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The Past, Present and Future of Mead

Author:  Mark Beran, March 2006

Transcript from Mark Beran’s presentation to the Boulder Revel, March 2006

Wine has been part of human culture for 6,000 years, serving dietary and socio-religious functions. The history of mead dates back 20,000 to 40,000 years and has its origins on the African continent. In order to really understand the history of mead we need to go much further back in time.

The modern honeybee can be traced back using mitochondrial DNA sequence analysis to just over 1 million years ago, when it separated from its parent species. The honeybee has always gathered nectar and pollen and it has been engaged through the millennia in a battle against indigenous yeast. Low sugar content syrups such as nectar can experience spontaneous fermentation as a result of the action of wild yeast. This is not beneficial for the honeybee, since it needs the sugars of the nectar for its metabolism and life cycle. Enzymes in the bee’s honey stomach convert the 12-carbon sugar, Sucrose, to two 6 carbon sugars, Fructose and Glucose. But this is only half the story. The bees learned through the millennia that by drying the honey and thereby increasing the osmotic pressure they could make their much-needed honey less and less suitable for fermentation by native yeast. But the battle raged on and some indiginous yeasts became osmotolerant, i.e. they could survive in environments of high osmotic pressure. The surviving yeasts became ideal yeasts for wine and beer fermentation.

If we now fast-forward almost one million years to somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago, we have the first indication of man’s knowledge of mead. As nomadic peoples wandered out of Africa and into the Mediterranean they took with them bees, honey and, unknowingingly, osmotolerant yeasts. Wild, indigenous yeasts like those first bio-engineered by bees almost a million years earlier, were responsible for the fermentation of wine grapes – a practice which started in the Mediterranean some 14,000 to 34,000 years later. Not until the time of Louis Pasteur, in the mid 1800’s, did man become aware of yeast as the life form responsible for fermentation. By selecting for osmotolerant yeasts, the bees were responsible for fermentation basics about one million years before man undersood the nature of yeast metabolism.

The origins of mead can be traced back to the African bush more than 20,000 years ago. Feral bees were well established, elephants roamed the continent and weather patterns were seasonal, as they are today in Africa. Extreme conditions of drought during the dry season, and torrential rains in the rainy season were common. This weather pattern would eventually cause hollows to rot out the crown of the Baobab and Miombo trees, where the elephant had broken branches. During the dry season, the bees would nest in these hollows, and during the wet season the hollows would fill with water. Water, honey, osmotolerant yeast, and time and viola – a mead is born. Early African bushmen and tribes gathered not only honey, but also mead and as successive waves of people left Africa they took with them some knowledge of mead and mead making.

Eventually mead making became well known in Europe, India and China. But mead making died out as people became urbanized. This happened 1700 years ago in India, 1500 years ago in China and about 500 years ago in Europe. Honey was prized throughout history, it was often available only to royalty. Somewhere about 1300 A.D., the Italian voyager Marco Polo (1254-1324) returned from the Spice Islands with sugar cane. This inexpensive source of sugar became dominant and honey went underground – well almost. The tradition of mead was sustained in the monasteries of Europe. The need for ceremonial candles made of beeswax necessitated managed bee colonies and surplus honey was used to make mead, which was enjoyed by the monks in their more secular moments. There are monasteries in Great Britain today that have over a 400-year tradition of mead making. The Industrial Revolution resulted in a significant decline in mead making. The first centrifugal honey extractor was invented in 1865 by Austrian Major Francesco de Hruschka. As legend has it, the idea came to the inventor as he watched his son swing a bucket of honey around his head.

Prior to the mechanized extraction of honey, the honeycombs were simply crushed to remove the honey. This left loads of honey laden, crushed beeswax which could most easily be processed by rinsing the honey out of the wax with warm water. And what became of the honey water? Mead, of course. Mechanized extraction meant less left over comb and less honey water for mead making and a general decline in the craft. Since the mid 1800’s mead making has survived as an artisan craft void of large scale commericalizaton. It has, howeve, been the topic of two very significant Ph.D. dissertations. Dr. Roger Morse of Cornell University studied and patented two formulas of ideal yeast nutrients for mead making decades ago. More recently Dr. Garth Cambray of Makana Honey Company in South Africa has written a dissertation on a new process which can take unfermented honey must to 12% alcohol in 24 hours. I had the pleasure of tasting some of the Makana meads at the 2006 IMF in Boulder. They were very impressive and good testaments to the innovation process from which they were made.

This brings us to current time. For the first time ever, there is an organization that represents the global mead market, the International Mead Association, IMA. The IMA sponsors the International Mead Festival and is rapidly becoming the epi-center of the global mead industry. The IMA and the IMF will play a huge role in shaping the future of the mead industry. This is both a challenge and a huge responsibility. A pragmatic objective of the IMA would be to steer the industry in the direction of sustainability by taking mead into the mainstream of the alcohol beverage market.

This can only be done if the industry is highly responsive to the wants and desires of those mead drinkers that support the industry by buying its products. The innovative concoctions of the homebrewers which are showcased in national and international competitions also have a role. They can help to inspire the industry to challenge traditional definitions of mead and develop the future of mead. Medovina is very committed to taking the industry outside its comfort zone of traditional mead recipes. A rapid standardization of commercial mead styles at this delicate point in the development of the global commerical mead industry would signal the beginning of the end of the modern mead industry. This is not conjecture, but rather based on historical trends dating back thousands of years. Consider this. Grape wine and beer have enjoyed continuous market presence since their inseptions thousands of years ago. The market for commercial mead on the other hand, waxes and wanes throughout the millenia lacking the “stickiness factor” discussed in Malcolm’s “The Tipping Point”. While other factors certainly played a role, the lack of historic market stickiness can be primarily attributed to a mismatch between market offerings and consumer palates. If the industry, with the help of the IMA, tunes into consumer demands, consumer likes and dislikes, future generations will view current time not as merely the heyday of modern meadmaking, but rather as the incubator from which a huge global industry was born.

Going back to the topic of sustainability brings me to the last segment of my presentation and that is the future of mead. Aside from the wonderful taste of mead, there are hidden treasures in mead and mead making. Let’s compare a medium sized grape vineyard to a medium sized apiary. In the case of the vineyard, the owner or operator must mechanize to survive. Lots of heavy artillery is needed to work the vineyard. Tractors, irrigation systems, even turbines are sometimes used to produce microclimate controls. This equipment needs to be purchased, and in almost all cases that means dollars leaving the local economy. Further, the mechanization replaces hand labor and that means less “in the field” jobs. In contrast, the apiary does not lend itself to mechanization. Instead the work required in the apiary requires lots of hive manipulation that must be done by hand. Large-scale beekeeping requires lots of labor and that means jobs for the local economy. Further, an apiary does not require fertilizer, a roto-tiller, water and as climatic changes put pressures on current global vineyard acreage, apiaries can thrive. Perhaps mead, the first alcoholic beverage, is the most sustainable alcoholic beverage and may, in fact, be the last alcoholic beverage enjoyed by man.

Wassail, drink up and enjoy mead!