Mead: The Drink of the Gods

Originally printed in Moonrise, Spring 1992 - courtesy of Orison

Mead is the oldest alcoholic drink known to mankind. More recently it has been taken up in the Pagan and other alternative communities such as the SCA as a favourite for years. It's a form of wine made with a honey instead of grape juice. Mead is most often associated with the Vikings and in the Pagan community with modern day Norse Paganism or Asatru.


Mead is an important part of the Asatru religion and has a place in both of the major Norse rituals: the blot and the sumble. The sumble is a drinking ritual where stories, oaths, and poetry are shared and meads function here is obvious. In this day and age mead is even more important to the blot or sacrifice ritual. The blot is actually quite simple. A God or Goddess is called upon and a sacrifice is poured in their honour. In ancient times this was most often an animal sacrifice and blood was poured out onto the V or altar. Today an alcoholic beverage of some kind is the usual sacrifice. This is not only an adjustment to modern feelings about animal sacrifice, but is appropriate from an esoteric point of view as well. In ancient times the Norsemen were primarily farmers and an animal would have been a product that they had raised. Also, sacrifices were not a wasting of the animal, merely given to the Gods and left to rot, but were usually feasts where the Gods got their portion and the humans their own. Today mead making has been a frenzied activity among Norse Pagans, and it is most appropriate that something be sacrificed to the Gods which has been made by your own hands in a sacred manner. Mead fits the bill. It has the immediate links to our farming ancestors, but it can be easily made from household items in even a small apartment.


While we really don't know a great deal about how the ancients viewed mead, other than as an intoxicant, we do have a few clues. One interesting item to start with is that mead was apparently sometimes strained through rye, which contains the hallucinogenic chemical ergot. This may offer some insights into Seidhr, a Nordic shamanic practice, and the frenzy of the berserkers. Another interesting item is that Frey, a God of farming and harvest, was said to have two close companions, Bygvir and Beyla. Bygvir was the spirit of the barley and Beyla of the honey both important Gods to brewers and appropriate companions for the God of fertility.


Finally, we have a few myths involving mead directly. Mead was known as Kvasirs blood and its primary association was with wisdom. Kvasir was a being who was the wisest in the entire universe, but he was killed and a mead created out of his blood that when drank brought the drinker wisdom. Aegir, a God of the Sea, was held to be the patron of brewing and the finest of mead and ale for the Gods to drink in Valhalla. Odin is said to never eat, but to exist purely on mead, just as the Greek Gods had their nectar.


Even if it were not for any mythological importance, mead is of interest to the modern brewer because it is easy to produce and delicious. One merely introduces yeast to the sugary liquid, and the yeast converts the natural sugars into alcohol. After all the sugar is converted, the yeast dies off and the wine can be bottled. However, this is not always as easy as it sounds.


The largest problem in brewing is keeping inappropriate yeasts out of the drink. While the correct wine (or beer) yeasts eat sugar and excrete alcohol, other yeasts produce vinegar instead. Because of this it is absolutely vital to keep all brewing equipment absolutely sterile. This is the most important thing you can do in brewing. All the great equipment purchased at your wine making shop and the finest ingredients cannot beat a glass jar filled with honey if the former is contaminated and the latter sterile. There are two major ways to sterilise your materials, one is a commercial sanitiser found in wine making shops. Follow label directions and you're all set. The other is to make a solution of 25% bleach and rinse very thoroughly.

Let's make some cheap and easy mead.


You'll need a large pot, a one gallon vinegar or cider bottle, a 4' or 5' length of plastic tubing (try airline tubing from a pet shop), a balloon or non-lubricated condom, a package of wine yeast (not bread yeast), wine bottles, corks, a corking device, and 2½ pounds of honey.


First you need to prepare the mixture that will be fermented. Take your pot and add the honey and enough water to finish filling up the one gallon bottle. Bring these to a boil slowly. If you don't want scum in your mead and it forms on the top, skim it off. You don't need to boil it for any length of time, you just need to bring it up to this temperature. Boiling for a while will release a lot of scum and additives which you can get rid of right now and it will also allow the mead to age more quickly. However, some of this scum as I've called it is made up of those very things, which can create flavour nuances. I don't boil mine. When you decide its done, let it cool long enough so it wont melt the plastic tubing, then siphon the mead into the gallon jug, cap and let cool overnight. The gallon jug is your primary fermenter.


Did you sterilise the pot? The bottle? The cap? The plastic tubing? No! Pour it out and start again. Yes I am serious.


Once the mixture is cooled to room temperature you will need to pitch the yeast. Get a small cup half full with warm, but not hot, water and add the yeast. Let it sit for about ten minutes and absorb water and liven up, then pour it into your gallon jug and mix it in.


