The Gift of the Bees: Mead

A Glass of Mead (Photo credit: Jenn Larsen)
A Glass of Mead (Photo credit: Jenn Larsen)

With a small tweak of the imagination, it’s not hard to see the scenario:  a little rain and some honey accidentally left in a hollowed-out piece of wood. For our early ancestors, it was — once tasted — a seemingly divine elixir. And no cooking required.

In other words, mead, the first fermented drink. And so fermentation crops up again, a boon to the human race in so many ways.

The tale’s been told a myriad of times, in a plethora of places, but as always a little etymology never hurt anybody …

According to the experts[1], the word “mead” (and possibly even mead production) began in India. The Rig-Veda, the oldest sacred book there, ripples with constant allusions to bees and honey. Vishnu, Krishna, and Indra, all gods, all called Madhava or “nectar-born ones,” reflecting the Sanskrit word madhu or honey.

Mead (Photo credit: Peter Corbett)
Mead (Photo credit: Peter Corbett)

And from that word, madhu, comes the Old English word medu, the precursor to “mead.”

Thanks to Beowulf, Chaucer, and Sir Kenelme Digby[2], in popular culture at least, mead and the British Isles go together like umbrellas and rain. But a whole host of honey-based mead-like drinks appeared in many of the world’s early cultures, often used in rituals to placate the gods or to produce “sacramental intoxication,” as  Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat suggests (History of Food, 1992). Sophie Coe refers to balché, a Mayan ritual beverage (America’s First Cuisines, 1994). Ethiopia’s tej (also t’edj), fermented with wild yeast, is a form of mead, as is duma from the southwestern area of the Sudan. (Eva Crane, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting, 1999) [3].

Vking Drinking Horn for Mead
Viking Drinking Horn for Mead

Mead types found in Europe included hydromel, melomel, metheglin, and mulsum, and miessaude. Most of these employed the addition of other ingredients, including an herb mixture called gruit. Drinking mead out of an animal horn precluded the need for glasses.

So how can we “modern” people know what mead tasted like? Does mead still exist?

Yes, you can find mead today. Many brewers, including the Redstone Meadery in Boulder, Colorado, produce meads of varying flavors and types. It’s even possible to make your own mead, but to do so requires copious amounts of honey. Buying a few bottles of different types is the next best thing.

Again, what does it taste like? A Special Reserve mead I tried from Lurgashall Winery tasted faintly like honey, not overly sweet, but definitely not dry. Terrific with Unconditional Chocolate Ice Cream by Dove. (No, I don’t work for either of these companies.) The odor of the mead, redolent of honey, seeps only slightly into the taste, fresh and herbal and very strong (16.5% alcohol), so unless you’re staying home the next day, the best approach I advise is to sip about a fourth of a cup and put the cork back in the bottle.

Really delicious, and unusual. I can think of all sorts of great desserts I need to make to pair with this drink!

But in case you’re dead set on making mead yourself, check out the recipes at The Mead Maker’s page. Caveat: I haven’t made my own mead yet, because of the current cost of honey, so I don’t know if these recipes result in anything good.

King Hunding Dying in the Hydromel Mead Vat
King Hunding Dying in the Hydromel Mead Vat

Or you might meander (meadander?) over to Gutenberg’s page for Sir Kenelm Digby’s cookbook and check out his recipes for mead, too. That is, if you can get past the endless title: The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelm Digbie Kt. [Knight] opened: Whereby is discovered several ways for making of metheglin, sider, cherry-wine &c. together with excellent directions for cookery: as also for preserving, conserving, candying, &c.

The following recipe for metheglin is but one example of the good knight’s preoccupation with mead:

WHITE METHEGLIN OF MY LADY HUNGERFORD: WHICH IS EXCEEDINGLY PRAISED

Take your Honey, and mix it with fair water, until the Honey be quite dissolved. If it will bear an Egge to be above the liquor, the breadth of a groat, it is strong enough; if not, put more Honey to it, till it be so strong; Then boil it, till it be clearly and well skimmed; Then put in one good handful of Strawberry-leaves, and half a handful of Violet leaves; and half as much Sorrel: a Douzen tops of RosePage 7mary; four or five tops of Baulme-leaves: a handful of Harts-tongue, and a handful of Liver-worth; a little Thyme, and a little Red-sage; Let it boil about an hour; then put it into a Woodden Vessel, where let it stand, till it be quite cold; Then put it into the Barrel; Then take half an Ounce of Cloves, as much Nutmeg; four or five Races of Ginger; bruise it, and put it into a fine bag, with a stone to make it sink, that it may hang below the middle: Then stop it very close.

The Herbs and Spices are in proportion for six Gallons.

Mead 1Since my Lady Hungerford sent me this Receipt, she sent me word, that she now useth (and liketh better) to make the Decoction of Herbs before you put the Honey to it, This Proportion of Herbs is to make six Gallons of Decoction, so that you may take eight or nine Gallons of water. When you have drawn out into your water, all the vertue of the Herbs, throw them away, and take the clear Decoction (leaving the settlings) and when it is Lukewarm, Dissolve your proportion of Honey in it. After it is well dissolved and laved with strong Arms or woodden Instruments, like Battle-doors or Scoops, boil it gently; till you have taken away all the scum; then make an end of well boyling it, about an hour in all. Then pour it into a wooden vessel, and let it stand till it be cold. Then pour the clear through a Sieve of hair, ceasing pouring when you come to the foul thick settling. Tun the clear into your vePage 8ssel (without Barm) and stop it up close, with the Spices in it, till you perceive by the hissing that it begins to work. Then give it some little vent, else the Barrel would break. When it is at the end of the working, stop it up close. She useth to make it at the end of Summer, when she takes up her Honey, and begins to drink it in Lent. But it will be better if you defer piercing it till next Winter. When part of the Barrel is drunk, she botteleth the rest, which maketh it quicker and better. You clear the Decoction from the Herbs by a Hair-sieve.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


[1] Hilda M. Ransome, The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (1937).

[2] Sir Kenelme Digby (1603 – 1665) wrote a cookbook containing over 100 recipes for mead and metheglin.
[3] See Crane’s chapter 48, “History of Drinks Made by the Fermentation of Honey.”

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