The following text has been created to serve as an introduction to mead and mead making. The material contained within is not specific to the Medieval and Renaissance periods as that time frame is just a small portion of the history of mead. Instead, I have chosen a broader scope which begins in Antiquity and ends in your kitchen. I believe the result is a well rounded overview which will not only whet your appetite for knowledge but teach you how to brew something to slake your thirst while delving deeper into your own studies.
A Brief History of Mead
Mead has been enjoyed by man through the ages from pre-history to the present day.
A Not So Brief History of Mead
Most people are familiar with the argument of whether the chicken or the egg came first, but not as many realize that there is a similar argument surrounding beer, wine, and mead. All three of these beverages can be traced back into antiquity through writings, art, and archaeological findings which makes finding an absolute answer to the question extremely complex. Rather than trying to unravel the threads and divine an altruistic answer, this work will present the facts and theories surrounding the origins and history of mead while making no apologies for perceived bias in the writing.
It is important to have a basic definition to work from when interpreting historical references. The definition must be neither too broad nor too narrow to be effective. In its most basic form, mead is the product of combining honey and water. Yeast would be the third ingredient in the list if we wanted to restrict the definition to alcoholic beverages, but this would also make it harder to locate references since most historical texts do not mention yeast. For the purposes of this article, mead will be defined as a beverage made from a solution of honey, water, and optionally other ingredients for flavoring.
One of the most intriguing facts about mead is that it occurs naturally when honey reaches a sufficient moisture level. With this in mind, it is not unreasonable to theorize that man did not invent mead but rather discovered it while seeking food in a hollow tree. An alternate theory for the discovery of mead works on the same basis but includes man actively gathering and storing honey and some of the containers became contaminated with water which resulted in the wondrous beverage being created. Using either of these concepts, we can speculate that once man began using honey as a normal food source the possibility of discovering mead rose exponentially. The earliest indications found relating to honey gathering are cave paintings and rock drawings dating back to around 15,000 BC (Schramm, 5). Given the nature of mead, there is no way to actually determine when the first batch was created but it should be very safe to say that man was enjoying mead long before he ended his days of cave-dwelling.
The skeptical reader is no doubt wondering why mead would have been forgotten until the Middle Ages if it was discovered so long in the past. Mead wasn’t forgotten; it just existed under different names such as soma, pyment, hydromel, and nectar. References to mead can be found throughout the ancient world from mythology and religious texts to accounts by Greek and Roman historians.
The Many Names of Mead
Let me start by saying that this section is not going to be about what the word “mead” translates to in other languages. It will, however, cover the various types of meads which have had names coined for them. In my studies, I have found that there is some contention over the appropriateness of some of these terms. The main issue is whether or not the distinctions are modern inventions. While a number of the names do date to the Medieval period or earlier, the actual adherence to the terms and definitions is not strict before modern times (Krupp, 7). My general opinion is that they are all meads and the names are more guidelines for discussing them in a modern context.
This designation is used to describe meads that have been flavored with fruits. The term derived from the Roman name for a beverage made from honey and fruit juices, melomeli (Papazian/Gayre, 113).
The exact nature of pyment is a question of perspective. Some sources state that pyment is wine that has been sweetened with honey . Under the broader definition of what mead is, a fermented beverage made with honey, pyment would classify as a mead made with grapes. While Papazian continually refers to pyment as a wine, he gives proof that it is more a mead while quoting Chaucer (Papazian/Gayre, 116).
A form of hard cider which uses honey rather than mead as an additive. It can also be made as a mead with apples, cider, or apple juice added for flavor.
Mulberries are used to provide a deep color and rich flavor to this form of mead.
Pears or pear juice adds its delicate flavor to this form of melomel to produce a crisp refreshing beverage.
A braggot is often described as “a mead with a beer in it”. This description is fairly accurate since the additional flavors come from barley or hops which is the main ingredient for making beers and ales.