As of now your honey and water mixture is now being converted into mead. However, this will take about two weeks, perhaps more, to complete. During this time the mead mixture will bubble and foam, and this is what the balloon is for. Cover the top of the bottle with the balloon and about an hour later, when the balloon has started to inflate but has not become too stretched, poke a few holes in it with a pin. (I understand this may make you wince if you are using a condom.) This balloon takes the place of a fermentation lock and allows the gas to escape while not allowing air in, thus keeping the fermentation bottle sterile. The holes may become clogged with foam and you may need to poke a few more. Just remember the purpose of this and use your common sense. I've accomplished this with plastic wrap and a rubber band, but I wouldn't advise others to try unless you're fond of unmet expectations.


About two weeks from this point the balloon will cease to be greatly inflated and will eventually go limp. When it has been completely limp for a few days and the mead is clear rather than cloudy, fermentation is over. At this point sanitise your wine bottles and plastic tubing and bottle the mead. Be careful not to get the yeast into the bottles as its not exactly tasty stuff. I stop about an inch before the bottom of the primary fermenter and we siphon off the last inch into cups and toast the new mead. My mead has been very tasty at this point, other people describe theirs as tasting like paint thinner. In any case, you may not mind a little yeast in your cup now, but don't inflict it on yourself in the future by bottling it.


Wait two to six months and then enjoy. Since the above recipe has no additives, which would hasten aging, it may take a while for it to become truly fine mead, perhaps years. There are a lot of chemical additives that one can use to improve the flavour and process. The most common and important addition is a teaspoon of yeast energiser or yeast nutrient. Others include grape tannin (¼ teaspoon), malic acid (2 or 3 teaspoons), tartaric acid (1 to 2 teaspoons). I recommend all of these chemical additives in your first batch, but if you cant find them you can make do with natural ingredients or nothing at all.


One can also add slices of fruit, raisins, or berries for flavour and in place of grape tannin. One recipe I know of adds some apple jelly. A few lemon peels will substitute for malic acid and a spoonful of strong tea will replace tartaric acid. Hops are a common additive and will give the mead a bit of a bitterness to offset the sweetness of the honey. The more bizarre ingredient I have heard of was Szechuan peppers, use your imagination.


All of the above additives should be made to the honey and water mix when it is boiled. Depending on the ingredient, some, such as fruit, may have to be boiled in this mixture for a while to break them down. Obviously hunks of fruit should be strained out after the boiling. Also, all the above ingredients are based on 1 gallon of mead, adjust appropriately with the exception of the yeast itself, one package of which will do for anywhere between 1 and 5 gallons.


Another semi-useful item is sulphite tablets, which can be added to the mead mixture a day before bottling. This will kill all remaining yeast and will assure that you are not contaminated by vinegar yeast after bottling or worse that the fermentation process does not continue in the bottle, causing it to explode or pop its cork. I don't use sulphite and I've heard negative comments about a sulphurous aftertaste. It's probably the better part of valour to simply wait a while longer and make sure the fermentation process is truly ended.


The above instructions also assume you are not interested in spending a great deal of money on equipment. The only things you really must obtain from a wine making store are the yeast, the corks, and the corker.


If you are willing to spend $50 to $100 more you can improve your chances of making good mead by purchasing equipment made for the purpose. A balloon works, but it is a poor substitute for a proper fermentation lock that is custom fit to a vat built for the purpose. Likewise there are many other devices which will make your life easier and your mead superior. They are surprisingly inexpensive, but if you're only going to make a single gallon probably not worth the extra when homemade will do.


Good luck and don't forget to ask the Gods for guidance and their blessing.


Honey is also part of Beltaine's traditional foods, and bees are one of its many symbols. Serve honey at the feast, offering it as a libation to spring faeries, and burn beeswax candles to honey-scent the air at your ritual site.


Another way to bring honey into your Beltaine celebration is by making the traditional Celtic ale known as mead. Mead is a savoury honey-ale rich in tradition and folklore in the British Isles. In the Celtic tradition it is an aphrodisiac and sexual stamina builder whose recipe was once thought to be a direct gift of the Great Mother. Our modern word "honeymoon" has its roots in the Celtic custom of making and consuming mead. It was a drink shared by couples who began mating at Beltaine with plans to marry in June (after the month of May, when the deities wed, was over). The "honey" part of the word refers to the mead itself, and the "moon" part from the approximate period of time that would lapse between the Sabbat and the time of the official handfasting.


Mead, akin to the Irish "midhe," meaning "centre," represents spirit, and the drinking of this potion of the deities made one more in tune with that elusive fifth element. Connoisseurs of mead cultivate their brew as carefully as do makers of fine wine, and jealously guard their family recipes. Making mead is not easy since, like wine, it requires a lengthy fermentation period. Here is one of the many recipes for mead.


