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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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10.27.08

A Brief History of Mead, plus a Michigan Connection

Food History, Food Production


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mead

What do honeymoon romps, Norse dining halls, the mythical hero Beowulf, and a pain-relieving medicine have in common? And yes, it has more to do with the superficial excesses of booze and narcotics. As lore would have it, they all feature the world’s most ancient alcoholic beverage, mead, in some context.

Recall high school history texts depicting raucous orgies of sorts, and chances are, the beverage responsible for that level of inebriation is mead, the amber fluid most certainly filled to the brim of every goblet at the party.

The epic tale of Beowulf recently brought the heavenly elixir back to life in vivid color alongside a naked Angelina Jolie.

Then there are the words “honeymoon” and “medicine,” two seemingly unconnected terms with few bonds to mead’s history. Look a little closer though, and you’ll see the luscious relations mead, the once-rejoiced and renowned but oft-forgot in modern times “honey wine,” indeed shares with these and plenty other brew-related connotations.

Before grapes were plucked from vines; before the world sipped the jammy graces of Merlot; before beer fermented in casks and poured freely from taps; and before a drinkable sugar high could be found in soda cans, juice boxes, or tang, there was honey wine. Although the genesis of mead is as shrouded in mystery as Oprah’s “friendship” with Gayle, it can be traced back to times far preceding the days of grape-stomping and lager-swilling. I’m talking eight millennia’s worth of history, back when B.C. was the age and Jesus had yet to pop from Mary’s virgin womb.

Most likely, the simple blend of honey, yeast, and water was first stewed together on the island of Crete, where the most basic use of the word “drunk” in Greek meant “honey-intoxicated.” Mead’s also tied to the term “honeymoon,” in that English fathers would lavish their daughter’s with a month’s worth of mead so that the randy couple could procreate a baby boy.

From the Mediterranean, mead traveled to Northern Europe, where it flourished and erupted in popularity (visualize an ancient version of college keggers- with Anglo Saxons as the drunken twenty-something’s and mead as the chugged brew). Here, in the frigid land of the Slavs, where there was apparently nothing else to do during the barren days but drink and lose clarity while monks carried on and perfected the art of mead-making. What is it about holy Friar folk and alcoholism that fits so historically snug together? Actually, it was pretty practical in that fermented liquids were safer to drink than random water supplies and kept longer on cross-country journeys. As a result of being the journey beverage of choice, Mead blossomed across the lands, masquerading under regional names: medovukha in Russia, sima in Finland, aguamiel in Spain, and tej in Ethiopia.

Times have changed since the days of Beowulf and his druid brethren. Jesus had his day of preaching in the sun, monks have shifted their alcohol art to the likes of neo-brews, fathers of the bride opt to bestow cash and cars as their dowry of choice, and the world fell in love with other fermented beverages.

Today, it can be a chore to find mead commercially. If you come across it in stores or on a menu, be careful it’s not spelled “meade.” That extra “e” is the inauthentic red flag that the beverage is merely white wine with honey added for a sweet deception. Mockingly fake meads are also littering the market, as cheap table wines are diluted to the point of juice box sweetness with honey.

Mead is all about the honey; the syrup is to mead as malt is to beer or grapes are to wine. One “meadery,” that’s stuck to Saxon roots is a familial outpost, Bardic Wells Meadery in Montague, Michigan. Bardic Wells, named after a medieval entertainer, is all about the accuracy of yore when it comes to their mead. The small company, operated by husband and wife Steve and Jan Haystead, combining their individual loves for bees and wine-drinking, makes it blatantly apparent that they take their honey wine seriously. If the company logo depicting an entwined trio of bard acrobats doesn’t tip you off, than the slogan, “Wassail!! Party like a Bard” (Scandinavian lingo and double exclamation included) will.

Serving as Michigan’s first certified meadery, and one of a select few in the country, the Haystead’s make a frequent point of selling “only fine honey wines.” As you may have guessed, bees are an important rung in the ladder to great mead. At Bardic Wells, they harvest unfiltered and raw honey from 120 hives scattered over four counties that have not seen an ounce of sulphite preservatives. Steve, in talking vividly about his beekeeping passion (“I can talk for weeks about bees,” he says), knows each one of his hives like they were his children. He distinguishes the difference between being a “beekeeper,” as he has been for more than a decade, and a “bee-haver,” someone who possesses but overlooks the work and the science that goes into it.

