Beer & Wine Wine

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Mead

Mead in bottles
Image: Getty Images / Alissa Sanderson

Ever wonder what mighty potion Vikings fortified themselves with as they crisscrossed the oceans? Or what Aristotle was swigging from his goblet? The answer lies with the humble honeybee—and the drink it has helped produce for millenia.

Possibly the ancestor of all alcoholic beverages, mead has enjoyed audiences across history, from humble working folk to soldiers and pirates and even royalty. And while its popularity waned in recent centuries, the modern era has seen a resurgence in this ancient, golden-hued drink.

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1. Mead exists in its own distinct category, like cider

While often referred to as a honey wine, that's not entirely accurate. Made with honey, water, and yeast, rather than fruit, mead resides in its own category of alcoholic beverage. Even the meads that are flavored with a variety of fruit are not considered wines.

2. It’s quite possibly the oldest alcoholic beverage on earth

Chinese pottery vessels dating from 7000 B.C.E. suggest evidence of mead fermentation that predates both wine and beer. The 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, it spread globally, and was popular with Vikings, Mayans, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans alike.

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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 divine 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

Today's physicians are unlikely to write a prescription for mead, but certain kinds made with herbs or spices were used as medicine in early England. Infusing herbs into a sweet mead made them more palatable, 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, each 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.

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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 mentions spiking his claret with honey—clearly he had a sweet tooth.

Mead made its mark on other literary worlds, too. The epic poem Beowulf features public mead halls front and center: The boisterous mead hall called Heorot is attacked by the monster Grendel, motivating Beowulf to battle. Even J.R.R. Tolkien got down with mead mania in Middle-earth, referencing a mead hall as the kingdom of Rohan’s 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.

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8. Mead is a preferred drink of royalty.

Queen Elizabeth II has been known to throw back a goblet of mead, and even maintains a favorite recipe made with rosemary, thyme, bay leaves and sweet briar. And according to some tales, Queen Makeda of Sheba gave King Solomon a gift of T’ej, a bittersweet Ethiopian mead flavored with buckthorn. T'ej can be traced to the fourth century and is still a popular drink in the East African region.

9. You can thank mead for your honeymoon

While oysters may be the most commonly appreciated aphrodisiac, mead was the original. In fact, the term “honeymoon” comes from 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 would often include a month’s worth of mead in her dowry.

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10. Craft mead is on the rise

Mead isn’t just the drink of sea-faring vikings and mummified royalty, it's also a popular choice today. There are now almost 250 meaderies in America and even mead festivals around the country celebrating the ancient beverage. The resurgence of this radiant drink seems assured due to continued interest in craft brewing and distilling.

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.