A Greek and Roman mead flavored with rose petals. (Schramm, 19-20) (Papazian/Gayre, 114).
Some references use the term hydromel and mead interchangeably but it has been my experience that this term refers to a mead that has been cut with water to reduce its potency.
A sack mead is made by increasing the ratio of honey to water such that the finished product is much sweeter than a typical mead.
Brewing a Basic Mead
Now I am hoping that you have prepared yourself to unravel the complicated and intricate methods and practices involved in the making of mead. If you are truly ready to learn the arcane knowledge that will start you on your way to producing the drink of the gods, you are about to be very surprised by the simplicity of it all.
The most basic of meads is also known as traditional mead. The ingredients list consists entirely of two things honey and water. Of course, yeast will help if you intend to make an alcoholic beverage, but it isn’t required to be on the shopping list. When working from many early recipe sources, yeast is not listed as an additive. This is due to the fact that brewers of the time didn’t know that yeast is what caused the fermentation. Most often the must of these ancient brewers would be impregnated by yeast in the environment. This could be wild, airborne yeasts, bread yeast if the mead was made in a kitchen where baking was being done, or those that were residuals in the vessels used to make previous batches.
Once you have the ingredients, the next step is to gather the tools and equipment needed. Many people think that this means spending large amounts of money on gadgets and gizmos, but this really isn’t the case. The essential list of things you need is: a stock pot (preferably steel so it doesn’t impart a metallic taste to your mead), a long spoon, a funnel, and something to put your must in to ferment. There are some additional items that will make life easier and help you to produce “better” mead, such as airlocks, hydrometers, carboys of various sizes, hoses, bottles, corks, corkers, filters, and the list goes on long enough to make your head spin and your checkbook cry for mercy. For our purposes, I will be covering how you can start brewing with items you probably already have around the house or can obtain for $20 or less.
Referring back the basic equipment list, the first item we need to find is a large enough stock pot. The recipe to be used here makes 1 gallon of traditional mead. The stock pot you will need should hold 6-12 quarts. The next items on the list are also fairly common in any kitchen, a spoon long enough to reach the bottom of the pot without putting your hand in the boiling liquid and a funnel (any size will do but a wide mouth funnel will make pouring easier). The last item in our essentials list is something to put the must in to ferment. Most brewers will recommend glass bottles or carboys for this because they are easy to clean and do not absorb smells the way plastic can. For someone just starting out, I recommend 1 gallon plastic bottles. I used plastic apple juice bottles since my kids made them readily available in abundance. If you would prefer glass, I have found that 1 gallon wine bottles work wonderfully, in fact, they are the same as the 1 gallon carboys you can purchase at brewing supply shops only you need to empty them first. Once you have all of these items, you are ready to begin.
As a general rule, the ratio of honey to water is 2.5-3lbs honey per gallon of water (Papazian/Gayre, 169). As we are making a 1 gallon batch, we will need 3lbs of honey (less measuring that way) and 1 gallon of water. Start by bringing the water to a boil and then stir in the honey. Continue stirring until the honey is completely dissolved and then remove your must from the heat. Allow your must to cool to room temperature and then pour it into your bottle (this is where the funnel comes in handy). At this point we need to get some yeast into the must and to do this you have 2 options, adding some yourself or sitting hopefully waiting for some stray yeast to come along. I recommend using some store bought yeast.
Since I didn’t go into this earlier, you can get brewer’s yeast from any number of brewing supply shops either locally or on-line. If for some reason you can’t find brewer’s yeast, you can use regular bread yeast from the grocery store. Using bread yeast will change the taste of your resulting mead. I have done this and received compliments, so it really boils down to your personal tastes.
Before adding the yeast to your must, called pitching, you will need to activate it. There are directions on the yeast packet regarding how to do this. Basically, you dissolve the yeast in a small amount of warm water or juice. A better method is to take a small amount of your must to use as a starter. Once your yeast has been activated, it will usually start to foam after a few minutes, pour this into your must and mix it in. I use the handle of my long spoon for this.
