Mead: The Nectar of the Gods in Northumberland

Published on 8 Aug
8 min read

A Drink that was Mead to Bee

“I Have Never Seen Mead Enjoyed More in Any Hall on Earth”
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

Mead, also known as ‘honey wine’, is one of the world’s oldest alcoholic drinks[1]; and also one of the simplest to make. With a minimal ingredients list, simply water, honey which is then fermented with yeast, mead is a drink that is available worldwide. One of mead’s main ingredients, honey, is a well-known anti-oxidant and curer of many ails[2], mead has gained the momentum of being, not only a delicious drink but as a health tonic.

Like many good things in life, mead is said to have been discovered accidentally.  Mead brings about the simplicity of nature, but also it’s magic. Since those early civilisation discoveries, mead has continually been in the public domain. In later centuries, mead-making became synonymous in religious communities, like on Holy Island, where monks were farmers, brewers, beekeepers[3]. Mead fell out of popularity when beer and wine, and later spirits, became popular. However, monasteries continued the tradition[4].

These days, as mead has had a resurgence, due  in part to the recent popularity medieval programmes and films and the real ale movements. In light of its recognition, mead has gained a stringent following from mead makers, officially know as mazers, to create an authentic ye olde world product for the millennium.

Love is Sweet

“A Horn Of Mead Was Never Far From His Hand”
A Dance with Dragons – George R.R. Martin

Mead is considered to have mystical powers especially in terms of personal growth and the ancient deities.

In past times, mead was known as the ‘nectar of the gods’ and even great Greek philosophers including Aristotle and Plato consumed mead. In Celtic mythology, a river of mead runs through Paradise[1], and in Norse mythology drinking the Mead of Poetry was meant to make folks wise and creative.

The honeymoon is a time-honoured tradition after wedding ceremonies. The name ‘honeymoon’ comes from antiquated times where a “moon’s worth” of mead was given to newlyweds in order to initiate a fruitful marriage, including an abundance of offspring.

When beer, ales and spirits became more popular, mead fell out of favour to its cheaper counterparts. However, mead was still used in religious ceremonies and celebrations[1].

Dry or Sweet?

During the fermentation process, the yeast and the sugar eventually become alcohol.  Most types of alcohol start life as a sugar source before the fermentation process. For beer it is a grain, for wine it is a fruit and for mead it is honey[5].  Mead is a naturally sweetened drink, so do expect to taste it. One of mead’s main ingredients is honey The sweetness does vary though, depending on what type of mead you are drinking. Mead, fundamentally speaking, comes in 3 sweetness profiles; dry, semi-sweet and sweet. But what does that mean in terms of flavour?

  • Sweet

A sweet mead resembles a dessert wine in terms of body, flavour and finish on the palate. Can be enjoyed with dessert, or stands as a dessert on its own.

  • Semi-sweet

The semi-sweet varieties generally balance the sweetness and acidity of mead, so it is, perhaps, a good introduction to mead drinking. Its characteristics are usually similar to a medium-dry white wine. Why not try with cured meats or smoked fish?

  • Dry

A dry mead pairs well with savoury or spicy foods, much like a beer or cider. It can be used to accompany cheese too (check out our article on Northumberland Cheese to find a match). With dry mead the flavours are more distinct.

Variations of Mead

There is a plethora of mead to try. Each country has their own variations since honey, water and yeast are universal. Here is a list of some of the most common[6]:

  • Capsicumel: Mead with chilli
  • Cyser: mead made with apples or apple juice – like a cider
  • Great Mead: Mead that has been aged for a long time
  • Melomel: Mead flavoured with fruits
  • Methaglin: Mead with spices and/or herbs. Seen as a health tonic
  • Pyment: Mead with grape extracts.
  • Show Mead: Original mead – just water, honey and naturally occurring yeast left to ferment .
  • Short Mead: A mead that ages quickly – usually home-made
  • Sparkling Mead: Mead that is carbonated. This usually occurs as a result of a secondary fermentation.

