It’s the drink of Vikings and kings: Mead. A sort of honey-based wine thought to be the oldest alcoholic beverage in history, it’s also one of the most basic — water, yeast and fermented honey are the main ingredients. While it’s a staple in many parts of the world, especially Eastern Europe, its popularity is just beginning to grow in the United States.
Mead has a long history in literature and mythology. While this has preserved the importance of mead, it also spawned the misconception that it’s stuck in the Middle Ages. (Mead has its own Norse legend in which an imbiber becomes a scholar, and is famously consumed by characters in The Canterbury Tales, folktales such as Beowulf and most recently — our favorite — George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Game of Thrones dinner party, anyone?)
In Poland, mead is also a great excuse to get out of doing important things. Apparently, Polish Prince Leszek I the White explained to the Pope that Polish knights could not participate in the Crusades because there was no mead in Palestine. While this sounds like a totally acceptable answer to us, we don’t recommend using this excuse on your boss. Its significance in history goes even deeper: the English word “honeymoon” is rumored to come from mead; it was the practice of the bride’s father providing her with enough mead for a month-long celebration. Now that’s a sweet wedding! Unfortunately, and due to much stereotyping, many Americans’ experience with mead (and tights) starts and ends at renaissance fairs.
This would have been my perception, too (the $8 mead + shot special at my last Renaissance Fair experience was not very memorable), if not for a recent trip to Poland to visit my girlfriend’s family. I was well-aware that Poland had good beer — their Baltic porters are worth seeking out — but I took the opportunity to immerse myself in Poland’s rich tradition of mead.
Polish mead dates back to the 10th Century Piast Dynasty. Wine was scarce and too pricy for most people, which led to alternative ways to make wine. Mead consumption continues to flourish as an ode to Polish identity, often prepared hot with added spices during the winter months. It’s recently been given Protected Geographical Status as a national staple and is enjoyed all over the country today.
Other European countries like England, Finland, Croatia and Greece also enjoy mead — in fact, its historical reach extends as far as South America and Africa. Styles vary significantly based on location. In Mexico, the Balche style is brewed with edible tree bark. Tej (Ethiopian mead) is made with an earthy mix of ground aromatics known as gesho, resulting in a bitter flavor similar to hops. But back to Poland for a second, where mead or miód pitny (which translates as “drinkable honey”) is unique for its four different strengths, each with a different proportion of honey to water. Each style is also mixed with additional spices or fruit juices, which helps balance out the honey’s sweetness.
The taste of mead varies by concentration, as well as the addition of spices or fruits. Be prepared for intense sweetness, the honey taste can be overpowering at first, but stick with it, it’s worth a full glass. When drunk hot, it’s reminiscent of dark spirits but without any of the burning sensation. Consumed cold, it can be very refreshing. If you find the concentrated honey taste too much, try using mead as the base for a sweet cocktail (Polish meadery Apis has a cocktail guide on their website).
Although it’s classified as wine, mead is no stranger to the beer world — there’s a classic style of beer called braggot, made by combining beer and mead. In the Middle Ages, pure mead was expensive, so it was mixed with beer as a drink for common people. Several breweries have taken this interest a step farther and tried their hand at a barrel or two. Some have had incredible results like Kuhnhenn, Weyerbacher and Surly and some, like Bell’s and Rogue…well, we still love their beers!
Be adventurous and try mead both hot and cold. Fair warning: make sure you serve it in a snifter (i.e. drink in small quantities), because after a few hours of heavy mead-drinking I felt like I had a hive of bees buzzing in the middle of my forehead.
Here are five favorites to seek out:
- Apis Póltorak Jadwiga: Póltorak is the strongest style Polish mead and also contains the most honey content with raspberry and wild rose fruit added for additional flavor. For traditional mead, it doesn’t get better than this.
- Apis Dwójniak Kurpiowski: The Dwójniak style has a much less concentrated honey content, although the ABV is the same as Póltorak. Blackcurrant juice is added for flavor, and it is overall much easier to drink.
- Dansk Mjød Viking Blod: Ah, Denmark, home of Vikings…and really good mead. For hopheads looking for a new experience, this one’s for you; hops and hibiscus are added for flavor. Drink this out of a horn for full effect
- Kuhnhenn Bourbon Barrel Banana French toast mead: So you read the title and you’re a skeptic. What the hell is this, you ask? Blasphemous you say? Hand me a side of thick-cut bacon and a glass of this and it’s breakfast, says I.
- B. Nektar Zombie Killer: Made with Michigan tart cherry juice, apple cider and star thistle honey. Unique in its low ABV (5.5%), I could really consume on a regular basis. As instructed on the bottle: “Serve cold… Zombies hate the cold”
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