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Mead - the drink of the North

By S. V. HOLROYD

MEAD is an ancient drink based on a honey-fermented water. Very probably this fermentation was something of a hit and miss because it all depended on what natural yeasts were available in order to produce the required alcoholic liquor.

The Nordic Sagas tell us about the 'mead halls' wherein the great feasts were held amid the song and saga recalling brave deeds and feats of valour. Here were the Folk gathered around their leaders. They heard of that most wonderful drink of all drinks ― the Mead of Suttung brewed in the magic cauldron Odherir.

To obtain a first-class mead one must wait a few years and such being the case this fact would make good mead hard to come by and very expensive. How then did our forefathers (so we are told) drink so much mead all the time? Well, they did not. I believe that the Anglo-Saxon 'medu' (mead) and 'melu' (meal got from ground grains of wheat and the like) became confused in usage. More so in view of the fact that 'meal' (as barley and rye, for instance) also produced a drink and by far the most common drink was the 'ale'. This is, of course, a beer without hops.

Now ale could be cheaply and quickly made although again the fermentation of it before the day of commercially produced brewer's yeast depended on what natural yeasts were about or in whatever grain was used for the drink. In place of the non-existent sugar our Nordic ancestors used honey ― a thing which could offer natural yeasts along with the inherent alcoholic reaction that both honey and yeast in water would bring about. In short, they brewed a mead ale.

Not many could drink a pint or two of real mead and remain sober afterwards, but mead ale, a less potent brew, could be consumed in fairly large quantities and, after all, nobody wishes for a drink which produces 'instant drunkenness' so that mead ale with its low alcoholic content filled the bill. The rather plain monotonous diet of our forefathers required such a drink as ale to go with it and this fact was accepted by rich and poor alike. Wines were known of course but as most were imported or taken as war booty, they were neither cheaply nor readily to hand for everyday drinking. We must also not forget that a mead or ale brew in the day of Leif Erikson was never then bottled (let alone canned) so that such brews were consumed fairly quickly.

On festal occasions the Nordic gods were honoured and horns drunk to them and this was called drinking their minne or memorial draught and also it was common custom to bemoan the absence of friends dead or alive but, more so, the dead ones. In Valhalla there is a plentiful supply of mead for all.

A drink of which honey forms the chief ingredient may be termed 'mead' but before the advent of sugar to Europe, honey had to be the sweetener for anything requiring such treatment. For fermentation purposes honey had to be used hence its universal useage in brewing.

Mead, once a common drink throughout Europe, began to lose its popularity with the advent of cheap sugar for all, it replacing the honey and thus by doing so denying the right of any brew not using honey to be called mead. To make mead is quite easy but your purist is not satisfied with honey and water and yeast and nor will he consider his mead fit for drinking unless it is five years old or more. Types of honey make for types of mead and some do not make good mead at all. Anyone considering making mead or mead ale ought to read up on the subject beforehand. I know our Nordic forefathers enjoyed their mead and mead ale so go to it ― make some yourself!