Liquor, like all good things that have come down to us over the millennia, was created by accident. Someone left something that could be fermented in a cool, dry place with plenty of water, someone boldly drank the water that was there, and the party started. When you think of the classic drinks, beer and wine are the ones that should come to the top of mind. Beer in the northern areas, where the seasons were rough and grain was plentiful. Warmer climates offered a bounty of grapes to grow and crush, making wine the drink of choice around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Further south in Africa, something different was happening. It was also happening in China, but not in the same pure form it was in Africa. Honey was the dominant target of sugary treat to be fermented, and the fermentation of honey becomes mead. Mead was being created in Africa for hundreds of years before wine and beer were being made. Mead, once it was brought forth from Africa, became a staple all over the world.
Mead is liquor fermented from honey. It is incredibly simple to make, so simple nature makes it all by itself. In Africa, it was discovered in hollow tree stumps filled with water after the rainy season. Bees made their hives in there, and when the rains came they wisely abandoned them. The honey was processed by the bees until it was so dense that airborne yeast would not get trapped and ferment in it (bees are teetotalers), but trapped it was. The yeast helped to ferment the honey as it broke down in the water. That left whatever honey was there, sitting in the rain water until someone found it sometime later. As people migrated north, they took the secrets of mead creation with them. It spread through Europe, and people loved it.
The love people had for mead made it legendary. Most European mythology has mead as a drink of the gods, and bees as messengers to the gods. Nectar was what the Greek gods drank to maintain their immortality, and the Norse mixed the blood of the god Kvasir with honey to make the Mead of Poetry. Mead was in the epic poem Beowulf, and mentioned by the Spanish in their poems as well. Mead was drank by royalty through Europe. It became so popular that one of the wedding gifts expected to be provided was a month’s worth of the sweet drink. The supply lasted from one full moon to the next, giving us the post-nuptial term “honeymoon”. Bees do not like to give up their honey very easily, and they only will produce so much in a season. As the population of Europe grew, mead became more and more precious. It lost its popularity through two major events on the continent. Marco Polo brought sugar cane back from his trips from China, which offered a cheaper and easier way to make wine and beer, increasing their popularity through Europe. About a century and a half later, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in England (which made a considerable amount of alcohol in general), pushing mead underground completely. Over the centuries it became something that was made individually in homes, and such a part of English tradition they brought bees over to the New World with them.
Mead has many varieties, all of them regional, and all of them unique. In Ethiopia, each house has its own recipe of a drink they call tej. They flavor it with a bitter bark from the gesho tree and are very serious about keeping each family recipe secret. The Finns have a special version for their May Day celebrations called sima, to which lemon is added to balance the sweetness of the honey. Raisins are then added to show when the fermentation is done; when the raisins float, the drink is ready. Ireland and England consider it a traditional drink, and many people drink it along with stout and Irish whisky on St. Patrick’s Day. You can drink mead chilled like you would a white wine, or add mulling spices to it and drink it warm. Much like where and how grapes are grown can affect the taste of wine, where honey is gathered can alter the taste of mead. People have also added spices, berries, special yeasts, malts, apples, and anything else that has sugar and can add to the flavor of the mead. Mead can handle it all.
Of course, by this point you would love to try a glass of it yourself, but where in the Miami Valley can you get some? Miami Valley Wine and Spirits has the occasional tasting of mead, as well as selling some of the flavored meads. The ever eclectic Belmont Party Supply offers a selection of mead that leans to the more traditional honey flavors. Our friends at Arrow Wine and Spirits also have a broad selection of meads. Local wine producers Valley Vineyards make excellent mead, and they also sell it as a split if you just want to try it before committing to a bottle. B Nektar has much more fun with their meads, offering a wide variety of flavors for you to explore. Chaucer Mead is sold with a few packs of mulling spices, offering you the option of drinking it warmed or chilled. If you are looking to make your own, You can find some of the tools for it right next door to Belmont party supply. You can also get the honey locally from Bee Honey Healthy or look at local farmer’s markets in Centerville or downtown.
While you may not find poetic inspiration or divine vision while drinking mead, you are sure to find some pleasant surprises while exploring it. Bring it in as a dessert wine for the next party you go to, or have a mead tasting of your own. Have you had a mead you would like to recommend? Add it in the comments section. Cheers!