Lia Crowe enjoys a glass of Harvest Melomel, Mixed Berry Melomel Mead, at the Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery. Don Denton photography

Mead For The Ages

Honey wine is the world’s oldest alcoholic drink

  • Nov. 22, 2018 12:45 p.m.

– Story by Pamela Durkin

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

Mead is the oldest alcoholic beverage known to humankind, predating both beer and wine. Throughout history it has been reputed to prolong life, enhance fertility and bestow strength. Also known as “honey-wine,” mead’s history is as rich as its flavour, and savvy modern consumers seeking new taste sensations that are healthy and environmentally friendly have sparked a renewed interest in the age-old brew.

History lesson

As long as there have been bees and honey, there has been mead. In its basic form, mead is simply honey mixed with water and yeast. Historians believe humans were introduced to this intoxicating brew during the Stone Age when, by chance, wild yeast in the air settled into honey that was wet from rain, thereby fermenting the mixture. The drink was then replicated throughout the ages and cultures of the world.

Mead’s vaulted status was indeed widespread and enduring. The Greeks called it the “nectar of the Gods” and claimed it bestowed virility. In the Middle Ages, the Anglo Saxons were convinced it induced creativity.

Remnants of mead’s mythology survive to this day. The term “honeymoon” comes from the ancient practice of plying newlyweds with mead for one month after their nuptials to ensure fertility and male progeny.

Similarly the word “medicine” is derived from the term for spiced mead — Metheglin. Although Mead’s popularity waxed and waned after the Middle Ages, it is currently experiencing a renaissance. High quality meads are being produced at meaderies across Canada, and several have garnered international acclaim, including some sublime meads from BC.

“It’s exciting to see BC meads making such a buzz,” enthuses Emily Vanderschee, co-owner of Kelowna’s Meadow Vista Honey Wines. “We have the most amazing honey here, with lovely fruity notes and a lightness that comes from the diverse plants and flora native to BC. It always helps to start with delicious honey.”

A bottle and glass of Solstice Metheglin, Spiced Honey Metheglin Mead, at the Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery. Don Denton photography

Fine dining establishments have taken note of the “buzz,” and several of BC’s favourite foodie haunts — including Victoria’s BeLove, Sooke’s Harbour House and the Okanagan’s elegant Sparkling Hill Resort — now include mead on their menus.

“Our guests are intrigued to try mead and pleasantly surprised by the sophistication it offers,” notes Sooke Harbour House sommelier Jess Howard.

And it seems upscale diners aren’t the only ones getting acquainted with mead’s delightful flavour—according to the BC Liquor Distribution Branch, there has been a significant increase in the volume of mead sold in government liquor stores since 2014.

To your health

There are some compelling reasons to give mead a try. Scientists have discovered that honey, mead’s main ingredient, is loaded with compounds that offer some amazing health benefits. For instance, recent research has shown that chrysin, a flavonoid found in abundance in honey, has the ability to inhibit the proliferation of (and induce apoptosis or “cell death”) in — cancer cells. Chrysin has also been shown to suppress neuroinflammation, which suggests it may be a protective agent for a group of neurodegenerative diseases caused by inflammation.

Honey’s therapeutic edge doesn’t end there. Researchers have also found that the consumption of natural honey reduces cardiovascular risk factors, particularly in individuals who already have an elevated risk for cardiovascular disease.

And for those who suffer from grape wine induced migraines, mead may be the perfect alternative. Many experts believe that it’s a substance in the grape skin that causes migraines in sensitive individuals. One caveat exists, however: mead is an alcoholic beverage, so moderate consumption is key.

Good for the world, too

Mead is not only good for you — it’s good for the planet, too. Its production doesn’t require the cultivation of any land, minimizing its environmental impact. Furthermore, by drinking mead, you support bees and the beekeepers who are valiantly trying to keep a threatened honeybee population alive.

“Every bottle of mead we sell supports the bees,” notes Vanderschee.

Why is bee survival so critical?

“We desperately need honeybees to sustain our agriculture,” explains Bob Liptrott, co-owner of Sooke’s award winning Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery. “One third of all the food we eat requires pollination by bees.”

Lia Crowe enjoys a glass of Harvest Melomel, Mixed Berry Melomel Mead, at the Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery. Don Denton photography

Culinary pairings

Because mead has been around so long and embraced by so many cultures, there are many different types of mead and methods of production. It can be sweet or dry, sparkling or still, fruity or spicy — or not. A basic mead made of honey, water and yeast is called “traditional.” Once a mead-maker begins adding other components, like fruits or herbs, it takes on a different character and variety name.

Worldwide, there are so many varieties of mead it is impossible to make specific suggestions about pairing this beverage with food. The type of honey used to make mead will affect is flavour and aroma. A traditional mead made with buckwheat honey will taste completely different from one made with a milder honey such as orange-blossom or clover.

A good rule of thumb is to ask the mead-maker — who knows the characteristics of his product — for pairing suggestions to create the perfect culinary marriage. In general, sweet meads pair beautifully with desserts and cheeses; light, crisp meads enhance salads, seafood and Asian cuisine. Heartier meads, such as Pyment or Metheglin, marry well with ethnic dishes, stews and meats.

Of course, mead, like wine, is not just for drinking. Cooking with the brew imparts enticing flavours to both sweet and savoury dishes.

“We love cooking with mead, and our website is chock-full of recipes that incorporate mead,” says Vanderschee. “Our Mabon Mead, which won an award at the recent World Wine Championships, is amazing for cooking the holiday turkey!”

Chef Thomas Yesdresyski of the Sooke Harbour House also describes mead as a superb culinary muse, noting that he and his team use it in a variety of ways.

Why not fill your kitchen with mead’s marvellous aroma and save a bee by incorporating mead into your culinary repertoire?

To find a mead-maker in your area visit winesofcanada.com/mead.

COMMON MEAD VARIETIES

Traditional: A basic mead made of honey, water and yeast.

Varietal: Similar to traditional mead, but made from honey from a particular flower source (such as clover or blossom honey).

Melomel: Made with the addition of a single fruit or blend of fruits.

Pyment: Made specifically with the addition of grape juice.

Cyser: Made specifically with the addition of apple juice (similar to apple cider).

Metheglin: Made with herbs and spices.

Sack or fortified: Has a higher alcohol content than other meads.

(It also contains more honey.)

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