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Alcohol played an integral part in Norse culture. The Norse of Scandinavia had four main types of fermented beverage: ale, mead, fruit wine, and syra (basically fermented milk). These were all initially made and served by women and were brewed in the home until men involved themselves in the process and it became a commercial and, finally, religious endeavor once monks became brewers.
Fruit-wine was made from any type of fruit found at hand; wine made from grapes was imported from Germania or Francia and was very expensive. Odin, the king of the gods, drank only wine and was the god of alcohol among his other attributes, but mead was considered the drink of the gods which made anyone who partook a poet or a scholar. Alcohol was so important to the Norse that it was a necessary aspect of formalizing treaties, land deals, marriages, and finalizing the will of the deceased at funerals. Even after the Christianization of Scandinavia, alcohol continued as an important cultural value.
Brewing and serving alcohol was initially women's work and any master brewer would have been female. Eventually, at some point prior to the 11th century CE (when documentary evidence starts appearing on this) men were also brewers. Women, however, were still engaged in brewing and especially in serving alcohol. Historian Mark Forsyth notes:
Serving the drinks was the defining role of women in the Viking Age. In poetry, you didn't call a woman a woman, you just called her a drink-server. There's a thirteenth-century manual on poetry for the aspiring bard. It lays down that: A woman should be referred to in terms of all the types of female attire, gold and precious stones, and ale, wine, and other beverages she pours and serves; likewise in terms of receptacles for ale and all the things that is fitting for her to do or provide. (123)
Mead, ale, and wine were all made in the same way. One would fill a vat with water and set it over a fire and would then add honey and yeast (for mead), bring the mixture to a boil, and then place the open vat beneath some sort of fruit-bearing tree to catch the wild yeast. If one wanted to make ale, one left out the honey and substituted malted barley and, to make wine, one used fruit instead of barley. Alcohol content was regulated by the amount of sugar added which took the form of sap from the trees.
Alcohol was the gift of the gods &, just as the gods had shared it with humans, people were expected to share it with each other.
The vat was not air-tight so there was no carbonization. The brew would be left to sit for an unspecified amount of time and then strained into ceramic jugs and stored for later use or sale. The dregs of barley or honey-herb mash left in the vat were then used to make the weaker (less alcoholic) barneol, ale for children. All of these brews were sour because they were fermented in the open air which allowed for bacterial contamination but none seem to have been as sour and bad-tasting as syra.
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Syra was made from skimmed milk and rennet (curdled milk from the stomach of a newborn calf). The calf was killed before it had ingested anything other than its mother's milk and the stomach removed and hung up to dry with the milk still in it. Once dried, it was placed in a vat of salt water or whey for two weeks. It was then removed to another vat and mixed with boiled skimmed milk and left to cool (Fernando-Guerro-Rodriguez, 19-20).
This mixture was known as misa (alternately defined as a kind of buttermilk or as curdled milk), which was a popular food, and a by-product of the process of making misa was syra, the liquid skimmed off the misa after it had cooled. The syra was left to ferment for upwards of two years before it could be served. It is said to have been highly acidic and although frequently consumed it does not seem to have been very popular. One would not serve syra to an honored guest, for example, because it was considered the drink of the lower classes who could not afford mead or ale.
Everyone drank ale and, seemingly, every day. Alcohol was the gift of the gods and, just as the gods had shared it with humans, people were expected to share it with each other. The most famous example of this is the party known as the sumbl, a drinking party held by a chieftain in his mead hall, exemplified in the poem Beowulf (c. 700-1000 CE) where Hrothgar hosts a sumbl for his warriors.
Drinking & Social Gatherings
The mead hall was more than just a gathering place; it was a symbol of prestige and power. Any would-be chieftain who wanted the respect of his followers would need to build a mead hall and stock it with the best drink. The yeasty dregs of a good brew were quite valuable and reused to make another batch. The sumbl would be the occasion to show off such a fine ale or mead.