Mead has flavour versatility; bees capture the terroir by pollinating at different stages of the year, be it seasonal or weather, and depending what flowers are in season. Since honey is one of the main ingredients, the sweet product captures the floral essence of  Northumberland. As well as seasonal changes to flavour, there are a variety of meads that are made across the world.

Northumberland has links with Celtic and Viking traditions, therefore it is not surprising that the county is famous for its mead. Here in Northumberland, we have 2 notable mazers.

Meet Your Mazer

Lindisfarne Mead

Holy Island Castle
Holy Island Castle

Known as a Legend in a Glass, Lindisfarne Mead on Holy Island has been recognised for its mead since the medieval times. It is affirmed that over 2 million bottles of their Original Mead has been sold across the world. The island has links to Celtic, Roman and Viking traditions. It is believed that the Irish monks who came across with St. Aidan, whom the winery on the island is named after, settled on Lindisfarne and started crafting their own mead. The monks’ mead could be seen as a holy drink and an elixir for longevity and health.

Lindisfarne Mead uses a Roman style recipe rather than Celtic; honey, water drawn from the island and fermented grape juice. The addition of grapes cuts through the honey’s sweetness. Roman mead profiles often contain various herbs and spices and step away from traditional mead-making. Described in this way, Lindisfarne Mead resembles a pyment, which is mead with fermented grapes as a nod to the Romans. The taste is smooth, with a sharp aftertaste – reminiscent of a sweet-wine. The label calls to mind the beautiful artwork of the Lindisfarne Gospels which were created on the island at Lindisfarne Priory in the 7th century AD[7].

Many centuries later, in the 1960s to be more precise, J Michael Hackett began production of Lindisfarne Mead on Holy Island. Now in the hands of the Harry Hotspur Holdings Ltd, since 2014, in an aim for the business to grow and to advance into the wider market. Their aim is to help heritage food and drink businesses in Northumberland.

You can go and sample the mead, and other products, in St Aidan’s Winery on the island.

You can also find these varieties at St Aidan’s Winery:

  • Pink Mead
  • Dark Mead
  • Spiced Mead

Disclaimer: Always check the tide times before making a journey to Holy Island!

Northumberland Honey Co. Sparkling Mead

Northumberland Honey Co. Sparkling Mead
Northumberland Honey Co. Sparkling Mead

As Northumberland‘s answer to Champagne and the only sparkling mead company in the UK, The Northumberland Honey Co have gone from strength to strength from what started out as a hobby in bee-keeping. Established in 2015 by Luke and Suzie Hutchison, the business has now grown to include nearly 200 bee colonies throughout Northumberland.

The Northumberland Honey Co. ethos is sustainable farming. There are no pesticides used, no intensive farming and there are no waste products either! The sparkling mead starts life as a mixture of local spring water, their honey and yeast to kick start the fermentation process.

Luke and Suzie make their sparkling mead using the technique Méthode Traditionelle. This approach is used to make sparkling wines such as Champagne. Luke and Suzie travelled to Champagne, France to learn this technique and why it is important. The secondary fermentation, to create the bubbles, happens inside each bottle. The couple also visited the USA, where there has been a mead-making renaissance.

The business is registered SALSA (safe and local supplier approval) and acknowledged by the Bee Farmers Association.

Currently, there are three varieties of sparkling mead available:

  • Wildflower
  • Rosé
  • Heather

They also have vintage mead, Floral Mead 2016 Vintage.

There are selected times where you can go and visit the meadery and enjoy mead tasting experiences in Haltwhistle.

What’s the Buzz?

So why not try mead? From bees to bottles, drink up the professed perks of mead including healing benefits, it’s inexpensive when compared to other niche goods, benefits the countryside, uses local produce and good for bees. There are too many reasons not to try. Mead, too, has also seen a keen following arise alongside the artisan food and drink movement which looks to the past for inspiration. So why not help bring mead back to the forefront of British culture and tradition. Mead can be so far ranging in matters of taste, texture and time. I am sure it will not be long until there are more varieties of mead in Northumberland.

Disclaimer: Everything in moderation! Mead is alcoholic.

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