As National Mead Day is approaching on Saturday 6th August, we’re taking a look at the oldest alcoholic drink in human history. We’ll be trying some of the different styles that are causing its current resurgence in popularity with beer, wine and liqueur fans alike.
Mead production has a written history that can be traced to hymns of ancient Hinduism from 1700 BC, and chemical analysis of pottery from Northern China shows evidence that a variant of mead was being made as far back as 7000 BC. This already predates any other form of alcohol production, but some people suggest it is likely that nomadic African tribes discovered and reproduced fermented honey, that had mixed with rain water in tree hollows which contained hives. If this theory is correct, it places the first man-made mead somewhere around 30,000 BC.
Culturally, mead found a home in Asia, Africa and across Europe as a traditional homemade drink, a festival treat, the “nectar of gods” and even as a preservative; summer fruits would be stored in the barrels of mead to bolster food stocks in winter months. This practice accidentally created fruit infused mead and barrel aged mead, which became popular delicacies.
Mead has been a constant companion of Ancient Greek and Nordic Viking mythology, Old English epic poetry (most notably Beowulf) and similar Celtic and Germanic writings. It has also commonly been known as a by-product at monasteries, where bees were kept in order to make wax candles.
When Marco Polo brought sugar cane to Europe around 1300 AD, the comparative expense of honey forced it out of popularity in favour of sugar-sweetened delicacies. When the industrial revolution led to the invention of a machine that easily separated honey from the comb in the 1800s, far less rinsing was needed to process the wax, leaving very little honey water for mead production. At this stage, brewing mead became a practice almost solely continued by monasteries, where the process was still done by hand.
In recent history, mead has been confined to stereotypes of a sickly sweet, one-dimensional honey drink for renaissance fairs and re-enactment groups, but that’s all changing following the craft beer revolution. Now, meaderies are innovating with fruity, spiced, herbal and even sparkling varieties of mead.
The popularity of this new wave of mead drinking has also gone hand in hand with the campaigns to protect the dwindling population of honey bees. Mead is an extra commercial outlet for urban beekeepers that have set up hives atop office buildings and flats in major cities like New York, London and Edinburgh. Each area creates honey with its own unique flavour (based on the local plant life) and adds further variety to the mead market, which in turn funds the effort to protect and rejuvenate the bee population.
These are three of our top modern mead producers, who are using local produce in these new styles to give mead a fresh face, making it a drink we are fascinated by once more.
Gosnells London Mead
Tom Gosnell’s sparkling meads are a sensation that is sweeping through the media, and for good reason. A gently fizzy mead that’s lower in alcohol than most, with a light body and a fantastic balance of floral character and semi-sweet citrus blossom honey.
Their standard London mead presents an elderflower and honeysuckle element to a beeswax feel over the tongue, with a light and citrusy honey base. By dropping the alcohol to 5.5%, lowering the sweetness and giving it that little fizz, Gosnells have made the perfect entry point for beer drinkers into the world of mead.
Brewed with a wonderful hoppy addition, Gosnells fruitier side comes through as the palate becomes all about pears and light stone fruit, drizzled in honey and baked, with herbal notes and a citrus tang that makes this an instant staff favourite.
Up in Perthshire, the Rookery is going right back to the original purity of mead. They make the Traditional Mead purely from fermented Perthshire Heather Honey and water with nothing else added, allowing the natural influence of the heather to shine through.
As they only produce small batches, they are also able to experiment with herbal and spice infusions, creating editions like their Ginger Mead, which has fruity notes and a drying spicy character. They have won awards with their Spruce Tip Mead, making a lighter style by adding hand-foraged Scottish Spruce to impart a pine and citrusy flavour.
America has recently seen a huge explosion in mead popularity, with over 150 dedicated meaderies currently active! Rogue Farms pride themselves on the home-grown ingredients for their beers, spirits and now mead. Using 19 different bee colonies across their land to provide varieties of local honey, they then blend it with jasmine tea leaves to create a light and delicately floral mead with lots of sweetness.