Mead (Makes ¾ of a gallon)

·        ½ gallon water

·        1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

·        1½ cups raw honey

·        1/8 teaspoon allspice

·        ¼ cup lemon juice

·        1 package brewer's yeast


Heat all ingredients together over medium heat in a large stockpot. As the honey melts, an oily crust forms on the top. Some say to leave this crust on, for it adds to the flavour of the mead; others will tell you to skim it off. I prefer to leave it on. When it is well blended, remove it from the heat, stirring occasionally as it cools. Stir in one package of brewer's yeast and pour the mead into a wooden cask or some other receptacle where it can ferment. You can drink the mead as is without the fermenting process, but it will not have alcoholic content. Like this, it will taste like a sweet honey-lemon tea. The mead needs to ferment for a period of at least 6 months. During that time the casks must be aired daily to allow any built-up gas to escape. At least once a month it should be poured into a fresh cask. At the end of the six months you should have drinkable mead.


If you prefer to try a short-cut method of mead, you can stop the process just before fermentation and add a touch of grain alcohol to the mixture before bottling. You don't get the full-bodied flavour or euphoric intoxication that mead is famous for, but you still get the taste and the idea.



Being a simple recipe and observations on that most ancient and civilised of beverages, MEAD !

Here offered in hopes of leading benighted and ignorant savages toward the light of true humanity and brotherhood.



1 x 6 qt or better pot, with cover

1 x 1 gal glass jug, well cleaned

1 square of paper towelling and a rubber band or 1 loosely fitting cap or fermentation lock 3 feet of 5/16" or 3/8" aquarium tubing (plastic)

Enough champagne bottles or 2 litre bottles to hold 1 gal. (Which can be sealed to withstand carbonation)



1 packet all purpose wine yeast (do NOT use brewer's yeast or yeast for baking bread)

2 lbs. clover or orange blossom honey

2 WHOLE cloves (uncrushed)

2 sticks cinnamon, lightly broken

1/4 tsp. sliced ginger root (do not use powdered)

2 long strips of orange peel (approx. 2 tbsp.)

1 gal. of the best water available



Bring 3 qts of water to a boil along with the spices. Simmer 15 minutes.

REMOVE SPICES. Add honey, stirring vigorously (or you'll have caramel on the bottom of the pot!)

Once the honey has fully dissolved, allow the water to barely simmer. White scum will form, skim it, and continue skimming until no more rises. Failure to do this completely will allow the yeast to act on the waxes and form turpines (which tastes like turpentine!) so make sure you get every last bit, no matter how small.

Never allow the mixture to come to a full boil, or the character of the honey will be destroyed.

Take pot off heat, cover, and leave overnight. Next morning, when the liquid has cooled to room temperature, add the contents of 1 FULL packet of yeast. (Failure to add the entire packet can lead to the incubation of inferior yeast strains, which will ruin the flavour.)

Cover pot again. 12 to 24 hours later - you should have a wildly foaming mixture. Siphon the mixture into the previously sterilised 1 gal. glass jug. (Clorox solution is fine for this - rinse well!)

Loosely screw on lid so gasses can escape, or cover with four folded paper towels and rubber band, or fermentation lock. Allow to ferment for 48 hours more, or until bubbling nearly ceases. Siphon the liquid off the layer of dead yeast on the bottom of the jug, so that none of the bottom layer gets into the mixture. Clean the jug carefully, replace the liquid back in the jug, top off with clean water, reseal, and place in refrigerator overnight. Next day - Siphon into CLEAN, STERILIZED wine bottles or 2 litre bottles, and cap tightly. Leave in refrigerator 3 to 5 days and enjoy! WARNING: pressure will be forming in the bottles; avoid excessive handling. Flavour will improve up to ten days, after that, you really need to drink it. Note: The hangover produced by mead was considered by the Norse to be a punishment too sublime to inflict on the frail frame of a mortal. This is probably due to insufficient skimming of the "white scum". AFTER-WORDS These instructions produce a lightly carbonated, mildly alcoholic methaglyn (spiced mead) which was originally taught to me by Duke Cariadoc in 1974, (though he doesn't remember it - Good Stuff! ;) It is intended to be prepared for revels and consumed in large quantities (proviso you are over 18 & not driving!) The hangover cure is available for an exorbitant fee. BOTTOMS UP !!!!!!!!!! Baron Sir Riekin


Non-alcoholic mead

It is jasmine tea boiled for 20 minutes ... before you boil it you put cinnamon to taste, nutmeg, ginger the same, cloves, allspice, mace....strain it when cooked then put it back into the pan with 1 jar of honey to every 3 cups of water...and 2 tablespoons of golden syrup.

You bring to the boil ...then remove from heat to cool and bottle it...I always add the juice of 1 orange as well to every 3 cups of water..