agni, with their Dames: Make them drink meath, O bright of tongue.” “Meath” is suspected to be another variation of the word from which our modern ‘mead’ is derived. It is also mentioned in several places in the Samaveda, another of the four Vedas. The date of the compilation of the Vedas is not known, but it is surmised that they came about sometime soon after the Aryans came to India. This verse shows again that mead could be found in that ancient culture: “Soma, while thou art cleansed, most dear and watchful in the sheep’s long wool, most like to Angiras! Thou hast become a sage. Sprinkle our sacrifice with mead!” Mead seems to have serious religious significance to the Hindus of the time.

From the Near East to Western Europe, where the Britons and Celts held sway, mead made its mark. In the Welsh epic, the Mabinongion, Arthur, King of the Britons says, “If I thought you would not disparage me,” said he, “I would sleep while I wait for my repast; and you can entertain one another with relating tales, and can obtain a flagon of mead and some meat from Kai.” Certainly the romantic soul has no trouble imagining Camelot, that pinnacle of light and chivalry in medieval England, as a home to the golden essence of mead. There are many mentions of mead in this highly entertaining collection of legends from tenacious and doughty Welsh culture. To this day, one can find a number of fine meads in Wales, some with roots dating back hundreds of years. In Wales, the tradition of mead is one that has been kept, and kept well.

Let me conclude by looking at contemporary resurgence in production and consumption of mead:

The earliest mead was a simple mixture of honey and water, fermented by wild yeast strains. Through history, man has added his own cultural and taste-based twists to the drink. There are dozens, if not hundreds of ways to make mead. There is melomel, or mead with fruit. Strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, cranberry and currant meads are readily available from commercial meaderies today in the United States and the U.K. Metheglin is mead with various spices. A popular mixture has been to use the ‘Christmas spices’ such as cinnamon, allspice, coriander, bay leaves and cloves to achieve a warm, spicy drink that warms you to your toes. Pyment is mead with grapes or grape juice. Sort of a combination between wine and mead, pyment is similar to what was found in King Midas’ tomb. Braggot is mead with grains or malt, sort of a malt-o-mead. Rhodomel is mead made with rose water or rose petals.

Yes, mead has begun to rise again, and today there are over 100 commercial meaderies in existence around the world. Large numbers of people are brewing mead in their homes, in the best traditions of their many ancestors. There are large numbers of mead-related websites on the Internet, and the brewing of mead is a very popular pastime in the SCA and with renaissance faire enthusiasts. Many renaissance faires serve mead, and a few even have special blends that are only available at their events.

A new mead that has become popular, and is extremely interesting is capsicumel. Yes, mead made with peppers. The chili-heads I have spoken with about ‘chilimead’ rave about the unique combination of heat and sweet. Others that are strange and wonderful are prickly pear mead, banana mead, maple mead and chocolate mead. You’ve heard of milk and honey? How about milk mead? It’s not as gross as it sounds. Some of the horse nomads made brews from curdled fermented mares’ milk, called kumiss. Did they add honey? We don’t know for sure, but it certainly is possible.

Mead makers in modern times are pushing the envelope of what mead can be, with often weird, but always interesting results. Some meads only the maker can love. Others, like the milk mead, have garnered surprisingly positive feedback, both from mead lovers and mead judges at competitions!

A number of books are available to learn more about mead and its history. If you’re interested in details about the history, take a look at Roger Morse’ book, Making Mead (Honey Wine) History, Recipes, Methods and Equipment. Roger Morse is one of the fathers of the modern mead revival.

Was mead truly a gift of the gods? We’ll never know for sure, but I like to think of those thousands of meadmakers, all over the world, who are keeping alive a thousands-year-old drink that has permeated civilization for as long as we can trace it back. We are furthering our heritage, one glass at a time.

May your meads ferment well, and may you never want for the golden nectar of the gods. Wassail and now please sample!

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.