You are now ready to sit back and let the yeast do its magic. Since we are working with very basic equipment found in the kitchen, you will need to make a decision about how to seal the bottle while the yeast is working. You can use the lid for the bottle but you will need to be very diligent if you do. While the yeast is producing alcohol, it is also making CO2. This means that if your bottle is air tight it will build up pressure and could explode. During a vigorous fermentation, even putting the cap on loosely could be too tight, so you will want to carefully open the cover from time to time to release the pressure. Another option is to use a cloth held over the opening with a rubber band. This works fairly well. If you are planning to continue brewing, I strongly recommend investing in airlocks. They only cost around $1 and they will protect your mead and your kitchen (I’ve seen carbouys explode from pressure and it isn’t pretty!!)
After about a week, you will notice that the bubbles in your brew are decreasing or have stopped. You will also notice a build up of sludge (actually called lees) on the bottom of your bottle. Most brewers recommend racking, transferring your mead to a new bottle and leaving the sludge behind, at this point. Racking is much easier to do if you have a length of food grade tubing, which can be found in most hardware stores, but can be done by carefully pouring your mead into a new bottle.
If you have made it this far, then you are now the proud brewer of a batch of mead. The question that you are undoubtedly asking is, “When can I drink it?” This is a question that will bring about debate from brewers everywhere. Technically, your mead can be served when the fermentation stops, or even before if you really wanted to. Most mead makers today prefer to age their meads to improve the quality. Aging can take anywhere from 1 month up to 2 years or more depending on the mead. For the beginning brewer, I recommend tasting your mead to see if you like it. If you like the taste, then you are ready to serve, if not then close it up and put it in a cool dark place for a month or so.
The following recipes were gathered from various sources including my own recipe book.
Wulfric’s Traditional Mead (AKA BOOM!)
This wondrous mead may never truly be duplicated, but we are extremely hopeful. The first time I used this recipe, the result was a lightly sweet mead with an alcohol content of 22%, hence the name “BOOM!” This recipe is for a 5 gallon batch. If you do not have a pot large enough to heat all of the water and honey at once, you can hold 3 gallons aside and add it to the carboy later. This method is good for cooling the must quicker if you use cold water.
25 lbs Raw Dark Honey
5 Gallons Water
1 tsp Yeast Nutrient
1 pkg Lalvin D47 Active Dry Yeast
Heat water and honey to just below boiling, stirring to until the honey is completely dissolved. Skim the solution as needed to keep the surface relatively clear. Remove from heat and let stand until cool. While the must is cooling, you can start your yeast. When the must is below 90°F pour it into a carboy, pitch yeast and seal with a airlock.
When the bubbles slow to one or two per minute, you should rack the mead into a clean carboy. You will want to have an airlock on the new carboy in case a secondary fermentation starts. Allow the mead to sit in the carboy in a cool place until it clears, or clears enough for you (I don’t mind cloudy meads, they have more character), and then bottle.
“A Most Excellent Metheglin” (Digbie, 68-69)
This recipe is a nearly period recipe for metheglin from Digbie. I will list both the original text as well as the redaction.
“Take one part of honey, to eight parts of Rain or River-water; let it boil gently together, in a fit vessel, till a third part be wafted, skimming it very well. The sign of being boiled enough is, when a New-laid-egg swims upon it. Cleanse it afterwards by letting it run through a clean Linnen-cloth, and put it into a wooden Runlet, where there hath been wine in, and hang in it a bag with Mustard-seeds by the bung, that so you may take it out when you please. This being done, put your Runlet into the hot Sun, especially during the Dog-days, (which is the onely time to prepare it) and your Metheglin will boil like Must; after which boiling take out your Mustard-seeds, and put your vessel well stopped into a Cellar. If you will have it the taste of wine, put to thirty measures of Hydromel, one measure of the juice of the hops, and it will begin to boil without any heat. Then fill up your vessel, and presently after this ebullition you will have a very strong Metheglin.” (Digbie, 68-69)
For my interpretation of this recipe, I will plan to produce a 5 gallon batch. I have chosen this number because of the specification to pour your must into a “Runlet”. A runlet (rundlet) is a cask or barrel that holds between 3 and 20 gallons (14.5 is most common). Since most brewers don’t have barrels, I’m opting to plan for a 5 gallon carboy.
