Mead – Drink Made From Fermenting Honey

HONEY and water, which is known as hydromel, is one of the oldest honey beverages known to man. Old writings and Literature sometime refer to it as mead,meth or metheglin.

There appears to be at least three distinct types of mead. Simple mead , which is a combination of unfermented honey and water. It’s recipe consists of boiling about three parts water, to one part of honey; the honey may be increased according to ones taste for sweetness. water is to be boiled slow,until one third has evaporated, then the remainder is poured into a container until full. The honey is added. In three or four days it will be ready to drink Simple mead was known to be a favorite drink of the “Mohammedans” who WERE forbidden alcoholic beverages.

The recipe to make “Compound mead” is as follows;
One recipe of Simple mead (above)
One half pound of raisins, boiled and drained
Six pounds of honey.
Crust of Bread
During the time while the boiling the simple mead recipe, and as you see it start to evaporate, add the liquefied raisins strained through a coarse linen filter and into mead mixture. Boiled together for a short time; a toasted crust of bread, steeped in beer, is then put into the mixture, and after a scum forms at top and is removed, the liquid is taken off the heat, and allowed to settle. After it has been cooled pour into a barrel. (new barrels must be rinsed with brandy), an ounce of salt of tartar, dissolved in a glass of brandy is added. Kept in a warm room or exposed to the sun, with the barrel open, it will commence to ferment. Some pieces of lemon peel, a few drops of essence of cinnamon and some syrup of gooseberries, cherries, strawberries and aromatic flowers may be mixed with the concoction to suit individual taste. The froth must always be replaced with some of the remaining stock and the barrel kept continually filled. Compound mead ferments a considerable time, usually about two months. After the fermentation has ceased, the bung-hole is closed. The longer the mead is aged the better and more potent will it be. After several years in a cask it may be put, with the addition of a lump of sugar, into bottles which then must be well corked.

For the preparation of “Vinous mead” there are more diversified instructions, rules and procedures than for all other alcoholic liquors combined. Every nation, every class and age has had a different method of mead-making. The component parts, the technic and innumerable other considerations, had to be carefully bethought to produce an excellent mead. One Greek mead contained thirty-six ingredients and was called “true nectar.” The ancients depended even on the constellations of stars to select the best time for preparing this favorite drink. The fermentation period of mead was of such vital importance with some races that during that time sexual abstinence had to be observed, otherwise it was believed the mead would spoil. The number of ingredients which were selected is simply amazing. Thyme, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, sesame flour, sweet marjoram, rosemary, even whites of eggs, were added. In later centuries whisky, brandy and gin were used to strengthen and flavor it. Even the water was of consequence. Pliny, for instance, advised in making hydromel the use of rainwater which had to be at least five years old. The thalassiomel of the Greeks was prepared with seawater.

The pervading principle in the innumerable orthodox procedures of mead making was to determine first the correct proportion of honey, water and other ingredients; the period of time and the slowness of boiling; the vessel (copper, glass or earthenware) ; the proper scumming of the froth; the time and manner of fermentation and stirring; and finally how long to let it stand until it had aged enough and was fit to drink (Saxon quality).

Dr. Bevan’s recipe for making mead was a typical modus operandi: “Dissolve an ounce of cream of tartar in five gallons of boiling water, pour the solution off clear upon twenty pounds of fine honey, boil them together, and remove the scum as it rises. Towards the end of the boiling add an ounce of fine hops; about ten minutes afterwards put the liquor into a tub to cool. When reduced to a temperature of 700 or 80° Fahrenheit, according to the season, add a slice of toasted bread smeared over with a little yeast, the less the better because yeast invariably spoils the flavor of wines. If there is a sufficiency of extractive matter among the ingredients employed, yeast should not be introduced; nor if it is fermented in wooden vessels. The liquors should now stand in a warm room, and be stirred occasionally. As soon as it begins to carry a bead it should be tunned and the cask filled up from time to time from the reserve, till the fermentation has subsided. It should now be bunged down, leaving open a small peghole; in a few days this may also be closed and in about twelve months the wine will be fit to bottle.”

The invert sugars, dextrose and levulose, which honeys contain, readily produce alcohol by fermentation. Saccharose (sucrose), the main component of cane-sugar, must first be inverted before it ferments.

