The History of Mead - with Tom Gosnell
Where does mead come from?
So, I’m by no means an expert but I have read almost everything there is to read out there on mead and the history of mead. The best source for this is Ken Schramm’s - The Complete Mead Maker, there is a good chapter in there about the history of mead, and it goes into quite a lot of detail.
Mead has a very rich history, if you take honey from a hive, particularly early in the season when there is quite a lot of water in the honey, the honey won’t be preserved, so it will just start fermenting, wild yeasts will get in there and will start fermenting the honey into alcohol.
There is quite a lot of evidence that goes back 10,000-12,000 years, in a couple of places in Africa, and also in China where they found bits of pottery with grains and pollen, this suggests people have been fermenting honey for thousands of years.
Everyone always argues about what the worlds oldest booze is, and everyone argues it’s either beer, wine or mead, but it’s likely a mix of everything, they were less dogmatic about what they were fermenting back then, as long as it fermented and got you drunk!
So then, moving forward through history a bit, it crops up again all over the world in many cultures and forms, you find tablets in Mesopotamia, where they were using honey based alcohol there. Again looking a bit further forward in time with the Greeks and the Romans, they were using honey to sweeten up there wine, potentially just to increase the flavour and to cover up some of roughness, but there’s evidence that they made pretty reasonable wine but they may have used honey to sweeten and spice up perhaps the cheaper wines. There is also a lot of evidence to prove that the domestication of bees began specifically for the production of honey to sweeten up wines.
What about the UK, and the history of mead there?
Again, there is a really rich history of mead in the UK. So if you look back into Celtic culture and then moving forwards a bit into Anglo Saxon culture, mead crops up quite a lot. The classic text is Beowulf, which is set in a mead hall where they are all sitting around in the evening, drinking plenty of mead and waiting for the monster to arrive. Mead has a real place in that culture, and it kind of continues up until broadly the Norman conquest of 1066.
Why did mead lose popularity?
The crux point was when the Normans in 1066 came in, conquered us, and replaced our aristocracy with their own. They brought in their own alcohol traditions which was mainly, cider and perry, fruit wines and grape wines. So when the rich people in society are drinking something quite different, that then filters down through society and it marginalises mead as sort of a lower end, more rural country thing as opposed to an urban elite drink.
Alongside this, you’ve got the advent of other booze, so up until about the 14th Century, hops weren’t used in beer, so before that beer only had a shelf life of perhaps 2 to 3 days before it started to go bad. After the introduction of hops which were primarily introduced as a preservative rather than a flavour, (whereas we know, today, that a hoppy IPA is there for the flavour.) Hops are a massive preservative and have a massive antibacterial effect which means the beer lasts a lot longer, more like 6 or 7 days. That then means that the product is a lot more economically viable and cheaper to produce.
Alongside this, trade starts to get going a lot more, they were brining in wines from places like Spain and France and the technology is there to keep them for longer. Then finally then you’ve got the advent of spirits, so that’s when distillation started happening and you start getting the first evidence of Scotch Whiskey and that sort of stuff. So ultimately it’s a cumulative effect of different things displacing mead, as the other things are cheaper and I guess, easier to make.
What’s happening today with mead, what’s actually brought it back to popularity?
It’s an interesting question, people always ask me if it’s because of Game of Thrones and I highly doubt it. Mead has been having a bit of a renaissance over the last 10-20 years and it all started in the USA, where there are over 500 meaderies across the county. There is much more of a scene there, then potentially there is in Europe or the UK. Why that is, is probably open for speculation, certainly the advent of craft beer and better beer has meant that people are looking for new products and well crafted with a real sense of provenence and mead fits all those bills. You can really get a sense of terroir and craftsmanship out of a really good mead. Just like you would do a beer or a wine and that’s quite exciting for a significant proportion of people who are looking for something new and exciting to drink. So the mead industry is certainly growing it was declared the fastest growing category in the US in 2017 and I would expect the same for recent years and it’s a really exciting time.