Mead. The drink of the gods, as someone said. Not sure who or when but it sounds like a thing people say about mead. Or perhaps it was the Vikings, or barbarians from Germania, or at least someone from Game of Thrones. An authentic recovery drink after a good slaying. The hipsters quaffing it these days probably couldn’t wield a battle axe but at least the facial hair is on point.
But it’s not just a passing trend, it really is an authentic, timeless drink. Possibly one of the first alcohols enjoyed by humans. Alcohol is fermented sugar of some kind, (be it from fruit, potatoes etc etc) and of course in honey the sweetness abounds, so making alcohol from honey is an obvious choice. Perhaps accidentally discovered at first by our lumbering ancestors, the result of honey and rain, they may have wondered why they couldn’t remember the night before except vague recollections of dancing and inappropriately directed grunts.
Honey hunting by humans (raiding wild honeybee nests) is recorded in rock art 8000 years old in Spain, the Egyptians were the first beekeepers we know of (providing homes for the bees using ceramic pots) 4000 years ago. They must have cottoned on to the alcoholic potential of honey, they certainly missed a trick if they didn’t.
What we know for sure is that mead has been a drink of the countryfolk in England for hundreds of years, it’s just that apples are far more available than honey so cider has hogged the limelight for so long. Thankfully mead making never went away and the skills were passed on through the generations. There are plenty of fine mead making beekeepers tucked away in the countryside, mostly mad as hatters, and plenty of fine mead making businesses around if you just look for them (especially The More Mead Company). Thank those gods for the internet.
Quince has moved premises three times in its history and every time dusty bottles of mead are discovered, long forgotten under crates of other dusty things that will definitely come in handy one day. As beekeepers came and went, some took an interest in mead making, clandestine gatherings formed, the secrets were shared and the stashing commenced.
George Wallace, Quince Honey Farm’s founder, had perfected a simple mead recipe which, in his words, gave you the power to take on the world, but don’t stand up too fast after a couple of pints, best not to try to stand up at all. It’s a strange thing that mead is traditionally drunk in pints but is as strong as wine. Feel free to break with tradition on that one, for your sake and other’s.
At Quince Honey Farm we make mead just for personal use. Like many beekeepers we ‘wash our cappings’. The wax by product from extracting honey (the ‘cappings’) is still a little sticky after the honey has been separated from it. The wax must be cleaned so it can be melted into blocks for candles etc, if done with mead making in mind we are left with a sweet water and the perfect start for some delicious mead. We take great satisfaction in the fact our mead comes more or less entirely from an otherwise irretrievable waste product. But when starting the process like this we have no idea how much honey is in the water. Mead making is precise, for George’s recipe exactly 4 pounds of honey per gallon of water is required. Impossible to measure when washing cappings, but thankfully George passed down a neat trick. Float an egg in the sticky sweet water until the amount of egg showing is the size of a 5p. That’s an old 5p, mind you, not the little shiny ones from the 90s the kids are all using these days.
Or just use a hydrometer. How dull.
Mead never quite broke through to the mainstream in the way cider did because the public perception doesn’t quite match the product. Like wines, meads range from dry to sweet. And the strength tends to range from strong cider (around 8%) to fortified wine (around 18%). Try drinking a pint of sweet mead and you won’t make it to the bottom of the glass, try drinking a pint of dry mead and you’ll make it to the floor. The answer? Don’t drink it by the pint! You are not a blood-spattered shield maiden, you did not just load a trailer of hay with a pitchfork, you go to a spin class once a week. Enjoy it by the glass, with your meal. Or after your meal if you like a sweet one.
And did you know that mead has romantic connotations too? For those celebrating Valentine’s Day (on which this blog was posted!), this is a nice little anecdote… it is thought that the word “honeymoon” is derived from the Scandinavian practice of drinking mead during the first month of the marriage, measured by one moon cycle, in order to improve the likelihood of conception. Mead was thought to help with fertility (or perhaps just get you in the mood more often) for the newlyweds. There are other, slightly depressing, theories behind the meaning of the word involving bride kidnapping and marriages only being happy for one month then going downhill… but we prefer the mead one!
At Quince, we are thrilled to be welcoming local mead makers The More Mead Company to our farm this year. Opening in the early part of 2022, they will have a premises on our site where they will make their delicious range of meads, and will be right on hand to use our own seasonal honey in the recipe. Check out their website here and follow them on social media for more information about opening dates and to order mead online. Happily, they are producing some ‘session meads’ which are around the 5% mark, which can be enjoyed by the pint, as well as the range of traditional meads.
Happy mead drinking! Wassail!
Image: a selection of meads produced by The More Mead Company.