Brewing an Ancient Irish Mead:
Continuing with the popular brewing series “Ale through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing” on December 2nd we brewed a heather mead inspired by the drink imbibed by the ancient kings of Ireland. Having just returned from Ireland the day before, I was pleased to share photographs from Tara and other ceremonial sites in Co. Meath where ritual feasting and consumption took place as early as the Neolithic Period. We brewed 10 gallons of mead which consisted of 22lbs of honey (10 pounds were generously donated by kind folks at the Urban Apiculture Institute, three pounds of honey malt, six ounces of heather tips and two ounces of elderflowers.
We boiled the wort for a total of 20 minutes, but added the local raw honey from the Urban Apiculture Institute during the last couple of minutes to ensure maximum flavor retention. A specific gravity of 1.078 was obtained, indicating a maximum alcoholic potential of ca. 10%. Normally mead should stay in the fermenter for several months, however we will try to speed up the fermentation process and then stop it in its tracks in two weeks before bottling. Currently the mead is in a vigorous state of fermentation with blow-off hoses attached in case it overflows. These hoses will eventually be replaced with airlocks, once the rate of fermentation decreases. This mead is sure to be sweet with subtle floral hints of heather and elderflower. As with any beer or wine, aging will only improve its character and illicit visions of its glorious past.
A Mead By Any Other Name:
Mead is a wine-like alcoholic beverage principally made of fermented honey. It continues to be enjoyed around the world under different names. It can have a wide range of flavors, depending on the source of the honey, additives, the yeast, and aging procedure. A mead that contains cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg or herbs is called a metheglin. A mead containing fruit, such as raspberries, blackberries, etc. is called melomel. Meanwhile, a mead fermented with grape juice is called a pyment.
Human Procurement of Honey:
Human’s love affair with honey extends back into the unknown depths of time. Exactly how far back may never be known, however one of the earliest examples honey collecting is depicted in Matopo Hills of Zimbabwe that is circa 10,000 years old (Pager 1973:54(2)).
When it comes to apiculture, i.e. keeping bees for their honey and wax, the earliest examples come from Egypt. One notable example of beekeeping can bee seen in a stone bas relief in the tomb of Queen Pabasa at el-Asasif Egypt that is dated to ca. 2400 BCE. Moreover, in 2007 archaeologists from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University were excavating the ca. 3,000 years old ruins of Tel Rehov in northern Israel, when they uncovered the earliest archaeological evidence of beekeeping. In all, there were 30 intact beehives made of straw and unbaked clay, with a hole at one end to allow the bees in and out and a lid on the other end to allow beekeepers access to the honeycombs inside.
Etymology of “Mead”:
The earliest surviving written notation of mead comes from a hymn in the Rig-Veda, one of the sacred books of Hinduism dated around 1700–1100 BCE, in which it states “In the wide-striding Vishnu’s highest footstep, there is a spring of mead.” The etymology of the word mead can be traced to the Sanskrit word, madhu, which became the Old English word Medu and the Irish word Miodh, the precursor to “mead.” Indeed, the term “honeymoon” is considered to be derived from the tradition of newlyweds drinking mead for one month (one moon) following their wedding to ensure fertility. In pre-historic Europe, mead was considered the drink of Celtic royalty and has been found in many archaeological contexts from Germany to Ireland.
Two Archaeological Examples of Mead:
While there is abundant written evidence of meads importance in Europe, from Shakespeare’s Beowulf to Odin’s thirst for mead the in Viking Sagas, there are also several archaeological sites that have yielded empirical data. One noteworthy example comes from a Celtic chieftain’s burial at the site of Hochdorf in southwestern Germany. This burial mound (tumulus) dating to ca. 550 BCE was excavated by Jörg Biel in 1978-79. Beneath the mound a log chamber was found, which held the remains of an elite male laid out on a bronze bench surrounded by drinking and feasting equipment. Of particular note was huge bronze cauldron imported from northern Italy, which contained the desiccated remains of an estimated 92 gallons of mead. Moreover, there were nine large gold decorated drinking horns, (likely from the extinct auroch), the largest of which hung above the chieftain’s head and could hold 10 pints of mead.
An example of the importance of mead in Ireland can be seen at the ancient royal site of Tara in County Meath, which at one time was the royal seat for the high-kings of Ireland. Most of the archaeological remains at the site were used as burials and open-air enclosures for ceremonial purposes. Today there are around thirty visible earthworks immediately around the hill of Tara’s summit and at least 30 more have been revealed through aerial photography and geophysical prospection (Fenwick and Newman 2002). Of specific interest is the presence of a huge banquette hall called Tech-Midchuarta or “Mead Hall.” Built around the 5th – 8th Century, this massive structure was 250 meters x 30 meters and was intended to unite the ceremonial landscape of Tara. An illustration in the Book of Leinster (AD 1100) shows a seating arrangement at the great mead hall, highlighting the entrenched social stratification during this period.