“I am man’s treasure, taken from the woods,
Cliff‐sides, hill‐slopes, valleys, downs;
By day wings bear me in the buzzing air,
Slip me under a sheltering roof: sweet craft.”
Exeter Book, Riddle 25
If you believe the Norse, we owe our lives to mead. The story goes that in the far distant past, when two clans of warring gods finally made peace, they joined their powers in an all-knowing being called Kvasir, born from a vat of spit. Kvasir reigned the heavens until one day, venturing to earth, he was killed by dwarves who drained his blood, mixed it with honey, and brewed of it the Mead of Inspiration. Odin stole the mead and, disguised as an eagle, distributed it to mankind, enlightening all those who drank it, and bringing the godly gift of poetry to the mortal realm.
“A drink I got of the goodly mead
Poured out from Othrorir.
Then began I to thrive, and wisdom to get,
I grew and well I was;
Each word led me on to another word,
Each deed to another deed.”
The Poetic Edda, Snorri Sturlson, 1200 BC
What did it taste like? We’re not sure, but the Mead of Inspiration was likely a jumbled concoction. Honey was an easily accessible source of sugar — it didn’t need to be juiced, like fruit, or malted, like grain — but it was rare. So historic meads were mixed bags of honey, grain, berries, apples, herbs, and spices. Plus plenty of wild yeast, bacteria, and nutritious bugs. Before modern beekeeping developed techniques to cleanly extract honey from man-made comb, brewers boiled entire, wild-harvested hives, bees, wax, and all.
Ancient mead brewers often added herbs and spices too, as flavorings, medicine, and some — symbolic and narcotic — as spiritual tonics, what anthropologists call “entheogens.” Specific brews were said to cure specific ailments, from coughs to tumors, from “the stone” to “the itch.” Garlic, sage, and rue treated a rabid dog bite. Bee balm “purgeth all melancholy vapors,” wrote 16th-century Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli. Horehound, said herbalist John Gerard, is good for you if you have a cold or “have drunk poyson or have been bitten of serpents.” Blessed thistle gets its Latin name Carduus benedictus from its use in Benedictine brews. Shamanic brewers used more potent herbs — henbane, mandrake, sarsaparilla — to conjure the spirit world, or travel to it. Aztecs took Psilocybe — “teonanácatl,” they called it; the god mushroom — in brews of fermented chocolate or agave nectar. Nordic shamans used ergot, a parasitic fungus that grew on rotted barley and rye. Archaeologists have found its tell-tale bloated purplish grains in the guts of buried bog bodies. Ergot is powerful stuff. The fungus shares some of the same chemical compounds as LSD. A potsherd unearthed in Scotland contained traces of a mead made with heather, on whose flowers grows, sometimes, a similarly hallucinogenic moss called “fogg.”
At our workshop, we chose a less potent but still invigorating mix of rich, fruity guajillo chilies, fiery anchos, cardamom pods, and cloves — a warming, chai-like mead. Spiced meads like this are called metheglins, and were very popular in the Middle Ages, especially with the upper classes. King Charles II himself drank a spiced mead (he liked his with hops, hold the cloves), and the general public took to it both as a status symbol and healthful alternative to wine and beer. Writing in his diary, Samuel Pepys described a night out when, “I drinking no wine, had metheglin for the King’s owne drinking, which did please me mightily.” Some metheglins were even served warm, like a toddy, and mixed with wine or other liquors in a cocktail called a hippocras. In about a month, ours will be ready to drink — a divine reward for our patience.
To close, some good advice from the Vikings:
“Shun not the mead, but drink in measure;
Speak to the point or be still;
For rudeness none shall rightly blame thee
If soon thy bed thou seekest.”
The Poetic Edda
William Bostwick is a brewer, beekeeper, herbalist, and the beer critic for GQ and the Wall Street Journal. He’s been making mead and other fermentables for years, and is writing a book about the great lost beers of history. His book, The Brewers Tale about the history of the world according to beer, will be published by W.W. Norton in October. You can follow him in various places @brewerstale on Twitter and @lonepineco on Instagram