Mead preceded in Greece the wine-era by many long centuries. Aristotle remarks: “When the honey is squeezed out of the combs an agreeable strong drink, like wine, is produced.” Beer drinking among the ancient Greeks was considered a barbaric custom. Apollonius Rhodius (235 B.C.) related that the Argonauts kept vast stores of food and mead which the cup-bearers drew forth in beakers and described how the heroes grasped the full goblet in both hands and relished it, pouring also a cup of mead upon the seas before lifting their anchors. The Nordic races highly valued mead and it was the drink of their heroes. The Niebelungen heroes drank meth out of golden goblets and ox-horns. The high halls of Valhalla flowed with mead and the dead warriors freely drank from the inexhaustible supply. The intrepid Goth, Beowulf, was offered mead by the bracelet-covered queen at the court of Hrothgar who made the hall the greatest mead-house ever known. Mead was the “nectar” of all Scandinavian countries. It was their national drink. On an ancient Runic calendar, found in Scandinavia, consisting of pictorial symbols, two of the twelve months of the year bear witness to the popularity of mead. January first, the day of Yuletide festivities, was represented by two crossed ornamental meadhorns (these embellished horns look very much like those from which visitors in Upsala (Sweden) drink mead today (for a good price) at the “Barrow of Odin”), and the month of September, by a beehive and a swarm of bees, a reminder to collect the honey which is so necessary for brewing mead. In the Eddas, mead is often mentioned. Speaking of heroes: “Blue mead was their liquor, and it proved their poison; they marched to Cattraeth filled with mead and drunk.” In the early Christian era mead still was a favorite drink. In the “Legends of the Holy Rood,” mead is also mentioned. Chaucer alludes to “meth” as a common drink (Knight’s Tale; Miller’s Tale). Shakespeare alludes to metheglin when he suggests something sweet (Love’s Labor’s Lost; The Merry Wives of Windsor).

It seems rather remarkable how mead, the first fermented drink known, was ousted by the fermented produce of grapes, namely, wine. It suffered the same fate as honey as a food and sweetening substance. Wine prepared from grapes came into vogue comparatively late. Grapes came from China to Greece and Sicily; the Phoenicians carried them to the South of France, and the Romans to the Rhine and Danube. The first grape vines were planted on the Rhine in Ludwigsau by King Ludwig, “The German,” in 842 A.D. But it required many centuries before mead was entirely “dethroned.”

Among primitive races, especially the African tribes, mead has remained, up to this day, the popular drink. The East-African nomadic races not only eat the wild honey but they dilute it with water and let it ferment into wine or beer called tetsch, which is their favorite drink.

In Africa honey is found in huge quantities; in some places the bees are so numerous, as Seyffert-Dresden describes it, that they even obstruct the passage of travelers and the air is filled with the odor of honey and the continuous buzzing of bees. The African races, without exception, are fond of honey. They mix it with flour, cereals, butter, milk and bake paThe African soothsayers and prophets intoxicate themselves with this honey-wine. During ceremonials and magical practices it is liberally used. They drink it from horns, like the Niebelungen used to do, and also distill it for brandy. stries with it; they even knead their tobacco with honey, making dry cubes for chewing-tobacco which they call Latuka.

J. Magnus, in the Historia Sueonum (The History of Swedes), describes how Hunding, the 23rd King of Sweadland, upon a false report of the death of his brother-in-law, Hading, King of Denmark, invited all his nobility to a sumptuous feast and provided a large vessel of mead. After they had become drunk, as a token of friendship for his supposedly dead friend, Hunding plunged into the vessel and willingly drowned himself. The Swedes considered him immortal and superior in courage to the Greek and Roman heroes.

In India, honey is an important article in the preparation of foods and drinks, especially in the manufacture of alcoholic liquors. The Himalayan mead has an unusual potency; one cup is sufficiently intoxicating. In ancient Babylon, date and honey-wine, called sikaru, was a powerful alcoholic drink. The misshu of the Koreans is a brandy with a high percentage of alcohol. It is a distilled honey-wine. Some Persians have a tube gently inserted between their teeth while still asleep, and have a mixture of warm milk, whisky and honey poured into their mouths so that the taste of “nectar” should be their first conscious sensation each day (Patrick Balfour, Grand Tour).

The Boros and the American Indians of the Western Amazon forests are also fond of honey. They use it for food and prepare their beverages from it, which they drink in excess during festive occasions. The wild honey is collected from the cavities of dead trees or from the hollow tree-trunks which the natives set up in the thatch of their houses for the new swarms to nest in.

