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History of Mead Part 1: The Rise of Mead

The Oldest Drink In The World

Picture this in your mind- what did ancient people drink? Maybe you see flagons of ale. Maybe people are holding goblets and swigging from pouches of wine. 

Centuries before beer and wine became popular, it was actually mead that ancient people in many regions used for enjoyment and celebration. Mead, the fermented drink made with honey and water, was long the drink of choice from Egypt to Scandinavia.

Mead takes us on a journey around the world, going back before recorded history. Mead is often considered the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world, as well.

Yes, mead! A beverage which maybe you haven’t even heard of until today?? If so, you’re not alone. Our owner and head mead maker, Derek, hadn’t heard of mead either before he took a class on making it…

…and here we are now with Dragonfire Meadery. A little knowledge can lead to some big and magical things.

If you have heard of mead, you probably think of it as the drink of Vikings. That’s true– Vikings and other Northern European communities took lots of pride in making and drinking mead. But mead has been part of many cultures globally for many thousands of years, from Africa to Asia and the Middle East… long before it made its way to Europe. 

Mead Starts With Honey… and Bees

All mead starts with honey. The honeybees of yore gave our ancestors the gift of that nutritious, sweet food. Humans learned to collect honey from beehives many thousands of years ago. You’d have to get lucky and find a beehive that way, though, and eventually humans decided they’d like to be sure to keep some honey around! So, the first recorded instance of beekeeping came in 10,000 B.C. in Egypt.

We don’t know when exactly humans learned to ferment honey in water, but historians think it was a fateful, happy accident: someone leaving a dish of honey out in the rain and discovering it had become something new after sitting in the rainwater and natural fermentation agents.

Some historians have even suggested that mead could have been created on its own in nature– it’s not too hard to imagine that a beehive knocked over in a storm could fill with water, ferment, and produce mead that humans never even touched.

This is very likely why mead became a drink of importance in so many cultures before the development of wine–in some cases, it practically makes itself!

Honey Drinks from Many Lands

Honey started showing up in beverages around the world thousands of years ago. The root word for mead, “medhu,” exists in almost all Indo-European cultures. But the earliest evidence we have of an alcoholic beverage is traces of a drink fermented of honey, fruit, and rice in Jihau, in the Henan province of China back in 7,000 B.C.

There was beekeeping and honey activity over in the Americas too. A honey drink called balché has long existed in Mayan civilization, on the Yucatan Peninsula. It was used in ceremony and ritual, and considered sacred. We don’t know exactly how long because the Spanish conquistadores who invaded the Maya destroyed so many historical records(if it even had been written down). The conquistadores also banned the drink from being made and used. Regardless, balché is still made in the Yucatan as it always was, with honey, water, and bark from the balché tree.

In Ethiopia, as early as 80 B.C., there are records of the first invention of Tej, a honey drink very similar to mead. Tej is also made with honey and water, but specifically is made with the leaf-based fermentation agent called “gesho.” Tej was originally only the drink of the King and other rulers… even up til the 1900s! As times changed, though, Tej became available to all the people of Ethiopia and neighboring countries including Eritrea, and is now considered the national drink of Ethiopia.

Ancient Sumerians were also experts in fermentation. There’s a mention of fermenting honey and wine for drinking in the poem Hymn to Ninaski, for the goddess of fermentation.

Egyptians, as you now know, were pioneers of beekeeping, and they prized honey. Honey was used for food, drink, and even called for in the recipe of the high temple incense, which was used in the most holy of the temples. There were also traces of mead found in King Tut’s tomb!

Next, we start to have many more records of mead’s presence as we reach the Golden Age of Greece…

The Drink of the Gods

Honey was very special in ancient Greek society. The Greeks revered bees, to start– they considered bees to be messengers of the gods, ferrying around sweet delicious nectar and divine words. There was a minor god of beekeeping, and bees were even one of the symbols of Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Bees were even a symbol stamped on currency.

Bees, through the gift of honey, gave humans wisdom and strength.

With that honey came the ability to create a divine beverage known as mead. They also called it hydromelli, which means honey water. Naturally, the Greeks associated honey and thus mead with ambrosia, the nectar of the gods! Mead is recorded as the preferred drink of the Greeks, noted by Aristotle, who lived in the 300s B.C.

Romans drank mead as well as honey-sweetened wine for their feasts and celebrations. Check out this Roman recipe for mead circa 60 A.D.:

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a [Roman] pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rainwater, then boil spring water.”


The Toast of Legends and Heroes

And we’ve finally come back around to the mead the Vikings drank. Well, the first records of mead in Northern Europe come in the Bronze Age, starting around 2800 B.C. in Scotland. Even as wine started to become more popular in the warmer, southern regions of Europe, the north wasn’t a great place to grow grapes, so wine had to be imported. But the Scandinavians were avid beekeepers, so honey was available!

According to Norse legend, mead brought deep wisdom and poetic inspiration. It was a drink for funerals and for heroes. We see many references to mead in the work of Icelandic poet and chieftain Snorri Sturlson, who wrote down scores of Norse myths in his The Prose Edda so that we have them today. In that work, we hear about a goat who lives in Valhala, where her teats flow with mead, filling cups for all of Odin’s warriors to drink.

Celts and other Germanic cultures in Northern Europe took in their share of mead, as well- and that poetic inspiration struck them, too, as mead is mentioned as the feasting drink of choice in famous works like the epic poem Beowulf, the legend of a warrior who rids a kingdom of a monster.

People across the North got creative with their mead recipes, resulting in variations like braggot(in England, where mead was mixed with ale) and metheglin, a Welsh version mixed with herbs and spices.

Mead Couldn’t Reign Forever

Mead drinking was deeply ingrained in many cultures around the world, for ceremonies, for connection to the gods and the afterlife. It was sacred. But a change was coming. Agriculture and trade were beginning to shift. Soon, cheaper fermentables, like barley, would become readily available. What would this mean for mead?

Stay tuned to find out which drink came to wipe mead off the map… until now, that is.

And if you can’t wait to taste some mead and find out what all the thousands of years of fuss are all about… well, we can’t blame you.

Come on and grab a bottle or two at our meadery, Dragonfire Meadery, in Coventry, Connecticut. Shoot us a message and let us know what you think of all this history mead comes from!

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