Making of the Mead! (August 2016)

One of the Farm projects we are planning is to brew hard apple cider (“cyder”) from our own apples grown on the slope of Nettle Mountain. Several of our trees are just now reaching the age (7+ years) where we are starting to see fruit enough to try our hand at cider-making. We hope to produce a first run of Nettle Creek Farm organic hard cider in the fall of 2016 so check the website for updates!

But, in an effort to first gain some experience in the art & science of fermentation we decided to attempt a run of
Mead – possibly the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man, a combination of honey, fruit & yeast.
At Nettle Creek Farm we grow, among other things: basil, mint, blackberries, blueberries and mulberries. We also have wild blackberries and wine berries along our fence rows and field & road edges.  We picked an abundance of these in the summer of 2016.  So, we took a combination of these ingredients plus a few others (raisins, crystallized ginger & lemon zest!), fresh water from a spring on Nettle Mountain, locally-produced Virginia thistle & wildflower honeys, some creative yeast choices, and began our primary fermentation on August 6, 2016!  The yeast is happily churning away, transforming sugar to alcohol, as I write this story. With these few simple, ancient steps we can say we have placed a foot on the path of Pasteur & Perignon!

To our Nettle Creek Farm Mead Album

Please read on for a most entertaining history of Mead… 

The following captivating story is entirely excerpted word-for-word from Sky River Mead –the history of Mead is as long and rich and captivating as the beverage itself. Mead is thought to be the oldest alcoholic beverages known to man. It was most likely discovered quite by accident, when some thirsty hunter-gathers discovered an upturned beehive filled with rainwater. They drank the sweet water completely unaware of what fermentation and alcohol were and experienced the first intoxication. Likely it was in a quest to replicate this experience the art of mead-making was begun. Unfortunately, fermentation was not understood until the mid-1800’s. Consequently, two things occurred: First, fermentation was very unpredictable. And second, fermentation took on mystical and religious qualities.

The ancient Greeks called mead, Ambrosia, or Nectar It was believed to be the drink of the gods, and was thought to descend from the Heavens as dew, before being gathered in by the bees. Because of the believed ties to the gods, it is easy to see why the ancient Greeks believed mead to have magical and sacred properties. The Greeks believed that mead would prolong life, and bestow health, strength, virility, re-creative powers, wit and poetry. The bees themselves, we are told by Virgil’s Georgics are driven to the sky to honor the goddess Aphrodite. And, the prophetess’ at Delphi are suspected of drinking mead made from a honey from slightly toxic plants in order to induce their prophetic states, and visions of the future.

Mead declined in production in the south of Europe, where grapes were discovered as a less expensive, more predictable source of wine production. But, in the north, where vine fruits were less available, the popularity of mead continued. In Norse/Aryan mythology a draught of mead, delivered by the beautiful divine maidens, was the reward for warriors that reached Valhalla. And, the Norse god of poetry, Brage, is said to have drunk mead from a Brage-beaker, later called the bragging cup. While the great Norse god, Odin, was said to have gained his strength but suckling Mead from a goats’ udder as an infant. Celtic mythology tells of a river of mead running through paradise, while the Anglo-Saxon culture held mead up as the bestower of immortality, poetry and knowledge. In fact the mythology of mead exists in our culture today, unnoticed by most. The very term “honeymoon” comes from the ancient tradition of giving bridal couples a moons worth of honey–wine. This was long ago thought to ensure a fruitful union. In fact the payment to the meadmaker was often increased, dependent on the promptness and the male-gender of the first-born child.

Bees were thought, by most European cultures, to be the messengers of the gods. Therefore, even as mead production declined it was still used for the temples rites, and the grand ceremonies, while ales were used for everyday life. The same mystic properties that kept mead in the temples made mead a natural adjunct to early ideas of western medicine. In England there were a number of meads, flavored with specific herbs that were used to cure any number of ailments. For example, mead made with balm was thought to aid digestion and expel melancholy, and mead made with borage was used to revive hypochondriacs and the chronically ill. The name for these spiced meads is Metheglin, and comes for the Welsh word “medcyglin”, meaning medicine.

The middle ages took mead to different heights. The stature afforded to mead can be seen in the fact that the King’s mead cellar was under the direct care of the Steward of the household, who was the chief officer of the court. And, payment for meadmakers was as high as one third of the mead made for the customer. Unfortunately, during this same time the demand by the church for bees wax candles helped the decline of mead-making by creating an economic incentive to rob the bee hives of their honey laden wax.

The tapestry of mead history is rich and wonderful. References are littered throughout history and literature. Chaucer speaks of making Claret sweeter with the addition of honey. In 1771 Smollett writes that knowledge of mead-making is considered one of the arts of a true country gentleman. Queen Elizabeth was known to have her own favorite recipe, including rosemary, bay leaves, sweet briar and thyme. But perhaps Howell, Clerk to the Privy Council, said it best in 1640 when he wrote, “The juice of bees, not Bacchus, here behold, Which British Bards were wont to quaff of old; The berries of the grape with Furies swell, But in the honey comb the Graces dwell.”

And the following is taken entirely from -- Mead can have a wide range of flavors, depending on the source of the honey, additives called "adjuncts" or "gruit" (including fruit and spices), yeast employed during fermentation, and aging procedure. Some meads retain some measure of the sweetness of the original honey, and some can even be considered as dessert wines. Mead can also be distilled to a brandy or liqueur strength. Drier meads are also available, and some producers offer sparkling meads, which (like champagne) can make for a delightful celebratory toast. It has been said that "a mead that tastes of honey is as good as a wine that still tastes of grape".

Historically, meads would have been fermented by wild yeasts and bacteria [citation needed] residing on the skins of the fruit ingredient or within the honey itself. Wild yeasts generally provide inconsistent results, and in modern times various brewing interests have isolated the strains now in use. Certain strains have gradually become associated with certain styles of mead. Mostly, these are strains that are also used in beer or wine production. Several commercial labs, such as White Labs, WYeast, Vierka, and others have gone so far as to develop strains specifically for mead.