According to ancient Anglo-Saxon history, the beehive supplied the whole population, from the king down to the poorest subject, with food, drink and light. Mead was served at the royal tables, in monasteries and in the houses of the poor. During royal festivities, mead was served in horns. English history mentions how Ethelstan, the subordinate King of Kent (Xth Century), expressed his delight, when visiting his relative, that there was “no deficiency of mead.” The affluent supply of mead in medieval Germany is proven by the fact that when hostile tribes tried to burn the town of Meissen, on the Upper-Elbe, in the year 1015, its population, owing to shortage of water, extinguished the flames with their reserve stock of mead.

Many varieties of honey-brew were used during the Middle Ages. Frequently the crushed combs were steeped in water, strained, and then put into earthen vessels until the liquid fermented and became mead. It was preferably kept in wooden barrels, and the longer it aged the more it gained in flavor and strength. This was the most common procedure. The stronger and “more generous” kind of mead was called metheglin. In its preparation spices, like thyme, sweet marjoram, rosemary, ginger, cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves and pepper were used in liberal proportions. Sometimes sweet apples, pears and quinces were added. In some parts of Wales, the refuse-combs were brewed with malt or spices. The drink was called braggots, derived from the old English brag, meaning malt, and gots, honeycomb. This was later corrupted to brackets. The Irish had a honey-wine called usquebaugh. In Ireland mead was often mixed with the “milk” of the hazel nut. Mullet alluded to this beverage, made of honey, wine and herbs, as “not unfit for a nation that feeds on flesh raw, or but half sod.”

Charles Butler gave long and detailed directions about how to make the best mead—Queen Elizabeth’s Metheglin. Queen Elizabeth was extremely fond of mead. She had her own formulas for its preparation and mellowing, and it was specially prepared for her. Let Butler tell all about this Royal drink:

“He who liketh to know the many and sundry makings of this wholesome drink must learn it of the ancient Britons: who therein do pass all other people. One excellent receipt I will here recite: and it is of that which our renowned Queen Elizabeth, of happy memory, did so well like, that she would every year have a vessel of it.

“The Queen’s Metheglin. First, gather a bushel of sweetbriar leaves, and a bushel of thyme, half a bushel of rosemary, and a peck of bay-leaves. Seethe all these (being well washed) in a furnace (not less than 120 gallons) of fair water; let them boil the space of half an hour, or better: and then pour out all the water and herbs into a vat, and let it stand until it be but milk warm: then strain the water from the herbs, and take to every six gallons of water one gallon of the finest honey, and put it into the boorne, and labor it together half an hour: then let it stand two days, stirring it well twice or thrice each day. Then take the liquor and boil it anew: and when it doth seeth, skim it as long as there remaineth any dross. When it is clear, put it into the vat as before, and there let it be cooled. You must then have in readiness a kiv(e) of new ale or beer, which as soon as you have emptied, suddenly whelm it upside down, and set it up again, and presently put in the metheglin, and let it stand three days a-working. And then tun it up in barrels, tying at every taphole (by a pack thread) a little bag of beaten cloves and mace, to the value of an ounce. Such was the mead of good Queen Bess.” N.B. “It must stand half a year before it is drunk.”

Honey-brew mixed with mulberry juice was called, among the Britons, morat. This was the drink of the better classes. Another beverage, called pigment, brewed from the purest honey, flavored with spices, like ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, etc., mixed sometimes with wine, was the drink of the Anglo-Saxon monarchs during their customary four daily feasts. William I reduced the number of daily court orgies to a single state banquet. The English monks were allowed for dinner one sextarium of mead (in modern measure this would amount to several gallons) among six of them, and half the quantity for supper. The Polish monks of St. Basil were experts in making miodomel, a species of mead flavored with hops. It was considered an excellent digestive and a remedy for gout and rheumatism. Krupnik was another Polish drink, made from good whisky boiled with honey, which had to be drunk hot during the cold winter. The order of Cluny called mead bochet and designated it as “potus dulcissimus” (sweetest beverage), agreeable to the taste and smell. It was ever so much favored by these monks during great church festivities. The Russians brewed mead with a decoction of hops and barley. The Russian lipez was brewed from delicious linden-honey.

