The History of Mead

Mead, the world’s oldest fermented beverage, created by combining watered honey with beer or wine yeasts, has been consumed and enjoyed by cultures across the world all throughout history. Most folks have probably heard accounts of mead drinking in the context of Norse or Viking cultures, where it is enjoyed in raucous halls alongside plenty of brawling and feasting. However, references to mead have been found in ceramic pottery from China, dating to 7000 B.C.E.; in the ancient Hindu text of the Rigveda from India; in manuscripts from ancient Egypt; and even in a mixture of grape and barley wine found in the tomb of the Greek king, Midas.

It is easy to see why mead was so widespread across the ancient world. As a preservative and easy source of sugar, honey would have been used anywhere that bees were present and would often have been mixed in with nuts, berries, meats, drinks, and baked goods. Over time, the naturally occurring yeasts in both honey and fruit would have made almost any diluted honeyed liquid ferment, making mead an easy and delicious discovery! The oldest known recipe for mead came from the Hispanic-Roman naturalist Columella, around the year 60 C.E., who prescribed the following:

“Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a [Roman] pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces 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.”                

While mead has evolved greatly over the centuries, it is this basic mixture that has stood the test of centuries and found its way into the cellars of everyone from Socrates to King Tut. In ancient Egypt, mead was so valuable that honey gatherers were kept under armed guard while out hunting for hives. In Greece, some scholars theorize that ambrosia, the drink of the Gods and the source of their immortality, may have been mead, due to honey’s medicinal qualities, and was said to be the preferred drink of Grecians during the Golden Age.

Of course, there are few cultures where this beverage has played such an impactful role as those of the Norse and Germanic societies. In the frigid northern climates of Western Europe and the Scandinavian Peninsula, where battles against the elements were as intense as the conflicts between one another, it is easy to see why folks would have gathered in mead halls to make merry and enjoy the warmth of friendly company, good food, roaring fires, and a cup or three of strong drink.

In these times, mead was so popular that it was often elevated to near mythical status. In the legend of the Mead of Poetry, the god of wisdom, Kvasir, was murdered by two evil dwarves, who took his blood, rendered it down, and brewed it into an exceptional mead that could confer poetic inspiration on whomever drank it. Thor, god of thunder, was said to be able to down mead by the barrel, and in the legend of Beowulf, the mead hall Heorot was said to become so raucous that it awakened an ancient monster, Grendal, who came to terrorize the patrons into silence. Ancient Scandinavian culture even held that the glorious afterlife was a great mead hall called Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain, where Odin, the All Father, holds dominion over the dead heroes. Here, the kettle Eldhrímnir supplies an endless feast of meat, while the goat, Heiðrún, produces, from its udders, vats of the most exquisite mead to be found in all the nine realms.

Despite its ancient roots, mead has not enjoyed the same level of popularity in modern times as beer, wine, and cider. This is largely due to to the sheer cost of its production when compared to grains and fruit. Mead was often seen, even in ancient times, as a beverage for the elite. This may be part of its mythical status as a drink of kings and divinity. However, this is now changing. Meaderies across the world are opening their doors, and now anyone can experience the delightful sweetness and depth of this drink, if they are willing to explore. After all, who wouldn’t want a chance to sample the nectar of the gods?