Adventures in Mead-Brewing
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Mead has been an integral part of the Heathen Revival since its very early days. Mead is used ritually in our main rites, the blót and the sumbel, as well as in informal libations to Landwights, our hallowed Dead, etc. In the words of modern Heathen pioneer Steve McNallen, “It is the vehicle of divine inspiration, the giver of holy truth, which fills our spirits with Odin’s whisperings” (McNallen, 9). Sometimes we just enjoy drinking it, too!
Mead is present throughout our lore as the alcoholic beverage par excellence. Why so? For one thing, it’s what rich folks had to drink. Everyone else had to make do with ale. Honey was a luxury in the cold Northlands, where the season for the bees was short, even though the summer days were long. Before the invention of modern beekeeping with its removable sections of hive, getting any honey more often than not involved destroying one of your bee colonies. Honey has never been produced in Iceland, so there the raw material for mead even had/has to be imported. Former Icelandic Alsherjargođi Jormundur Ingi Hansen was thrilled when I presented him with a bottle of mead while he was in the United States a few years back. Scandalously, it is unavailable in Iceland! In any case back in the day, if you had honey enough to brew mead with, you were well-off financially. The Gods, of course, had no cash-flow problems so they, like the upper classes of humans, could afford mead on a regular basis.
Mead-brewing was more than a bit iffy “back then”. Temperature control was primitive at best, and the fermentation lock (a coiled tube filled with water and stuck tightly into the whole in the rubber cork sealing the big glass brewing-jug, or “carboy”) had not been invented. Mead thus inevitably picked up some off odors and flavors. You just hoped that those flavors weren’t too bad. Since the corking of alcoholic beverages in glass bottles only goes back to the 17th century, long aging of the resulting product was not an option either. Modern beekeeping and extraction techniques, which I will not go into here, produce a very pure honey. Honey back then had pollen, comb, bee larvae, and all sorts of other interesting things not usually consumed by human beings mixed and mashed into it. That wasn’t all bad. Those contaminants provided nitrogen and other nutrients for the yeast, which today must be provided by yeast nutrients.
Every batch of mead brewed was both an adventure and a gamble, since mead production involved risking expensive, tasty, ready-to-eat, and calorie-rich food (in a day when you couldn't always count on getting enough calories and "tasty" and "food" didn't go together nearly as often as they do now) to produce a beverage that might well turn out to be undrinkable. I prefer modern brewing techniques. Some of the Old Ways, like human sacrifice and open-kettle mead brewing, are best left in the past!
While you don’t have to drink mead (or any other alcoholic beverage) to be a Heathen and plenty of Heathens shouldn’t and don’t, most of us do have a special place in our hearts and palates for mead. Mead-tasting competitions have become part and parcel of many a Heathen Moot and Althing. Mead-brewing and mead-drinking (ritual and otherwise) are a very real and important part of modern Heathen culture, and for many of us brewing has important spiritual overtones. Every time that I brew mead I enter into the world of our mythology. Kvasir’s blood was used to brew the mead of poetic inspiration, which Odin later stole. I too make sacrifices in time, money and energy each time I brew. Even with the best of modern knowledge and equipment, a batch of mead can still turn out badly, or even be ruined. I always bless the dissolved yeast with nine Hammer-Signs and call upon Ran and Ćgir, the brewers of the Gods, and Ođinn, the winner of the mead of poetic inspiration, before adding it to the carboy.
When our Gods finally got my attention to the point that I was willing to ignore the Nazitrús and sign on the dotted line, one of the first things I did was to find out how to brew mead and get a batch running. Considering how little I knew at the time, it could have gone much worse. I’ll say more on that in a few more lines. While mead is generally available in the better sort of liquor stores, I never once considered not brewing it myself. For one thing, I’ve saved a fortune by doing so, and ours is a very commonsensical religion! When I found out years later that some Heathens actually buy their ritual mead, I took it in stride being a rather tolerant sort. However, I was pleased to find that the store-bought stuff isn’t anything to write home about. Kveldulf Gundarsson says that Gibson’s Mead, which I personally haven’t sampled, “is the best of a bad lot” (Teutonic Religion, 340). With all the Gods and Goddesses do for me, I’m proud and honored to give them something that took some time and effort, as well as money, to bring to them.
Back to my initial brewing experience: I had an old crock that belonged to my grandmother. I had successfully brewed home-made wine in open containers in the past, so I gave it a try. The result was definitely drinkable and packed quite a whollop. I was hooked! It was a bit bland, though, so I started adding acid blend and tannin to spice it up a bit. Later, the crock, which is much older than I am, started to leak a bit so I had to pour the mead into any available container, wash and dry the crock, and put a plastic liner in it midway through the fermentation process before returning the mead to it. One time, fruit flies even got in the yeast built up around the edge and produced larvae. Gross, but it did the mead no harm. Mead can be amazingly resilient, but that was the last straw. I bought a carboy, and now it sits on top of Granny’s crock, which provides an element of Othala to the now much more hygienic process. The results? My mead went from “disgusting” in the words of Dan O’Halloran, who had to taste one of my early efforts in a mead-tasting at a Moot, to prize-winning (I’ve won four awards at Moots so far for my pomegranate mead).