Edwardes describes, in The Lore of the Honey-Bee, how, during the Norman invasion, the “outlandish liquor of grape” was brought in and took the place of the good old English honey-brew, the Saxon mead. From that time on, he relates, mead has steadily declined in vogue until it has become an almost lost art, practiced only by some old-fashioned folks in remote country places. Those who have had the good fortune to taste the old mead, well matured in wood, are sure to feel regret that no determined effort is made to rehabilitate it in national favor. There is no more wholesome drink in the world, and certainly none requiring less technical skill in the making. All ancient books on beekeeping give directions for its manufacture, differing only in the variety of ingredients which were added for its improvement, or rather, for its degradation. The finest mead can be brewed from pure honey and water alone. Any addition of spices or other material serves to destroy its unique flavor.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, certain bee-masters were renowned in their day for mead brewing. One of the best mead-brewers claimed that his potion was absolutely indistinguishable, even by the most competent judges, from old Canary Sack (sack, a kind of wine, was a popular drink in Shakespeare’s days). This authority gave careful directions for the manufacture of mead. If kept for a number of years, such mead, when poured into a glass, frothed like champagne, stilling soon, leaving the glass lined with sparkling air bubbles. It was of a pale golden color and had a bouquet like old cider, but its delicate taste was hardly comparable with any other known liquor. Dryden suggested diluting stronger wines with mead:

T’ allay the strength and hardness of the wine,
Let with old Bacchus, new Metheglin join.

In the courts of the Princes of Wales, the Mead-Maker was the eleventh dignitary, preceding even the court physician. He received his land and horses free; the Queen supplied him with linen and the King, with woolen clothing. A certain amount of mead was his allotted share. In the principality of Wales, “the spacious halls of the Princes resounded, accompanied by the lyre, with the praises of mead.” Mead-hall and mead-bench are often mentioned in songs of the Druid bards. There were three things in Court which had to be communicated to the king before they were made known to any other person:

“1st, Every sentence of the judge;
2nd, Every new song; and
3rd, Every cask of mead.”

Innumerable drinks were prepared from honey and wine. The famous old athole brose consisted of equal parts of honey and cream, to which mature Scotch whisky was added. (This was sup-posed to cure all ills—even without faith.) Boswell, in The Life of Johnson, mentioned a drink, “a curious liquor peculiar to his country,” which the Cornish fishermen drank. They called it mahogany. It consisted of two parts of gin and one part of treacle, well beaten together. Johnson begged Mr. Eliot to have some made, which was done with proper skill. Johnson thought it a very good beverage, a counterpart of what was called athol porridge in the Highlands of Scotland, a mixture of whisky and honey, but he considered the latter a better liquor than that of the folks of Cornish, because “both of its component parts were bet-ter.” (It is not surprising that Johnson suffered from bad gout.) Johnson remarked that “mahogany must be a modern name, for it is not long since the wood called mahogany was known in this country.” Johnson also had the bees in mind when he remarked that “Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation.”

Edwardes quotes the old bee-master: “But of all the good things given us by the wise physician of the hive, there is nothing so good as well-brewed metheglin. This is just as I have made it for forty years, and as my father made it long before that. Between us we have been brewing mead for more than a century. It is almost a lost art now; but here in Sussex there are still a few antiquated folks who make it, and some even remember the old `methers,’ the ancient cups, it used to be quaffed from. As an everyday drink for working-men, wholesome, nourishing and cheering, there is nothing like it in or out of the Empire.” Joseph Warder, a physician, (1726) dedicating a book about bees to his ruler, Queen Anne, refers to mead as a “liquor no ways inferior to the best of Wines coming either from France or Spain,” and suggests a toast to her Majesty’s health “not with the expensive wine of our enemies but with a glass such as our Bees can procure us.” Rev. Thorley also thought mead “not inferior to the `Best’ of foreign Wines.” Honey-beer was very popular with the ancient Gauls. They had two kinds, zythus prepared with pure honey for the rich, and corma, made from the combs after the honey had been extracted, for consumption by the poor. The Russian mod is an old-fashioned honey-drink, of the same strength as beer.

The French being ardent wine growers, despised mead. It was never sold under that name. Nonetheless, much mead was sold in France under fictitious names like Rota, Madeira, Malmsey, etc. The Bavarian meth was the precursor of the beer industry of Munich. The use of hops in beer-making originated in Russia.