Sun, Jan 02, 2011 - Page 12 News List

Mead, drink of Vikings, emerges from Dark Ages

By allen breed  /  AP, PITTSBORO, North Carolina

Mead, that drink of Viking saga and medieval verse, is making a comeback. But this is not your ancestors’ honey wine.

“It’s not just for the Renaissance fair anymore,” says Becky Starr, co-owner of Starrlight Mead, which recently opened in an old woven label mill in this little North Carolina town.

In fact, this most ancient of alcoholic libations hasn’t been this hot since Beowulf slew Grendel’s dam and Geoffrey Chaucer fell in with the Canterbury pilgrims at the Tabard.

In the past decade, the number of “meaderies” in the US has tripled to around 150, says Vicky Rowe, owner of Gotmead.com, which describes itself as “the Internet’s premier resource for everything to do with mead.”

“I literally get new notifications of meaderies at least every couple of weeks,” says Rowe, who runs the Web site from her home in the woods north of Raleigh.

“So they’re just popping up all over and a lot of those are wineries that have decided to add mead to their mainstream product lines, which is just incredible,” she says.

Traditional mead is made with three ingredients — honey, water and yeast. The biggest hurdle has been overcoming that centuries-old misconception that something made from honey has to be sweet.

However, as Rowe is quick to point out, grapes can be pretty sweet, too.

“And just like wine, mead can be as dry as a bone or it can be so sweet it makes your fillings hurt,” she says. “And it depends on how it’s made.”

The honey, water and yeast are just the base. There are fruit-flavored meads, called melomels. There are methyglyns made with herbs and spices. And then there are what Rowe calls “weirdomels, which is mead made with lots of other things.”

Because it requires no human intervention, many believe mead is the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage. Traces of a mead-like substance were found in a 9,000-year-old Chinese burial chamber.

Until about 1500, mead was the alcoholic beverage of choice, Rowe says.

“Because cultivated grapes were only for the rich, and at that point in time the poor folks, they couldn’t get it,” says Rowe, who earned the nickname “Mead Wench” after years of wandering Renaissance fairs laden with wineskins full of her own homemade meads. “They had thin beer that they could make at home or they had mead, because honey was readily available to anybody.”

In Beowulf, the Old English epic heroic poem, the great mead-hall Heorot is the scene of most of the action. It is where King Hrothgar “with fair courtesy quaffed many a bowl of mead,” and where the “fell monster” Grendel slaughtered 30 thanes passed out “after the drinking of the mead.”

Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales contain several references to mead or “methe.” But with the opening of the New World and its sugar plantations, Rowe says, “mead began a slow decline ... and by the 1700s was almost nonexistent.”

That began to change with the spread of Renaissance fairs and re-enactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the growth of the craft beer industry.

Picking up where Chaucer left off, J.K. Rowling has introduced a whole new generation of readers to the honey wine. Devotees will no doubt recall how Ron Weasley was nearly done in by a poisoned bottle of Madame Rosmerta’s oak-matured mead in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware markets a mead-like ale called The Midas Touch. Based on the residue from drinking vessels discovered inside the golden king’s 2,700-year-old tomb, the concoction is described as “biscuity” and “succulent,” with hints of honey, saffron, papaya and melon.

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