At a sumbl, the chieftain's lady began the festivities by serving a drink to her husband. She would then serve the highest-ranking warriors and then the other guests. Forsyth writes:
You needed a queen because women were a rather important part of the mead hall feast. Women – or peace-weavers as the Vikings called them – were the ones who kept the formal footing of the feast going, who lubricated the rowdy atmosphere and provided a healthy dose of womanly calm. They were in charge of the logistics of the sumbl. (122-123)
The first three drinks of the evening were in honor of the gods and always Odin first, no matter which others then followed. Toasts would have been made to Odin, Thor, and Freyr although Forsyth offers another combination of Odin (in his role as All-Father and as god of alcohol), Njord (god of the sea) and Freyja (goddess of fertility) which is certainly probable considering how important alcohol, sea-faring, and agriculture were to the Norse.
Since drink came from the gods, what one said while drunk was considered true, sacred, & taken completely seriously.
As the evening wore on and people drank more, stories were told which included boasts of great deeds done. The bragarfull was a special cup which one swore oaths on and these oaths were binding. Forsyth notes how, “There was no possibility of excusing yourself the next morning by saying, as we would, that that was just the drink talking. In fact, the reverse was the case” (126). Since drink came from the gods, what one said while drunk was considered true, sacred, and taken completely seriously. Whatever one swore to do while drinking from the bragarfull had to be done within a reasonable amount of time once one was sober.
The sumbl also included gift-giving by the chief to his warriors and guests and then everyone would fall asleep in the hall. The sumbl in Beowulf provides the opportunity for Grendel to murder the warriors with ease because he knows they will all be in a drunken sleep and will offer no challenge. Beowulf is able to defeat Grendel only by remaining sober at the sumbl and feigning sleep.
Besides the sumbl, there were many other occasions for drinking heavily. Marriages were celebrated with alcohol, just as they are today, and ale played an important part in funerals. The funeral feast was known as the Erfi or, more popularly, the Sjaund (which was also the name of the ale served). The family of the deceased would meet with the dead person's creditors and take care of any debts. The deceased's personal property would then be dispersed to the heirs.
There might be arguments, however, over who was supposed to receive what and having ale at hand was thought to be the best solution to this as it would make people merrier and more easy-going. Still, as scholar Martin J. Dougherty points out, ale did not always work and the sjaund “was not always a particularly amicable business and feuds could result” (43). Ale, it seems, could also have the unwanted – but predictable – effect of encouraging arguments.
Business contracts, land deals, and treaties were all concluded with drinks – and the evidence seems to support multiple drinks, not just a symbolic one-cup gesture – and this was to show mutual trust and respect. Wine was used by kings and nobles who could afford it but the most popular and respectful brew to offer at a gathering was mead which was considered so important that it formed the basis of one of the most popular tales of Odin and his adventures.
The Mead of Poetry
Mead is mentioned frequently in the Norse myths. In Valhalla, which is one perpetual sumbl presided over by Odin, the einherjar (Old Norse term for “those who fight alone”, the souls of warriors killed in battle) drink mead continuously as they fight each other in preparation for the great battle of Ragnarok at the end of the world. The mead of Valhalla flows from the udders of the goat Heidrun who eats of the mystical leaves of the tree Laeraor and produces the finest mead, clear and without any residue.
The most famous story about mead, however, is that of the Mead of Poetry. This tale begins at the close of the war between the gods known as the Aesir of Asgard and the Vanir of Vanaheim. To conclude the peace, the gods of both sides spat into a vat and then, not wanting to lose this gesture of goodwill, they take the spittle and create a man named Kvasir. Kvasir was so wise that he could answer any question on any subject whatsoever.
Kvasir left the realm of the gods and went into the world teaching people and answering their questions. He came to the home of two dwarves, Fjalar and Galar, who said they had a question for him but then killed him and drained his blood into two vats (known as Son and Bodn) and a kettle named Odrerir. They then blended honey with the blood and made a magical mead which granted anyone who drank of it the gift of poetry and scholarship (since poetry was associated with wisdom and intellect in Norse culture). When the Aesir came looking for Kvasir, the dwarves told them he had choked to death on his own knowledge because there was no one around to ask him any questions.
