Mead, Drink of Vikings, Comes out of the Dark Ages

Allen G. Breed, Tampa Bay Online, December 29, 2010

Mead, that drink of viking saga and medieval verse, is making a comeback. But this ain’t your ancestors’ honey wine.

“It’s not just for the Renaissance fair anymore,” says Becky Starr, co-owner of Starrlight Mead, which recently opened in an old woven label mill in this little North Carolina town.

In fact, this most ancient of alcoholic libations hasn’t been this hot since Beowulf slew Grendel’s dam and Geoffrey Chaucer fell in with the Canterbury pilgrims at the Tabard.

In the past decade, the number of “meaderies” in the United States has tripled to around 150, says Vicky Rowe, owner of Gotmead.com, which describes itself as “the Internet’s premier resource for everything to do with mead.”

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Traditional mead is made with three ingredients–honey, water and yeast. The biggest hurdle has been overcoming that centuries-old misconception that something made from honey HAS to be sweet.

But, as Rowe is quick to point out, grapes can be pretty sweet, too.

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The honey, water and yeast are just the base. There are fruit-flavored meads, called melomels. There are methyglyns made with herbs and spices. And then there are what Rowe calls “weirdomels, which is mead made with lots of other things.”

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There are even veggie meads.

“I had a beet mead that was screaming pink, like, fluorescent pink, and actually was quite tasty,” says Rowe. “I’ve had mead made with nuts, with exotic honeys you’ve never heard of. You know, pretty much anything you can throw into a liquid and ferment.”

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Until about 1500, mead was THE alcoholic beverage of choice, Rowe says.

“Because cultivated grapes were only for the rich, and at that point in time the poor folks, they couldn’t get it,” says Rowe, who earned the nickname “Mead Wench” after years of wandering Renaissance fairs laden with wineskins full of her own homemade meads. “They had thin beer that they could make at home or they had mead, because honey was readily available to anybody.”

In “Beowulf,” the Old English epic heroic poem, the great mead-hall Heorot is the scene of most of the action. It is where King Hrothgar “with fair courtesy quaffed many a bowl of mead,” and where the “fell monster” Grendel slaughtered 30 thanes passed out “after the drinking of the mead.”

Chaucer’s 14th-century “Canterbury Tales” contain several references to mead or “methe.” But with the opening of the New World and its sugar plantations, Rowe says, “mead began a slow decline . . . and by the 1700s was almost nonexistent.”

That began to change in the 1960s, when the hippie culture rediscovered the joys of mead. Then, with the spread of Renaissance fairs and re-enactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the growth of the craft beer industry, this musty old drink was suddenly seen as a “new and interesting and potentially wonderful thing,” says Rowe.

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Picking up where Chaucer left off, J.K. Rowling has introduced a whole new generation of readers to the honey wine. {snip}

Wine and beer makers are aiming for a slightly older demographic.

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