Finally, I’ll close with that mead recipe of mine that I just bragged on. Some folks sit on their mead recipes like Fafnir on his hoard, but as a Freysgođi, I take a different approach. The verse for the rune Jera/Ár in the Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme says “I say that Frodhi was generous.” (Trans. Dr. Stephen Flowers). Many identify Frodhi/Frođi (source of the Hobbit name “Frodo”) with Ingvi Frey. Background note: the recipe on which this is based originally came from Steve McNallen (McNallen, 9) by way of my Heathen friend Steve Wilson, whom many of you will remember from the old Mountain Thunder magazine. My own innovation is to substitute two bottles of pomegranate syrup/molasses for the acid blend and the tannin. Technically, this is a “melomel” rather than a true mead since it contains fruit juice. A mead flavored with herbs is called “metheglin,” and there are other specialized terms in use among mead-brewers.
Please note that while the "regular" mead is usually bubbling away (bubbles passing through the water in the fermentation lock) in a day or two, it may take four or five days for the pomegranate mead to start bubbling. No idea why, but worth the extra brewing time! Be sure to use a fast-fermenting variety of yeast for the pomegranate mead.
You'll need the following: 1 gallon or ten pounds honey. You need to get it in bulk at a health food store (bring your own container) or from a beekeeper; costs out the wazoo in little jars. Sam's Club is another option. I'd use the cheaper, generic honey for the pomegranate mead, since the pomegranate flavor is so strong. If you have some really nice, flavorful honey, go the acid blend and tannin route so you can savor the honey's unique characteristics. Please note that mead-brewers are divided into heaters (who heat their must (pre-fermented mead), sometimes to near boiling, and non-heaters. I am a confirmed non-heater. If you must heat your must, let it cool to room temperature before adding the yeast. It is alive and the hot liquid would kill it!
A little over two gallons of spring water (comes in 2 1/2 gallon containers). For Thor’s sake avoid tap water like the bubonic plague. It will give your mead an off taste and may even kill your yeast!
4 TABLESPOONS of acid blend (this is a blend of malic and tartaric acid, which occur naturally in fruits, and which give the mead a bit of tartness to balance the sweetness).
1 TABLESPOON of yeast nutrient (often contains urea from urine, this grosses some folks out so they use various substitutes like bee pollen). I don’t worry about a bit of urea since bees carry the nectar for honey back to their hives in their stomachs. Thus, in essence honey is just concentrated bee vomit. That's why many vegans won't touch the stuff! Fortunately, most of us Heathens aren’t that squeamish.
Three-fourths of one TEASPOON of tannin (an oak bark derivative). This gives a bit of astringency to the mead, and adds to the complexity of the flavor. Be sure to mix it in well.
1 package of champagne (or other) wine yeast . Avoid slow-fermenting varieties like côte de blanc and montrachet. American mead brewers often use champagne wine yeast due to its high alcohol tolerance, and get flack from European aficionados as a result. It brews a strong mead, but for some the mead is too dry. I’ve found that this isn’t a problem if you make the must (brewing solution) sweet to begin with. Put the yeast with a half cup of spring water in a clean sealed jar and shake it until completely dissolved. It is very hard to dissolve in the must.
Mix all ingredients and pour into a 3 gallon carboy. Make sure to leave two or three inches of air space at the top to accommodate yeast foam and gases produced by fermentation. Insert rubber cork with hole in middle. Put water into the fermentation lock and insert into hole in rubber cork. Leave in your kitchen where it’s nice and warm. Remove the cork in about a month and a half, and siphon out contents into other containers (NOT plastic ones), being careful to avoid the sludge at the bottom of the carboy. Be sure to mix 1/2 teaspoon of potassium sorbate per gallon of mead in a little spring water and add it to the bottles you are siphoning it into, or else mix it into the contents of the carboy 10-14 days before bottling. This will stop secondary fermentation and possible hellishly sticky explosions! Use plastic tubing about the thickness of your little finger. Let age at least two more months before drinking. You can store it in your basement at this point if you like. You may have to “rack” (siphon the mead off the sludge composed of dead and dormant yeast) more than once.
