Ever wonder what mighty potion Vikings fortified themselves with as they crisscrossed the oceans? Or what King Midas was swigging from his golden goblet? The answer lies with the humble honeybee—and the sweet elixir it’s helped produce for millenia.
Mead may be the ancestor of all alcoholic beverages. It’s enjoyed audiences with all manner of royalty, epic fictional heroes and even Greek gods. But its popularity has still sagged under the weight of history—until now. The ancient draught is staging a triumphant return, and you need to know what all the buzz is about.
The first batch of mead was likely a happy accident. Image: Eco Artware
1. Mead exists in its own distinct category, like cider.
Mead is fermented with three basic ingredients: honey, yeast and water. It isn’t classified as beer or wine in the typical sense, but stands apart in its own rank of alcoholic beverage. You might hear mead referred to as honey wine. Not quite. Mead is created by fermenting honey, while wine is made from fermented fruit. And though mead is often flavored with various fruits, that does not make it wine.
2. It’s quite possibly the oldest alcoholic beverage on earth.
Chinese pottery vessels dating from 7000 B.C. suggest evidence of mead fermentation that out-ages both wine and beer. The very first batch of mead was probably a chance discovery: Early foragers likely drank the contents of a rainwater-flooded beehive that had fermented naturally with the help of airborne yeast. Once knowledge of mead production was in place, the sweet beverage became globally gulpable, popular with Vikings, Mayans, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans alike.
Mead was considered a powerful ambrosia by ancient Greeks. Image: Bedore Tours
3. The golden elixir was considered the drink of the gods.
Referred to as “nectar of the gods” by ancient Greeks, mead was believed to be dew sent from the heavens and collected by bees. Many European cultures considered bees to be the gods’ messengers, and mead was thus associated with immortality and other magical powers, such as Olympus-level strength and wit. For this reason, mead continued to factor heavily in Greek ceremonies even after its eventual decline in drinking popularity.
4. Under the weather? Take a glass of mead.
No need for a mead prescription these days, but certain kinds made with herbs or spices were used medicinally in early England. Infusing herbs into a sweet mead made them more agreeable, and different varieties were thought to improve digestion, help with depression and alleviate good old-fashioned hypochondria. These types of spiced, herbal meads are called metheglin, derived from the Welsh word for medicine.
5. Mead’s flavor varies greatly depending on honey type.
A single honeybee produces a meager twelfth of a teaspoon of honey per day. Because most meads require up to two gallons of the sweet stuff, every drop is precious. The honey used determines the overarching flavor of the mead, and can vary according to a honey bee’s particular diet of nectar and pollen. Traditional mead often uses a mild honey such as orange blossom, clover or acacia, but wildflower, blackberry and buckwheat honeys produce great results with sturdier, spiced meads.
Explore every branch of the mead family tree, including melomel and cyser. Image: Desert Living Today
6. Mead is incredibly diverse.
Sweet, dry, still or sparkling—all describe varieties of mead. But amble up the mead family tree a bit further and you’ll meet some of the more eccentric relatives. You already know metheglin, but don’t forget melomel, a mead that contains juice or fruit like blackberries and raspberries. Then there’s cyser, an apple-based mead; acerglyn, made with maple syrup; braggot, a mead/beer blend brewed with hops or barley; rhodomel, a very old style laced with roses—and legions more.
7. You’ll find frequent mead references in classic literature.
The best part of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? When the mead starts flowing. In The Miller’s Tale, mead is described as the draught of townfolk and used to court a fair lady. Chaucer also makes mention of spiking his claret with honey—clearly he had a sweet tooth.
Mead made its mark on other fictional worlds too. A little epic poem called Beowulf features public mead halls front and center: The boisterous mead hall called Heorot is attacked by the monster Grendel, which motivates Beowulf to battle.
Even J.R.R. Tolkien got down with mead mania in Middle-earth. He too referenced a mead hall as Rohan’s great gathering place and house of the king. Sumptuously decorated with a straw roof that appeared to shine like gold from a distance, the mead hall was a space of great importance and power.
Queen Elizabeth has been known to throw back a golden goblet or two and even maintains a favorite mead recipe made with rosemary, thyme, bay leaves and sweet briar. And King Midas with his golden touch? His tomb was discovered in Turkey and revealed the remains of the king’s funeral feast. Guess what was found in the ancient drinking cups: sweet mead residue.
Mead is also believed to have been the choice beverage of Queen Sheba and King Solomon. T’ej is a type of bittersweet Ethiopian mead that can be traced to the fourth century and is still a popular drink in the region. If it ain’t broke, keep drinking it.
9. You can thank mead for your honeymoon.
Stop slurping oysters: Sweet mead is the original aphrodisiac. The origin of “honeymoon” harks back to the medieval tradition of drinking honey wine for a full moon cycle after a new marriage. All that golden essence would supposedly ensure a fruitful union bearing plenty of children. This mead-based insurance policy was taken so seriously that a bride’s father included a month’s worth of mead in her dowry.
Drink like a king at home with a DIY mead-making kit. Image: Hi Consumption
10. Craft mead is on the rise.
Mead isn’t just the drink of Greek gods and mummified kings. There are now almost 250 meaderies in America, and the resurgence of this radiant juice seems assured, due to continued interest in craft brewing and distilling. A couple promising signs: Local mead festivals are cropping up around the country to pay tribute to the ancient quaff, and chef René Redzepi of Noma—rated the best restaurant in the world—has revived industry interest in mead by using it in his dishes.
Ready to jump headfirst into the honeycomb? It’s surprisingly easy. Try your hand at homemade mead-making with a DIY starter kit, similar to beginner homebrewing setups but with a bit more buzz.
For the REAL history on fermented beverages and ancient foods, check out the various books written by Dr. Patrick McGovern of UPenn. Among other cool locations, he has conducted archaeological research at the site of Midas' tomb!
Dogfish Head Brewery's Ancient Ales series are partially based on his research.
Mead is easy to make at home too. I have made two batches, one sweet and one dry. The dry one was 8 lb of honey to 5 gal, and the sweet one took 12 lb. I add a few whole cloves and a few cinnamon sticks. I heat to a short boil to sanitize it before cooling and adding the wine yeast. After it ferments out, I bottle it. Then comes the hard part -- waiting 6-12 months for it to mellow out.