The Celtic tradition has always embraced mead in both ceremonial and festival use. Indeed, mead is just as Celtic as the Triple Goddess and The Horned One. It has been touted as the “drink of the gods” for centuries. Even among today’s pagans a good bottle of mead is often just as prized and coveted as some ritual tools or “mystic secrets.” You might even be surprised at the bartering potential of a bottle of high quality mead among some circles of heathen brethren today.
A brief history of mead
Mead was quite possibly one of the first fermented drinks mankind developed. Egyptian, African, Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse cultures all have recorded history mentioning mead as a favorite and preferred drink. Mead is made from honey, and honey was the only source of sweet foodstuff available to biblical and pre-biblical man. Refined sugar was not to be introduced for several centuries.
The earliest recordings of mead are from the Egyptian culture. We know there was not a great abundance of high-sugar fruit in the Egyptian region. The only abundant source of sugar for producing alcohol came from honey, which was highly prized in the region at that time, and still is today. Other early civilizations like the Romans and Greeks also lacked high-sugar fruit and refined sugar sources to make drinkable alcohol, but honey was readily available and cultivated in these areas as well.
How did man discover the process for making alcohol?
Well, more than likely it was accidental. Honey has a tendency to accumulate water derived from moisture in the air, and once water accumulates to dilute the honey at the surface of a container the natural yeast present in the honey starts the process of making mead naturally. More than likely, early man just realized that when honey was combined with water and was left to sit it would generate what we now know as an alcoholic beverage called mead.
This was a very unpredictable cultivation at first because these cultures had no idea exactly how the process took place or what the catalyst was. Batches of honey were often simply diluted with water and left in the sun to see what happened even up until the 1800’s. Some mead was successfully brewed and other batches were more than likely spoiled by contamination from other microorganisms.
The father of modern brewing – Louis Pasteur
It was not until the mid 1800’s that the process of making drinkable alcohol from sugar, a process known as fermentation, was truly understood through the research of Louis Pasteur. Pasteur is most recognizable to Americans as the scientist credited with the development of pasteurization used to sanitize milk as well as other contributions to the field of biology. However, the rest of the world widely recognizes Pasteur for his great contributions to the field of wine making. He was credited for discovering and documenting the scientific basis for fermentation used to this day in all forms of brewing.
The process seems quite un-natural until you have an understanding of microbiology. Egyptian and Celtic cultures certainly had no knowledge of these concepts. More than likely a serious spiritual significance was probably placed on the brewing of mead. However, in today’s world we understand how the process works on a biological level.
How mead is made – Fermentation & beyond
Yeast does the work
The whole feat is accomplished using a microorganism known as yeast. These microscopic life forms are classified as a higher order of fungus with the ability to consume sugar and expel drinkable alcohol and carbon dioxide as waste. If yeast is introduced to a liquid with a high sugar content and held at the optimum temperature (about 60-70 degrees F) it will quickly consume the majority of sugar in the mixture and replace it with it’s natural byproducts, alcohol and CO2. The more sugar present in a mixture the more alcohol generally produced in the end product. As the percentage of alcohol in the mixture (known as “must” in the wine industry) raises the process of fermentation slowly halts. Alcohol is toxic to yeast in high volumes. Some residual sugars may remain in the mixture but if more is added the process of fermentation will continue to further raise the alcohol content to somewhere in the neighborhood of 24-25% (50 proof). At this point, the alcohol content of the mixture is usually too high and the yeast begin to stop fermentation and die.
The honey is mixed with all the necessary ingredients in a container, usually a food-grade plastic bucket. The mixture is sanitized and additional nutrients beneficial to the rapid growth of yeast are added to the basic wine mixture, known as “must”. A yeast culture is added to the must and fermentation begins. An air-lock is usually attached to the container so that the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation can escape the container but air from the outside cannot contaminate the fermenting mixture. An air-lock, or fermentation lock, is usually an S-shaped tube with a water trap in the bottom. As pressure from the fermentation container builds it bubbles through the water trap and escapes into the open air on the outside of the container. As long as the pressure in the container remains greater than the outside atmospheric pressure then no air is allowed to enter through the fermentation lock. Maintaining a higher pressure inside the fermentation tank is not difficult as the natural bi product of fermentation is CO2. A sterile cotton plug in the top of the container can also be used for this purpose but this doesn’t allow for the brewer to see when the the mixture stops bubbling which usually signifies the end of fermentation drawing near.
