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The Fall of Mead and the Rise of Beer

So, if mead has been around for thousands of years, and it was popular in so many cultures around the world, why haven’t you heard of mead ‘til now?

Short answer? Beer, hops, and the Catholic Church on a power trip.

We at Dragonfire Meadery think honey is special, of course. However! In the past, honey was very special– deemed the Nectar of the Gods by the Greeks, and used in Egyptian temple incense and burials. Mead drinking was definitely widespread, but people saved it for important occasions(like Viking funerals) rather than for an everyday drink.

This isn’t just because honey is delicious and has nutritional and medicinal properties- it was pretty hard to get.

Today, our advanced knowledge of beekeeping and care mean that we have regular, sustainable access to honey, and can make plenty of delicious mead. In ancient times, honey was used around the world for mead, but it wasn’t plentiful enough for everyone to drink it daily. Even though a lot of cultures discovered beekeeping, honey was still pretty far from the easiest or quickest thing to make and use. Beekeeping is a delicate process and harvesting honey takes a lot of time and skill… and the only other option was trying to luck into finding a beehive in the wild. Neither gave a consistent, large supply of honey.

Beer And Mead Coexisted… At First

Beer, with its readily available plant-based ingredients, was much better suited to everyday consumption. Beer also has quite a long history. The first records of beer–made with barley–come from Mesopotamia, including 5,000-year-old jug fragments with residue from a brewing byproduct. There are references to beer in the famous Epic of Gilgamesh. Egypt also has claim to the presence of a brewery at about this time in history.

As for the Romans? They drank mead, but they preferred wine to both beer and mead. They were in a climate where grapes grew easily anyway! Roman soldiers were provided with beer, and they drank it daily… but even today in Italy, wine is a more common beverage to have with a meal or some friends than beer.

Grapes didn’t grow well in the cooler Northern European climates, so any wine had to be imported from Italy, France, or Spain. Since imports were expensive, wine remained the drink only of the moneyed classes. Still, in Northern Europe, regardless of class, beer became the leader of alcoholic beverages. It even played a part in a religious and political movement, as we shall soon see!

In England, there is evidence of beer brewing from as far back as 2,000 years ago. Mead still had a presence throughout the land, mind you. Mead is referenced in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales alongside braggot, which is a sort of beer-mead hybrid. Moving into the Middle Ages in Europe, where mead was still used for celebrations or for the wealthy and powerful to drink, beer for the masses and nobles alike began to grow in popularity.

Have you heard that people drank beer or mead instead of water because the water was polluted and bad? That’s actually been debunked! People in Europe have long settled near fresh water sources, and drank water regularly. In fact, around the 1200s in London, there were heavy fines put on anyone who polluted the common drinking sources.

Beer was a great source of calories and nutrients. For commoners toiling in the fields, having a beer was not only relaxing and social, but–to wildly exaggerate for fun–a Medieval post-gym nutrition shake.

The Beer-Brewing Monks of Europe

Now we come to the monks.

In many places in Northern Europe, from Belgium to what is now Czechia, monasteries dotted the land, filled with men dedicated to serving the Catholic Church, and guided to offer hospitality to any visitors who came their way.

Monks spent their time growing food to live on, but also barley and wheat to use for brewing beer, which they needed to offer to pilgrims and travelers. Mead still hung on for a bit there! Some monks kept bees and worked with honey, and there are examples of monk-brewed meads that exist to this day: here’s one mead from ages past that you can still drink. It was revived from the centuries-old brewing tradition of St. Aidan’s Monastery in Northumberland, U.K.

Over many years of careful toil, monks developed their own special beer recipes, flavored with herbs and spices. As the monks, mostly Catholics, did their work, the Catholic Church was hard at their own work stamping out local, traditional recipes especially from pagans all over Europe.

By the late 16th century, the Catholic Church had massive control over society, and beer production was no exception. The Church came to endorse a spice blend for beer called gruit, which included juniper berries, ivy, cinnamon, and ginger, among others. Gruit was expensive, and the Church held a monopoly over it.

Beer Flavorings Shaking Up the Renaissance

Enter: a common, inexpensive weed called hops.

Some Europeans began to flavor their beer with hops instead of the Church’s pricey gruit. Hops are what we know today as the bitter, richly flavored additions to many of our favorite brews… but back then they were a big middle finger to the Catholic Church! As the Protestant Reformation took off with the activism of Martin Luther, Protestant monks and brewers took the untaxed hops and ran with it in their beers.

The Protestants were reacting to the excesses of the Catholic Church- showy wealth, luxurious fabrics, ornate cathedrals, and of course, a booming business in spiced-up beer. Hops had an interesting appeal to the Protestants… allegedly, hops made the beer drinker more sleepy than randy and energized, compared to the Church’s preferred spiced-beer blend. A calm, sleepy person was much less likely to run around sinning, paying the Church for forgiveness, and wearing fancy silks like those Renaissance-era Catholics!

On top of all that, hops had preservative qualities that made beer much easier to ship, and thus Europe’s growing economy had a major new product on its hands.

Beer eclipsed mead almost entirely.

Between monks, hops, trade, and about a thousand other origin stories, beer became the beverage of commoners and kings from nearly every land. It still is today! Good for you, beer. We don’t begrudge your success.

But… what of mead?

Mead’s Modern Comeback

Well, it’s not just you who knows about mead now. Mead is actually growing in popularity once again. Over the past couple of decades, people have been curious to move beyond the options of beer, wine, or liquor. There’s also a fun return to the honey beverages where so many of our ancestors started their brewing traditions! More and more people are excited to be rediscovering mead, with its diverse and delicate flavors, its drinkability, and its fascinating history. Mead’s comeback has even been noted by none other than Vogue magazine.

Mead is now a common and delectable choice for drinking at Ren Faires, food and wine festivals, and your own gatherings.

Curious to taste some mead, or find out more? We love to chat about mead and answer questions, so go ahead and send us a message! We also can’t wait to welcome you to Dragonfire Meadery in person. Make an appointment at your next convenience to come by- we’re located in Coventry, Connecticut. We’ll be thrilled to have you join this long, delicious global tradition, and offer you some meads to experience!

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