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HONEY, I’M HOME Beer writer John Oszajca explores mead - aka honey wine one of the oldest alcoholic beverages on earth.

John Oszajca


THERE IS an age-old debate between beer and wine fans about which came first - beer, wine, or mead (honey wine). It seems that every few years, a new archaeological discovery bequeaths the trophy from one to the other, while pushing back the date when humans first began producing alcohol by thousands of years. While we may never know for certain which actually came first, there is no doubt that mead is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages on earth. As things currently stand, the oldest known production of mead dates back to 7000 BC, in northern China, where residue from a honey and rice-based fermented beverage has been found in ancient pottery vessels. In Europe, similar evidence of mead production has been found on ceramics that are approximately 4000 years old. It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that mead has such ancient origins. In its simplest form, mead is nothing more than honey, water, and yeast. Honey itself will not ferment unless the moisture content is above 19%. However, should a beehive fall victim to a rainstorm or flood (with the help of the wild yeast already present in most honey), Mother Nature herself can brew up a batch of basic mead. This divine beverage was no doubt discovered many thousands of years ago, by some fortunate Paleolithic forager, thus beginning an intoxicating relationship between mead and mankind; a relationship that has persisted throughout the ages.


Despite its ancient and Asian origins, it is perhaps the European Middle Ages that are most synonymous with mead. Mead was common across Medieval Scandinavia, Gaul, and Teutonic Europe, especially in the northern countries where grapes did not grow well. It is mentioned throughout many Norse legends and medieval tales, and romanticised in literature such as the Book of Taliesin, The Mabinogion, and Beowulf. In this tradition, we also find references to mead in more modern stories like the Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones. To many, mead is perceived as the favourite drink of Vikings and Kings. For a beverage that has been so significantly intertwined with human history, it is surprising that it is so uncommon in our bottle shops. It’s especially surprising here in New Zealand, where we are so renowned for our honey. Ask a room full of people what they know about mead, and you’ll be surprised by how many have never even heard of it, and still fewer have had the opportunity to try it. When they have, more often than not, it’s been home-brewed, and is often of questionable quality – a fact that has not helped mead’s reputation. Despite the fact that mead is technically a wine, its popularity has risen on the back of the craft beer movement, particularly in the US and the UK, where it has been embraced by an increasing number of younger drinkers and craft beer fans. Mead has become one of the fastest growing segments of the alcohol industry in the US, and has seen approximately 10% annual growth in the UK. Unfortunately, Kiwi drinkers have not yet taken this same interest in the honey-based beverage. However, there are a few signs that change may be on the horizon. Historically, there have only been a handful of mead producers in New Zealand. And even

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