5 pints Honey (approximatly 5 lbs)
5 gallons Water
1 tbl Mustard Seed
1 pint Juice of Hops (optional)
1 pkt Yeast (if using a clean carbouy)
Boil the water and honey until the starting volume is reduced by one third. Alternately, you can check if it has boiled enough by placing an egg in the must. The egg should be fairly round and as fresh as possible. If the egg floats then you have boiled it down far enough. In this situation, the egg is serving as a hydrometer.
After the boiling, filter the must by pouring it through a clean linen cloth into your carbouy (or cask if you have one). The original recipe specifies that it should be a container that had wine in it before. While this may seem odd, the reason behind it is that there would be residual yeast in the container and that is why the recipe doesn’t call for the addition of any. Since sanitation is a major concern for most modern brewers, I have included a pkt of yeast in the recipe. The yeast should be added once the must has cooled a bit so as not to kill the yeast. You should then place the mustard seed in a linen bag and hang it in the must so that it can be easily removed later. A string tied around the bag that runs out of the stopper works well for this. When you have everything in place, put your carbouy in a warm place to work.
When the initial fermentation is complete, remove the mustard seeds, securely seal the carbouy and move it to a cellar (or other cool, dark place). At this time, you can optionally add 1 pt of “Juice of Hops”, which I suspect is the result of boiling hops in water, to 30 pints of your Metheglin. Since 5 gallons is the equivalent of 40 pints, you can either remove a portion of the metheglin, increase the amount of hops to 1 1/3 pints, or call it close enough. Your metheglin will begin a secondary fermentation at this point. When that completes, you should have “a most excellent metheglin”.
“Damn Shame”: A non-alcoholic mead
There have been a number of occasions in which I wanted to serve mead but could not distribute alcoholic beverages. I rose to this challenge by creating the following recipes. While the steps are very similar to making the “fully leaded” version, you do not add yeast. The omission of yeast means that there is no waiting period outside of allowing the must to cool before bottling.
2 gallons water
4 cups honey
2 cinnamon sticks
2 gallons water
4 cups honey
1 tsp whole allspice (crushed coarsly in a mortar & pestle)
Heat the water in a large pot. Once the water is hot, add the honey and stir until all of the honey dissolved. Continue heating the mixture but do not boil it. If you notice a scum floating on top, skim this off and discard it. I typically keep the mixture in low heat for about 20 minutes or so after mixing. Remove from heat and add the spices. Allow your brew to stand until it reaches room temperature and then strain and bottle it. Alternately, you could simply add all of the ingredients in at once and then heat it, but I prefer to do it in stages.
Digbie, Sir Kenelme, The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Opened… s.l., London: E.C. for H. Brome, 1669. (Reproduction by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works 1967)
Griffith, Ralph T. H., Sacred Writings Volume 5 – Hinduism: The Rig Veda, New York, NY: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992.
Krupp, Christina M and Bill Gillen, “Making Medieval Mead or Mead Before Digby”, The Compleat Anachronist 120 (July 2003) : .
Papazian, Charlie and G. Robert Gayre, Brewing Mead : Wassail! In Mazers of Mead, Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 1986.
Schramm, Ken, The Compleat Meadmaker, Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2003.
Shapiro, Mark, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Middle Ages”, The Compleat Anachronist 60 (March 1992) : .
Sibley, Jane, “The CA Guide to Brewing”, The Compleat Anachronist 5 (March 1983) : .