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MEAD: Man's First Alcohol?

(Published in Wine Tidings, No. 101, March 1987)

Ancient Greeks wrote of a time long before their own, "when wine was not?' The nectar of the earliest Greeks, and the libation poured to their gods, was mead, a drink fermented from honey and water. Dionysus, the god of wine and pleasure, was first a Honey-Lord and Greeks worshipped him before the cultivation of the vine. Mead bestowed immortality upon the gods and brought strength and long life to men and women. It was drunk to increase virility and fecundity (newlyweds still have their 'honeymoon').

Wine usurped the role of mead amongst the Greeks in prehistoric times. In northern climes where the vine did not flourish, mead was produced in huge quantities right up until the end of the Middle Ages, when it began its slide into obscurity.

Mead can still be obtained today, though I had to search a little for my bottle. My local Guelph liquor outlet listed only one, a London Ancient Mead Golden, but didn't stock it. Instead, I was directed to a London Wines shop, one of 20 outlets in the province owned by the Knowles family of London, Ontario. There, to my delight, I discovered glass urns of Ancient Mead featured in a display just inside the door. An omen, I crowed to myself! Those old Greek gods have found favor with my story on mead. I set down $5.40 and hurried home for a tasting.

I chose a comfortable old coffee mug to drink from - it was to be my 'mazer'. Mazers, I'd discovered, were wooden bowls used by English mead drinkers during the Middle Ages. Wassail! In Mazers of Mead by G.R. Gayre is, as far as I know, the only English work extant on the history of mead. In his Introduction, written in 1948, Gayre deplored both the decline of mead making and the modern custom of drinking from long-stemmed wine glasses. He lamented the loss of the old days when chaps, especially wealthy ones, poured their mead into highly prized wooden mazers lined and decorated with silver and gold.

The mead I poured into my mazer had been aptly named. Its colour was golden, with a wonderfully clear, smooth look. The bouquet I thought delicious. At 18 per cent alc./vol. and rating 11 on the sugar content scale, I knew this particular mead would be sweet and strong, the sort the early Greeks went for. By medieval times, G.R. Gayre says, English mead drinkers were using the term 'sack-mead' to describe a rich dessert beverage such as the London Ancient Mead Golden.

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Executive V.P. of London Winery Ltd., A.N. Knowles Sr., later assured me that their Ancient Mead Golden was indeed a liqueur-type drink and should be taken sparingly (I'd suspected as much the morning after my maze fest). He'd responded to my letter of inquiry by inviting me to meet with him. His winery, he wrote, was one of the first to market honey wine commercially in Canada. They started in 1963 and originally had three brands: London Ancient Mead White, Golden and Amber. Sales were brisk for a number of years and the product was sold in 18 U.S. states and 6 Canadian provinces. In recent years, with the trend to lighter, lower alcohol wines, they had cut back their mead production. Only 100,000 bottles of Ancient Golden were made in 1985.

When I met with Mr. Knowles in London, he asked what I had learned about the history of mead. We agreed that all processes for making alcohol were extremely ancient and that no one could be certain what had been the first intoxicating drink. But mead, he thought, may well have been the first. I mentioned a unique rock painting discovered in 1919 in the Arafla Cave at Bicorp, near Valencia in Spain. In this painting a naked man stands, basket in hand, at the top of a crude grass ladder. He is gathering honey from a natural hole in the rock and around him bees are in flight from their nest. Art experts think this painting may date back to 10,000 B.C.

Mr. Knowles described how the London winery had 'gathered' honey in the 1960s and '70s. It was bought in huge quantities from honey producing cooperatives on the prairies and rushed by road to London. A slow trip could result in a solid, crystallized mass almost impossible to pump out of a tanker. Nowadays, with their reduced production, Ontario producers are able to supply all the honey the winery requires.

I was anxious to learn if the London winery added herbs and spices to their mead. If so, their Ancient Mead would really be a 'metheglin' or spiced mead. Welsh Tudor Kings had brought spiced meads to England. From the 16th century on, the word 'metheglin', from the Welsh 'meddyglyn', was often used, especially in the west country, for plain and spiced meads alike. Queen Elizabeth I apparently was fond of a sack-metheglin (a very sweet mead flavored with rosemary, bay leaves, sweet briar and thyme). The Ancient Mead Golden the London Winery produces is not spiced, Mr. Knowles informed me. Of course, the exact formula could not be divulged, but I did get this information: Pasteurized honey is dissolved in water with yeast and tartaric acid is added. Fermentation takes place at 60F and the mead is aged in wood for two years.

Mead was produced in prodigious quantities in the British Isles and northern Europe during the Middle Ages. The Roman Church was responsible for this flourishing mead industry: huge amounts of bees' wax were required for candles. Before the Protestant Reformation, the chief church of Wittenburg reportedly used 35,000 lbs. of wax a year. Every church and monastery kept bees and peasants holding land under a monastery paid their yearly dues in wax. A famous story is told of a fire extinguished with mead in 1015 in the town of Meissen, Germany - the inhabitants were apparently short of water!

In Wassail! In Mazers of Mead, Mr. Gayre claims that half the profits in beekeeping disappeared when candles ceased to blaze on the high altar and before the figures of the saints. The loss of the wax trade was only one of the blows dealt beekeepers. From the 16th century on, a cheap substitute for honey appeared in the form of West Indian sugar. With the decline of beekeeping, the essential ingredient of mead became scarce, and the less mead was made the more expensive it became. By the 18th century, mead was restricted to the tables of royalty and the very wealthy. And to the tables of peasants who kept their own bees and were too poor to buy ales and wines.

The entire history of mead, Gayre maintains, has been affected by a gradual worldwide shrinkage in honey production. Inexorably, as settlement and agriculture spread, the yield of honey declined and its price rose. The ever-increasing cost of honey is no news to the London Winery. When Mr. Knowles started buying honey in 1963 it was 17 cents per pound; the winery now pays 80 cents per pound.

Perhaps the London Winery can be prevailed upon to market a dry mead. The name of Brother Adam crops up in the modern accounts of mead making I've read. Brother Adam is a famous beekeeper at Buckfast Abbey in southern England and his dry and sparkling meads are renowned. He uses a mild flavored honey such as clover, and he uses less of it than others do. His mead is aged a full seven years in oak casks and the final alcoholic content is in the vicinity of eight or nine per cent. Such meads might be pricey, but they might also be extremely popular with today's health conscious wine drinkers.

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