The Celtic tradition has always embraced mead in both ceremonial and festival use. Indeed, mead is just as Celtic as the Druids. It has been touted as the “drink of the gods” for centuries. Even among today’s pagans a good bottle of mead is often just as prized and coveted as some ritual tools or “mystic secrets.” You might even be surprised at the bartering potential of a bottle of high quality mead among some circles of heathen brethren today.
A Brief History of Mead
Mead was quite possibly one of the first fermented drinks mankind developed. Egyptian, African, Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse cultures all have recorded history mentioning mead as a favorite and preferred drink. Mead is made from honey, and honey was the only source of sweet foodstuff available to biblical and pre-biblical man. Refined sugar was not to be introduced for several centuries. The earliest recordings of mead are from the Egyptian culture. We know there was not a great abundance of high-sugar fruit in the Egyptian region. The only abundant source of sugar for producing alcohol came from honey, which was highly prized in the region at that time, and still is today. Other early civilizations like the Romans and Greeks also lacked high-sugar fruit and refined sugar sources to make drinkable alcohol, but honey was readily available and cultivated in these areas as well.
How did man discover the process for making alcohol?
Well, more than likely it was accidental. Honey has a tendency to accumulate water derived from moisture in the air, and once water accumulates to dilute the honey at the surface of a container the natural yeast present in the honey starts the process of making mead naturally. More than likely, early man just realized that when honey was combined with water and was left to sit it would generate what we now know as an alcoholic beverage called mead. This was a very unpredictable cultivation at first because these cultures had no idea exactly how the process took place or what the catalyst was. Batches of honey were often simply diluted with water and left in the sun to see what happened even up until the 1800’s. Some mead was successfully brewed and other batches were more than likely spoiled by contamination from other microorganisms.
The father of modern brewing – Louis Pasteur
It was not until the mid 1800’s that the process of making drinkable alcohol from sugar, a process known as fermentation, was truly understood through the research of Louis Pasteur. Pasteur is most recognizable to Americans as the scientist credited with the development of pasteurization used to sanitize milk as well as other contributions to the field of biology. However, the rest of the world widely recognizes Pasteur for his great contributions to the field of wine making. He was credited for discovering and documenting the scientific basis for fermentation used to this day in all forms of brewing. The process seems quite un-natural until you have an understanding of microbiology. Egyptian and Celtic cultures certainly had no knowledge of these concepts. More than likely a serious spiritual significance was probably placed on the brewing of mead. However, in today’s world we understand how the process works on a biological level.
Other than core ingredients such as honey and fruit juices there are relatively few additional ingredients. Some added ingredients are to help with fermentation and others are for flavor enhancement and balancing. Here is a basic list of the most widely used ingredients today:
Campden Tablets kill bacteria, molds and wild yeast and are essential when making wine from fresh fruit or unpasturized honey. They’re not generally required if using sterile ingredients to being with and should be avoided in these cases as they will only unnecessarily slow down fermentation. The normal dose is usually 2 crushed tablets per gallon. Be sure to cover the mixture with a cloth or towel and let vent for at least 24 hours before adding cultured yeast to the batch. Otherwise, the tablets will slow down or kill the yeast that’s deliberately introduced to the batch to kick off fermentation. Campden tablets are also often added to wine just before bottling (and not given a chance to evaporate out) to sterilize the wine and prevent fermentation in the bottle. Campden tablets have a mild effect on flavor when used in the prescribed doses.
Yeast, is the key to making wine, is a microorganism that naturally consumes sugar (along with other nutrients) and outputs waste and carbon dioxide along with other particles. Yeast occurs naturally in most fruit and in honey but this yeast often produces an undesirable or undrinkable wine and should be destroyed using campden tablets or boiling before starting fermentation. Several strains of yeast are available from local brewing shops. Some are used for beer, others for wine and others for Champaign. Each type produces a different type of flavor. Most mead is made with wine yeast or Champaign yeast if a slight carbonation effect is desired.
Yeast Nutrient contains all the essentials for yeast to thrive. Adding nutrient is not absolutely necessary but without it some fermentations would become sluggish and take much longer to complete. Nutrient should be added in the amount of 1-2 tablespoons per gallon before the yeast are added to the wine. best willamette valley wine tours