The dwarves, who enjoyed mischief more than anything else, later invited the giant Gilling to go boating with them. Once they were out on the water, they tipped the boat so he fell in and, since he could not swim, he drowned. Fjalar and Galar then rowed back home and told Gilling's wife he had died. She cried so loudly that it annoyed Fjalar who had Galar drop a millstone on her head, killing her. Gilling's son, Suttung, heard of his parents' death and went to the dwarves' home, grabbed them both, and stranded them on a stretch of rocks which would be covered at high tide. The dwarves begged for their lives and promised him the magical mead if he would spare them. Suttung agreed, took the mead to his mountain home, and hid it in his daughter Gunnlod's room.
Odin hears of the mead and goes in search of it. He comes to a place where he finds nine slaves cutting hay with dull scythes and offers to sharpen them for him with his whetstone. The slaves are overjoyed afterwards and want to buy the stone but Odin tosses it up in the air and, when the slaves with their now razor-sharp scythes run to grab it, they accidentally slit each other's throats.
The slaves belonged to the giant Baugi, Suttung's brother, and when Odin comes to his home and requests lodging for the night, Baugi is lamenting the loss of his slaves who mysteriously all killed each other. Odin, who is traveling under the name Bolverk (meaning “evil deed”) and is disguised, tells Baugi he can do the work of the nine slaves but will only accept a taste of Suttung's mead as payment. Throughout the summer Bolverk-Odin performs the tasks of the nine slaves and in the fall asks Baugi for his payment.
The two of them go to Suttung's where Baugi presents his case but Suttung will not part with even a drop of the mead. Bolverk-Odin refuses to be turned away so easily and, after pretending to leave, takes out the magical auger Rati and tells Baugi to drill into Suttung's mountain home. Baugi tries to deceive Bolverk-Odin but fails and the god turns himself into a snake and slithers through the hole to Gunnlod's bedroom. He seduces her and stays with her for three nights, gently coaxing her into giving him a taste of the mead. She finally agrees he can have three drinks, one for each night they have been together.
Bolverk-Odin is presented with the two vats and kettle and first drinks the whole kettle and then empties the two vats. Before Gunnlod can do anything to stop him, he turns himself into an eagle and flies swiftly away toward Asgard. Suttung sees him, realizes what has happened, and changes himself into an eagle as well to pursue. Odin the eagle is flying for his life when he is seen by the Asgardians who know he must have succeeded in stealing the mead. They quickly assemble a number of vats in the courtyard of the city and, as Odin flies in, he spits the mead into the vats.
Suttung is close behind him, however, and Odin shoots some of the mead from his rear-end. Suttung flies away and this rear-mead becomes the bad poet's portion. Anyone who tries and fails at poetry (or intelligent conversation) has drunk of this mead. The mead in the vats is the mead of poetry and Odin gives this to the Aesir who then share it with the great poets of Midgard who will sing their praises.
This story is told in the Skaldskaparmal of the Prose Edda, a 13th century CE work which draws on older Nordic material. A version of the story is also told in the Eddic Havamal ('The Saying of the Wise One') and elements of it are depicted in carvings. Scholar Rudolf Simek notes that there are at least these two and possibly a third version of the myth, in addition to its depiction on stones in Scandinavia, and states, “thus, a continuity in the knowledge of this myth is documentarily evident over a period of 500 years and its popularity is evident in the numerous references in skaldic poetry” (209).
The popularity of mead, and the high regard it was given, gave rise to the myth and the myth then further popularized the drink. Mead, ale, and alcohol in general continued as such a vital aspect of Norse culture that not even the later attempts at prohibition by Norse-Christian kings could keep people from it.
In Norway, both King Olaf (later St. Olaf, r. 1014-c.1029 CE) and Eric Magnusson (Eric II, r. 1280-1299 CE) tried to control brewing and selling alcohol for their own purposes. Olaf banned the sale of grains, corn, and malt from the west of Norway to the north in an effort to subdue the northern lords. One of these lords, Asbjorn Siggurdson, went west to get around the embargo because he needed to brew ale for his father's funeral feast.
