Let me tell you about a drink—a wine, technically—that is older than our species. It’s not made from grapes, and the bulk of the work to make it isn’t even done by humans, but by honey bees.
Yes, I am talking about mead.
The honey bee separated from its parent species around a million years ago. Worker honey bees collect pollen and, more importantly, nectar. Nectar is a sugary substance that fuels the bees, with the surplus being converted into honey via osmosis, to store and feed the entire colony. While yeast is omnipresent in the environment and is as hungry for that sugar as the bees are, the osmotic pressure of honey makes fermentation by yeasts and bacteria almost impossible: Think of honey as a desert for yeast cells. This, combined with smaller contributing factors, makes sealed honey immortal—it can be safely consumed thousands of years after it was made.
But evolution has a funny way of finding niches in what evolutionary philosopher Daniel Dennett has termed Design Space, often in the form of an “arms race.” While doing my research, I came across this fascinating tidbit: Some yeasts evolved to become osmotolerant. This means that the yeast can perform in environments that are high in sugars and low in water. I bring this up, because it seems that these osmotolerant yeasts became the yeasts that humans eventually unwittingly (because yeast wasn’t identified until the 19th century) harnessed to make beer and wine.
The first humans to stumble across mead would have likely done it by accident. An essay on the website of Medovina Meadery in Colorado (authored with the help of Dr. Garth Cambray, founder of Makana Meadery in South Africa) suggests an interesting scenario: “The origins of mead can be traced back to the African bush more than 20,000 years ago. Feral bees were well established; elephants roamed the continent, and weather patterns were seasonal. … (These weather patterns) would eventually cause hollows to rot out the crown of the Baobab and Miombo trees, where the elephant had broken branches. During the dry season, the bees would nest in these hollows, and during the wet season, the hollows would fill with water. Water, honey, osmotolerant yeast, and time, and voila—a mead is born.”
As nomadic tribes spread out of Africa and into the Mediterranean, they took bees with them, and mead would become a conscious (and treasured) process. The first known recipe for beer is the Hymn to Ninkasi in ancient Sumer, and it includes honey—likely because unmalted grain is not as efficient for brewing, and the sucrose and fructose in honey would work just fine for those purposes. Ancient Greece referred to it as ambrosia, “the nectar of the gods.” It’s referenced in ancient Chinese, Indian and Egyptian documents, some of which date back 4,000 years. Norse mythology and culture is littered with its mention. Think Beowulf and the slaying of Grendel inside Heorot, the great mead hall of King Hrothgar. Yes, mead was a very big deal for a very long time.
Sugar cane was brought back to Europe by Marco Polo, and honey became less and less of a source for sugars (outside of the monasteries that required beeswax and used the honey to make mead as a by-process). Then came industrialization. The Medovina essay says: “Prior to the mechanized extraction of honey, the honeycombs were simply crushed to remove the honey. This left loads of honey-laden, crushed beeswax which could most easily be processed by rinsing the honey out of the wax with warm water. And what became of the honey water? Mead, of course. Mechanized extraction meant less left over comb and less honey water for mead-making, and a general decline in the craft.” Mead has become a highly artisan concern ever since.
This would be a very sad column if it ended there. Thankfully, mead is in the midst of a comeback, of sorts. Homebrewers have led this charge, thanks to their curiosity about all things fermentable.
My first mead experience was the serviceable Chaucer’s Mead (out of Santa Cruz) I picked up in the wine aisle at a grocery story. Some of my more mind-blowing experiences with mead have come thanks to my oft-cited friend and brewer, Chris Anderson.
“For me, mead-making was merely the next natural evolution in fermentation exploration,” he says. “It came after 20 years of beer-making, and at a point where I was feeling like I had tried just about everything in brewing. It’s extremely easy to make mead, but it does require a bit of patience for the lengthy aging process, which can take a year or more.”
Anderson’s tropical mead was my favorite—and he went all out on it.
“It was kind of a joke, but it was special,” he explains. “I opted for Christmas Berry and Lehua honey, both from Hawaii, and Miele Amaro (bitter honey) from Sardinia. The fruits that I employed were all grown on our property on Oahu: passion fruit, papaya, mango and pink guava. This was by far the best mead that I have ever made, and it garnered gold in the few competitions that I entered it in.”
If you have not experienced meads, it is a bit easier to do than it was even a couple of years ago. Locally, Golden Coast Mead in Oceanside is a couple of hours away from the Coachella Valley (and a great place to go to escape the last gasps of summer here). Moonlight Meadery out of New Hampshire has been making wonderful meads for years, which can be found on select craft-beer shop shelves and purchased via their site for shipping.
A personal favorite that I have not yet had a chance to visit resides in Arizona, Superstition Meadery. They make an incredible mead called Peanut Butter Jelly Crime, and yes, it tastes like the liquid version of the best PB&J you’ve ever had. They’ve gotten into hazy hopped meads recently, and the results are delicious.
However you can find it, mead is worth trying out—and hopefully, it will be made more interesting with the knowledge I’ve imparted here.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.