My version contains the pomegranate molasses/syrup (2 bottles of approximately 10 ounces each) INSTEAD OF the acid blend and tannin. Reduce the amount of honey a wee bit since the pomegranate syrup is sweet. You may be able to get the pomegranate molasses (also called pomegranate syrup) at a health food store or at a Middle Eastern food store. What this is is the juice of the pomegranate fruit boiled down into a thick, all-natural syrup. In Iran, they use it to cook chicken of all things! Caution: do not use the “Lebanon Valley” brand of pomegranate syrup/molasses. For some reason, fermentation when using it is extremely slow. The “Cortas” brand is OK. Bottle, cork, fermentation lock, acid blend, and tannin you should be able to get at Liquor Barn. If they don't have it; ask about stores selling home brewing supplies or check around online. You can find just about everything there these days. You can get the plastic tubing at a pet store. They sell it by the foot.
Warning Will Robinson! DANGER! DANGER! To keep your mead bottles from exploding, use strong glass bottles or add a fermentation stopper such as potassium sorbate (available at stores selling brewing supplies) and/or add a fermentation stopper such as potassium sorbate (available at stores selling brewing supplies). Mix the recommended amount of potassium sorbate into a few ounces of water (preferably spring water), add it to the mead when bubbling has stopped, mix well, replace the rubber cork, and wait about a week and a half before bottling the mead.
So, what are you waiting for? With the information I have provided, you have what it takes to become a fine mead-brewer and to avoid some of what are in retrospect often stupid mistakes that I have made. Brewing mead is really very easy, easier than brewing beer (Our Troth, 629) and much easier than distilling hard liquors. Speaking of which, "freeze-distillation" of mead and other alcoholic brews is easy, legal (in most areas) and safe. Fill a milk or other jug about 3/4 full and put the lid on. Freeze for at least twelve hours. When it has lots of ice (may be slushy), strain through a colander. Keep the mead and put it back in the jug and back into the freezer. Save as much of the alcohol as possible, put the colander full of ice/slush back in the freezer with a container under it. Don't leave it out or the ice will melt; foiling the whole purpose of the project. Get the slush and container out a few times and move the slush around to help the mead drain. Pour the good stuff in the jug and discard the ice. Repeat twice. This method of "distillation" (outside in barrels in winter, of course) was known in Northern Europe before distillation technology entered Europe from the Muslim world via Spain, sometime around 1200 C.E. if memory serves me.
The time-honored tradition of Heathen mead-brewing can continue with you!
Acton, Bryan and Peter Duncan. Making Mead: A Complete Guide to the Making of
Sweet & Dry Mead, Melomel, Metheglin, Hippocras, Pyment & Cyser. Highly
recommended by my Heathen mead-brewing friend Courtney Sharp.
Gundarsson, Kveldulf, ed. Our Troth. n.p.: The (Ring of) Troth, 1993. Most of this
work is available online at http://www.thetroth.org; go to the “Resources” link at
the bottom of the page and click there. A revised and updated edition is in
preparation and will be published. The current edition contains enough basic info
to get you started, including a recipe for non-alcoholic “mead.” Remember, not
everyone can or wishes to consume alcohol.
-----. Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs & Practices of the Northern
Tradition. St. Paul: Llewellyn Press, 1993. n.b.: this book is again in print as an
ebook at http://www.aswynn.runeschool.org/recommended.html for US $12. I
believe that it can also be purchased there as a paper copy for an additional charge.
Gundarsson provides a very workable basic recipe and some good pointers, but I
personally have found no need for sterilization in mead-brewing.
McNallen, Stephen A. Living Asatru: A Handbook of Simple Celebrations. Nevada
City, CA: Stephen A. McNallen and Matty Hutter, 1993. One of the first Heathen
books I purchased. It has a lot of info, including harrows, daily worship, Heathen
family life, mead making, rituals for various times and occasions, and a fine basic
mead recipe. n.b.: unlike McNallen, I do not heat my mead mixture.
Schramm, Ken. The Compleat Meadmaker: Home Production of Honey Wine from Your
First Batch to Award-Winning Fruit and Herb Variations. Highly recommended by
the “Mead” list mentioned below. Check it out on amazon.com.
Spence, Pamela. Mad about Mead!: Nectar of the Gods. St. Paul: Llewellyn
Publications, 1997. As has been said about other things, when this book is
good, it is very very good, but when it’s bad it’s horrid! It begins with some
distorted to downright wrong Pagan lore. However, the brewing part gives a variety
of recipes and an excellent basic brewing guide, as well as some very exotic recipes.
Mead in Cybergard
To get started on learning about mead and interacting with other brewers in Cybergard, go to www.google.com and search “mead brewing.” You will get numerous sites with a great deal of information.
Then, go to www.groups.yahoo.com/group/mead. This is the big mead-brewing email list. It has been going for several years and is very useful. I highly recommend it. There is at least one Heathen besides me on the list. Evidently Heathens, Pagans, and members of the Society of Creative Anachronism are disproportionately represented in the ranks of mead-brewers, as are beekeepers for obvious reasons.
Finally, go to www.groups.yahoo.com and search “mead brewing.” You’ll get a number of newsgroups of varying sizes, but for some reason you won’t get the “big” mead e-list I just mentioned. They are still worth checking out.
last modified 08/10/2004