He was able to buy supplies from the slaves of his uncle Erling Skjalgsson but these were confiscated by Olaf's steward Sel-Thorir. Later, Asbjorn returned to Sel-Thorir's manor while Olaf was there and killed him (and so was afterwards known as Asbjorn Sel's Bane or Selsbani). This event in 1023 CE is thought to be directly linked to Olaf's loss of power and eventual death in 1030 CE. It is assumed that, after his revenge, Asbjorn went on to brew his ale.
Eric Magnusson issued a charter in 1295 CE prohibiting the brewing or sale of alcoholic beverages, as well as drinking parties, outside of established and recognized taverns. Although it is unknown how many people found ways to get around this law, one ingenious group became famous for it. The monks of Norway claimed they needed to be able to brew beer and ale for religious purposes and for the health of their communities; and so they were granted the right.
Beer and ale were both used for baptism and communion under various (unclear) circumstances and a certain priest was known as Thorinn the Keg for either his brewing or drinking skills (Fernando-Guerro-Rodriguez, 53-54). The people of Norway, therefore, continued enjoying alcohol at their weddings, funerals, business deals, and festivals even after the triumph of Christianity over Norse religion; the only difference was that now it was made and blessed by the Christian clergy.
Looking into the long history of mead
Mary O&rsquoRiordan looks at the long history of honey wine &mdash aka mead.
he importance of bees to life on earth takes a different but convivial twist in the uplifting and tasty drink of mead. Probably the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, mead is essentially fermented honey and water and has a long and glorious history.
It is referenced in the ancient cultures of China, India, Greece and Egypt. The earliest documentary evidence suggest that a fermented honey beverage was drunk in India some 4000 years ago. The ancient Greeks called mead ambrosia or nectar and it was believed to be the drink of the gods, descended from the Heavens as dew, before being gathered in by the bees.
Because of this belief, it is easy to see why the ancients thought mead had magical and sacred properties and would prolong life, bestow health, strength, virility, re-creative powers, wit and poetry.
Closer to home the legends from Germany, Norway and the Celts have gods and mortals alike knocking back mead from cow horns, goblets or ceremonial vessels, often bestowing magical powers and ritual importance. Celtic mythology tells of a river of mead running through paradise, while the Anglo-Saxon culture held mead up as the bestower of immortality, poetry and knowledge.
In fact. the mythology of mead exists in our culture today, unnoticed by most. The very term “honeymoon” comes from the ancient tradition of giving bridal couples a month’s worth — or ‘moon’s worth’ of honey–wine. This was long ago thought to ensure virility and fertility and a fruitful union. In fact the payment to the meadmaker was often increased, dependent on the promptness and the male-gender of the first-born child.
And this drink, though reminiscent of medieval banquets and feudal brawls, is on the verge of a comeback. News headlines in the US tell us consumption is up a huge 42% and is the “in thing” among the young upwardly mobile TV gazers and this staggering rise has been achieved without the expense of advertising.
‘Game of Thrones’, the fantasy TV series featuring warring dynasties, dragons and damsels in various states of undress, is thought to be responsible and as Series 5 hits Irish screens, the future for mead over here looks somewhat rosy.
While awaiting this market turnaround in Ireland, the current production and consumption of mead seems to be confined to beekeepers and the fraternity who indulge in historical re-enactments. Mead is nowadays the choice at medieval tournaments, Viking society meetings and of course, at Bunratty Castle banquets.
Mead was presumably made in ancient times by diluting honey with water in clay or wooden vessels, then leaving airborne yeasts and those found naturally in the honey to do the rest. Today commercial mead producers tend to use a mix of honey, fresh yeast, lemons and water.
Some not-so-traditional brewers start off the ferment so they can say their mead is ‘traditionally brewed’ but then add pure alcohol to bump up the alcohol and avoid a maturing period. Like beer, traditional mead is sometimes flavoured with fruits, spices, grains or hops.
After fermenting it needs to be kept at least a year before drinking, but at around 16%, it will keep indefinitely. Mead is produced in a variety of sweetness levels, from bone dry to lusciously sweet and it can be still or sparkling.