Steve has been keeping bees long enough to know that, especially during winter, bees will be lost. Colonies will collapse and a loss of 30%-40% of hives is inevitable. “Splitting” a healthy hive come spring is one of the ways to re-harvest and save a colony. This involves cutting a surviving hive in half and planting a newly-purchased queen, at the cost upwards of $20 a piece, into the hive. “You take your losses and try to go in with a worst-case scenario,” he says. “Queens will fail and parasites and mites are gonna spread. There isn’t much you can do but be mentally prepared for it.” Well he’s been preparing for it, at the expense of 11-plus years and a cost of more than $100,000 to save hives and harvest honey.

When the topic of colony collapse emerges, Steve gets a tad edgy. While he actively combats parasites with FDA-approved acids and does his best to distinguish Foul Brood, a bacterial disease responsible for the death of many a colony, he’s hopeful that the media is just spewing overblown fluff. “Fortunately, we haven’t seen any mass hive collapses in Michigan. I’m hoping it’s an over exaggeration, like Y2K.”

This isn’t to say, though, that vast quantities of hives are not infected and killed. In talking about Foul Brood, Steve compares it to a maddeningly spread-able STD. In many cases, once infection pollutes the hive, the only solution is to burn the hive and cut the losses. Harkening back to his deep fatherly relation he feels towards his hives, he describes this last-ditch effort as akin to putting one’s pet down.

Steve Haystead considers himself a purist in the sense that not a particle of artificial matter shall enter his mead. He uses only organic honey, water pulled from his well, yeast used for wine, and bee pollen, which ignites the yeast fermentation process. Occasionally, depending on the variety of mead (there are currently 6 on the roster), berries, vegetables, and spices may find themselves tossed into the vat as well. Imitation may very well be the most sincerest form of flattery, but Steve is often appalled that mead makers are getting licenses while they know squat about honey, about bees, and about the brew.

He describes other meaderies as “plastic” in that they outsource their own honey and don’t even harvest their own bees. For him, and for would-be mead makers, “it’s really important to maintain the integrity of not just the mead, but the bees and the honey. That’s where it starts.” At Bardic Wells, they let the mead run its long and tedious course.

Steve draws the analogy of his mead comparable to pizza: much of the mead that’s out there on the market is like a Domino’s pizza. For those that don’t know any better, that’s all fine and good; it satisfies the pizza craving. But at Bardic Wells, where each ingredient is lovingly tended to and slowly perfected, their results are like a pizza from Luciano’s, a hole-in-the-wall alcove upstate where all of the pies’ individual ingredients shine through in each fragrant bite. For those of you in Chicago, think Spacca Napoli.

For centuries, mead has been the drink of both nobility and the peasants who groveled at their feet. Having attended a few Renaissance Fairs in state, Steve knew he wanted to develop his mead with the Celtic demographic in mind, devoting much of his trade to this market for which demand is still an active part of their culture. Back in the Middle Ages, a bard would come to a community and enthrall the masses as they paraded themselves in the town square. “I wanted to capture the festive energy of a bard; be the center-point of a community,” he says of his marketing mission, aiming to bring “positive energy and merriment. The logo and the drink show that you’re gonna have a lot of fun when you uncork the bottle.”

Circa the era of the Black Plague, mead was a means of escape and enjoyment. Fast-forward to 2008 and the high-potential that the future holds and mead is again a hot commodity. People may not need an escape from rat-bred continental disease, but they can always use a release from taxes, work, and Monday. Not to mention the pleasure of a darn good drinkin’ time with buddies corralled around a bottle of honey wine.

Steve sees a burgeoning market for mead as people start to learn the story of it, the history behind it. Currently state law prohibits shipment of alcohol from Michigan to Illinois, limits Bardic Wells’ Chicago potential to drive-in customers. To Steve and Jan’s delight, and to the millions upon millions of bees to which they laboriously tend to, mead is back on the market. So unleash your inner Beowulf, forget the doldrums of days’ routine, and party like a bard- goblet of mead in hand.

One Comment on "A Brief History of Mead, plus a Michigan Connection"

Greg goode


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I found this article really interesting. For around thirty years I’ve dreamt of keeping bees and making mead from their produce…

In 2007 my wife and I retired to an eighteenth century chateau in central France - where I intended to renovate the Old Meadery. This October my wife squashed this dream but I still have plans to bring back the bees over the coming months…

Thanks for the practical advice.

http://www.chateaugoode.com



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