Mead: Honeymoon Tipple
Mead, or honey wine, is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks known to man. It stands to reason, since it is made up largely of sugars which easily convert to alcohol in fermentation. The etymology of “honeymoon” comes down to mead, historically a drink for newlyweds, imbued with the power to increase virility and fertility; the “moon” part of the word also relating to the female fertility cycle.
I had my first mead experience last weekend, when we uncorked a bottle which was given to me by a close friend of my sister, Jeff Jacobs. Jeff is a passionate home-brewer living in Colorado Springs, and when I met him at a party there at Christmas and expressed an interest in his mead, he very kindly left a bottle for me on the doorstep the next day, which I smuggled back to London in my suitcase inside a boot.
What a treat it was! - which I’m sure is down to Jeff’s deft expertise. It had a soft texture and floral character, reminiscent of a fino sherry but slightly sweeter, with elderflower and melon notes. We drank it chilled and it was the perfect aperitif. As you can see from the photo, Jeff is a talented label-maker as well.
I was aware that mead has long been the table wine of choice in Ethiopia, where they call it “tej”. One 16th century Portuguese missionary, Jeronimo Lobo, observed whilst visiting Ethiopia, that “the common drink of the Abyssins is beer and mead, which they drink to excess when they visit one another; nor can there be a greater offence against good manners than to let the guests go away sober: their liquor is always presented by a servant, who drinks first himself, and then gives the cup to the company, in the order of their quality.” Of some time spent with an Ethiopian monk, he reported: “Having invited him to sup and pass the night with me, I set before him some excellent mead, which he liked so well as to drink somewhat beyond the bounds of exact temperance.” I found this in this staggeringly comprehensive essay on mead online.
Ethiopian mead is brewed with a type of hops called gesho to activate the fermentation, which gives it slightly bitter attributes, none of which were present in Jeff’s bottle; I am assuming he used brewer’s yeast instead.
Mead is known as an old English wine as well, though now a bit of a curiosity. I have a lovely old book on winemaking called “Easy Wine Making in 21 Days” by John George and Barry Anderson (Hamlyn 1976) which gives recipes for half a dozen English mead variations including “pyment” with grapes, “cyser” with apples, and “metheglin” with herbs and spices. Bring it back I say! And Jeff, I’ll be knocking on your door next time I’m in town…