In years of a plentiful honey supply, which was not so in 2015, many beekeepers make a gallon or two of mead shortly after they harvest the honey. At Irish honey shows, there are always competitions for sweet and dry mead and visits to such shows will quickly reveal who are the best producers of mead in Ireland.
However, commercial craft, mead producers have not to my knowledge emerged in Ireland yet, but it’s got great potential, in the same way that craft beer has secured a great niche market.
If interested in exploring this potential market and getting started then, just like beekeeping, the first thing the burgeoning entrepreneur should do is purchase a book on winemaking which will include mead making.
Only a few essential inexpensive items of equipment are necessary in order to start making mead and these include a one gallon glass jar, air lock, plastic tubing, wine bottles and corks, yeast, and a few sterilising agents.
Usually 2 kilos of honey with 3.5 litres of water will give 5 litres (1 gallon) of medium mead. Initially, the honey and water are boiled to kill off the wild yeast, though modern technology is beginning to use ultrafiltration rather than boiling. Afterwards lemons and tea may be added to give a darker colour.
This mix is then fermented for 4 to 6 weeks using fresh yeast. The mead is then racked off in bottles and corked. After 12 months the mead can be stored for a further 12 months, and by this time it will be more mature and very drinkable.
Currently, there are no Irish stockists of traditional mead. An internet trawl will reveal that Bunratty Meade is available at some outlets but this “meade” appears to be white wine with honey and herbs added.
Mead is the fastest growing segment of the American alcohol beverage industry, so to you budding entrepreneurs and beekeepers, it seems that this fermented honey drink is tiptoeing out from the shadows and has the potential to amass you a fortune — so get brewing.
* As you harvest root crops, leeks, Brussels sprouts and winter cabbages, be soft-footed, the ground is still so soggy that compaction is inevitable.
* You can rake over any empty beds to disturb any weed seeds and trigger their early germination. Think of it as making them show their heads above the parapet. Your hoe can lop them all off in a few weeks’ time before you direct sow this year’s new crops.
* Now is the time to think about sowing some indoor modules of early crops. Try beetroot, spinach and salad leaves but really there is no wrong edible to start now to plant out in warmer weather.
* Order your seed potatoes and if you have some already It is possible to start chitting. Chitting is pre-germination — letting an eye form a sprout to get a head start come warmer weather but don’t fret if you have enough windowsill — a potato with an eye will self-chit when planted anyway.
* The mild weather has been kind to pests and diseases that may be overwintering in greenhouses and polytunnels – a clean and a bit of ventilation will diminish the threat.
As is expected of a Norse myth, we begin with the conclusion of a war. This one was between the two main families of the Norse gods – the Aesir and the Vanir. To mark their truce, the gods proceed to spit into a vat. Not to let good spittle go to waste, they decide to turn this mixture into a man named Kvasir. This man was so wise that there was no question he could not answer, and proceeded to travel spreading his knowledge and counsel to mankind.
This brutal endeavor wasn’t enough for the dwarves. They, with some friends, proceeded to visit some giants. They capsized one’s ship, causing him to drown. And later, when they tired of his wife’s loud weeping, dropped a millstone on her head. The giant’s adult son, Suttung, was not pleased when he heard of this, and snatched up the dwarves and stranded them on a small reef at low tide where they would surely drown when the sea rose. The dwarves begged and pleaded, and finally offered to trade the mead for their lives, to which the giant agreed. He took his prize back to a hiding place underneath a mountain and placed his daughter there to guard it.
The History of Mead
Mead, the world’s oldest fermented beverage, created by combining watered honey with beer or wine yeasts, has been consumed and enjoyed by cultures across the world all throughout history. Most folks have probably heard accounts of mead drinking in the context of Norse or Viking cultures, where it is enjoyed in raucous halls alongside plenty of brawling and feasting. However, references to mead have been found in ceramic pottery from China, dating to 7000 B.C.E. in the ancient Hindu text of the Rigveda from India in manuscripts from ancient Egypt and even in a mixture of grape and barley wine found in the tomb of the Greek king, Midas.
