Mead: It's Not Just for Vikings

Colony Collapse Disorder has spurred a new interest in bees. With backyard apiculture catching on, so is a storied form of liquid gold: honey...

Colony Collapse Disorder has spurred a new interest in bees. With backyard apiculture catching on, so is a storied form of liquid gold: honey wine.

Of the 20,000 bee species that have been identified, beekeepers in Europe and North America keep only one (Apis mellifera). In recent years, some beekeepers have seen a mysterious 70 percent decline in their bee populations. Because bees pollinate fruits and flowers, making them indispensable for sustainable and profitable agriculture, the death of western honeybees-known as Colony Collapse Disorder-has led to a prolonged hand wringing.Some say the scale of the collapse has been overstated. A study in the May issue of Current Biology, for example, reports a global rise in domesticated bee populations. Don't get too hopeful, though. Combined with native bee losses, the increase in managed honeybees might not be enough to keep pace with the growing number of food crops requiring pollinators. The disappearance of bees has been called a "looming pollination crisis." And a "coming agricultural crisis" and a "a crisis on top of a crisis."The beepocalypse has also brought some awareness to bee-related news, from beejacking and honey laundering to the range of theories about its root cause. Possible explanations for CCD include cell phone transmissions, disease, drought, stress, toxins, pesticides, malnutrition, and, most recently, a parasite. The collapse has also contributed to an already budding interest in backyard beekeeping. Home meadmaking might be next.Mead is a fermented, alcoholic honey wine (it's not officially a wine, though-federal regulators call mead an "agricultural product"). Some compare the taste of bad meads to urine or petrol. To me, the better meads often resemble Pinot grigio with a sweet honey flavor and an aftertaste that's slightly medicinal, like aspirin.Because late season goldenrod honey tastes different from an early season blueberry honey, a particular mead's characteristics are tied to where and when it was produced: like wine, it has terroir. And unlike beer (which, unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, tends to involve a lot of imported hops), mead can be made anywhere there's honey. Anywhere. One city beekeeper I talked with said hawthorns, crab apples, and other flowering trees planted in cities tended to give urban bees plenty of pollen to forage.In regions where wine grapes don't grow well, mead is one of the few alcoholic drinks that can be made with terroir. Tilar Mazzeo, a wine scholar and author of The Widow Clicquot, told me that mead may have been the only wine Europeans made in Maine-at least at the time when the Vikings arrived.But it's mostly this association with the Vikings that's defined mead so far-and limited its appeal. Bees show up in cave paintings, Virgil's Georgics, and as potent symbols of industry and thrift in American literature, but much of the contemporary writing about mead tends to start and stop with medievalists, the rowdy Norseman Beowulf, or Lord of the Rings-style swilling of hogheads. It doesn't help that the authoritative how-to book on the subject has the words "compleat meadmaker" in the title. As Nicholas Day put it in an article on Slate, "currency with the Society for Creative Anachronism is not exactly a signifier of great commercial promise."Still, the Scandinavian and medieval associations belie its wider cultural significance. Ethiopian restaurants often serve tej, a honey wine made with the gesho plant. Slow Food has recognized Polish meads. Dogfish Head brewery added honey to an Egyptian-style ale. Two East Coast kombucha makers recently turned to mead and, where I live, a couple of young guys have started brewing up dry meads. An estimated 70 meaderies exist in the United States.

Not all of them make mead worth drinking (the Mazer Cup lists a few that are). Nor do all of them harp on the drink's storied past, further relegating mead to the realm of mere historical novelty.For those who do want a taste of ancient Rome, one final note. Pliny the Elder has a recipe for hydromel, a weak mead made of three parts water to one part honey, which should be left outside for 40 days after the rising of the Dog Star (according to Bee Wilson). Hydromel caused drunkenness. It was also said to cure small-mindedness. So if you raise a glass of honey wine, think of Pliny's recipe, the combination of chain mail and the beekeeper's veil, and mead's cloyingly sweet taste of place. After all, bees just might need the attention.
Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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