After fermentation the mixture is sanitized to kill all microbes, including yeast, and sweetened to taste or left as-is for an un-sweet or “dry” flavor. The wine is usually stored in a wooden cask/barrel to age. Aging wine is a fine art in itself apart from mixing the ingredients in the original recipe and controlling the fermentation process. It can also be done quite successfully by the hobbyist in a wine aging container known as a carboy, which is essentially a large water bottle that varies in capacity from one to ten gallons, or even larger. The wine will usually be filtered mechanically or siphoned from one container to another to remove any sediment that’s collected as a result of the fermentation process. Bottling and further aging is usually the last step in the process.
Taking out the sediment – Racking
The mixture is allowed to ferment until either fermentation has ended or drastically slowed (the air-lock stops bubbling) and is then siphoned into a carboy (another container) and allowed to age and sit so the sediment created during the fermentation process can collect at the bottom of the container. The top wine is then siphoned into another container leaving the sediment behind. This process continues until no sediment collects on the bottom of the carboy. This siphoning process is known as “racking.”
Getting a clear product – Fining
Additional substances can be added to the wine at this point to capture any remaining particles suspended in the wine, forcing them to the bottom of the container for one final racking. The addition of additional substances to produce a clearer wine product is known as “clarifying” or “fining” the wine.
Bottled or aged for quality
The wine or mead is then usually sanitized one final time using a sanitizing chemical available at most home brew shops and then bottled in an appropriate container. The wine can be consumed immediately or allowed to age to improve flavor. Wine bottles with corks are preferred by most serious hobbyist brewers, as the corks will allow for a very slow oxidation of the wine over time, greatly improving the quality of the flavor and aroma.
What does aging a wine do?
The process of aging a wine is a slow chemical reaction in which the wine or mead is allowed to rest and slowly oxidize in a container. Wooden containers are often used for aging because the wine will take on the flavor and aroma of the wood. The wood allows for a slight amount of oxidation of the wine which can improve flavor. Oak is especially prized in the wine industry for this purpose. New wine can have a harsh and distinctly different flavor and aroma from wine that has been well aged.
Aging in Wood
Serious home brewers can also purchase wooden barrels or casks to age their wine but this is often reserved for individuals who can make a substantial $200+ investment in their hobby. Anyone else wanting the wood flavors from aging wine can obtain wood chips from a local brewing store and age the wine in the carboy with the chips to produce a flavor similar to that of aging wine in traditional wooden barrels at a fraction of the cost.
Mead or Wine
Wine is any sugar based fermented beverage. Mead is a specific variety of wine made from honey. Mead is a type of wine but no wine may wear the label of mead unless it’s primary ingredient is honey.
Types of Mead
There are as many flavors of mead as there are drops of rain in a thunderstorm. Honey itself is a very unpredictable product, but even two batches of mead started from the same hive of honey can end up with different flavors and properties. However, there are some general classifications of mead that are detailed as follows:
- Mead: honey wine with only honey and no additional spices
- Sack Mead: sweet honey wine but the only sweetener used was honey. No additional spices.
- Metheglin: honey wine that has been spiced for flavor. Examples of common spices are cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, rosemary & thyme.
- Sack Metheglin: sweet spiced honey wine
- Hydromel: weak or watered mead
- Sparkling Mead: mead made with the same carbonation technique as Champaign
Mead, Wine, Beer & Ale making as a hobby
Various spices and fruit juice combinations are used today to make meads and wines of all variety. Many people enjoy the hobby of home brewing to make their own beers, ales, wines and meads which is perfectly legal in the US as long as it’s not done for sale and the mixtures aren’t distilled into stronger spirits. Federal law provides that individuals may produce up to 200 gallons of wine per year per person per household. Wine making kits are readily available at local home brew shops or via the internet for $50 to $100. Internet and book resources are also readily available to today’s hobbyist to explain the process step-by-step.
Many people today enjoy making their own meads, wines, beers and ales for the pure satisfaction and enjoyment of doing the job themselves. Once the basics of brewing are understood it’s very easy to make your own custom flavors or play with recipes from more traditional products like mead or grape wine. Wine can be made from just about every fruit and vegetable on the planet given proper understanding of fermentation. These beverages can often be made by the hobbyist MUCH cheaper than if the same products were bought commercially and often with the same quality as commercial brews. Custom brews make great gifts too! Home brewing has become so popular that hobby clubs have been in operation for years and often promote local competitions among fellow brewers.
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