It is easy to see why mead was so widespread across the ancient world. As a preservative and easy source of sugar, honey would have been used anywhere that bees were present and would often have been mixed in with nuts, berries, meats, drinks, and baked goods. Over time, the naturally occurring yeasts in both honey and fruit would have made almost any diluted honeyed liquid ferment, making mead an easy and delicious discovery! The oldest known recipe for mead came from the Hispanic-Roman naturalist Columella, around the year 60 C.E., who prescribed the following:
“Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a [Roman] pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.”
While mead has evolved greatly over the centuries, it is this basic mixture that has stood the test of centuries and found its way into the cellars of everyone from Socrates to King Tut. In ancient Egypt, mead was so valuable that honey gatherers were kept under armed guard while out hunting for hives. In Greece, some scholars theorize that ambrosia, the drink of the Gods and the source of their immortality, may have been mead, due to honey’s medicinal qualities, and was said to be the preferred drink of Grecians during the Golden Age.
Of course, there are few cultures where this beverage has played such an impactful role as those of the Norse and Germanic societies. In the frigid northern climates of Western Europe and the Scandinavian Peninsula, where battles against the elements were as intense as the conflicts between one another, it is easy to see why folks would have gathered in mead halls to make merry and enjoy the warmth of friendly company, good food, roaring fires, and a cup or three of strong drink.
In these times, mead was so popular that it was often elevated to near mythical status. In the legend of the Mead of Poetry, the god of wisdom, Kvasir, was murdered by two evil dwarves, who took his blood, rendered it down, and brewed it into an exceptional mead that could confer poetic inspiration on whomever drank it. Thor, god of thunder, was said to be able to down mead by the barrel, and in the legend of Beowulf, the mead hall Heorot was said to become so raucous that it awakened an ancient monster, Grendal, who came to terrorize the patrons into silence. Ancient Scandinavian culture even held that the glorious afterlife was a great mead hall called Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain, where Odin, the All Father, holds dominion over the dead heroes. Here, the kettle Eldhrímnir supplies an endless feast of meat, while the goat, Heiðrún, produces, from its udders, vats of the most exquisite mead to be found in all the nine realms.
Despite its ancient roots, mead has not enjoyed the same level of popularity in modern times as beer, wine, and cider. This is largely due to to the sheer cost of its production when compared to grains and fruit. Mead was often seen, even in ancient times, as a beverage for the elite. This may be part of its mythical status as a drink of kings and divinity. However, this is now changing. Meaderies across the world are opening their doors, and now anyone can experience the delightful sweetness and depth of this drink, if they are willing to explore. After all, who wouldn’t want a chance to sample the nectar of the gods?
Mead and the Vikings
Being a European in the Early Middle Ages was rough. “Barbarians,” such as the Franks and Vandals that destroyed the Roman Empire were settling into kingdoms in their own right. Dynasties like the Carolingians and Merovingians dominated Western Europe. Diseases, poverty, and starvation were rampant. However, the Early Middle Ages had another looming threat: Vikings.
All over Europe, stories circulated of fearsome bands of raiders who would appear over the horizon, sail to Europe’s shores and pillage monasteries and towns. These raiders came from the Scandinavian countries, and were known at the time as Norsemen (literally men from the North). Their fighting prowess was the stuff of legend — so much so that the Byzantine Emperor all the way in Istanbul hired them as his closest bodyguards (Graffiti carved into the railings of the Hagia Sophia still bears the name of one of these Viking guards). These fierce warriors terrorized Europe for hundreds of years, and to Europeans it seemed as though nothing could stop the mysterious men from the North.
What did the Vikings have that allowed them to strike anywhere in Europe with impunity? What was it that made them so effective at attacking European coastal towns, raiding the local monasteries or villages, and fleeing before the king could rally his troops to fend off the raiders?
One reason is the unique and advanced vessels known as longships. The longship was the preferred warship of the Vikings. It was not armed, but it could easily carry 75 or more troops. The ship was advanced for its time for a number of reasons. First, it had a sail that allowed the ship to travel close to the wind direction, and maintain a heading even as winds shifted. It also had oars that allowed the ship to move even in the absence of wind. The Viking longship’s keel was shallow, and it only needed a meter of water to sail effectively. This allowed it sail to shore and disembark its raiders quickly. It also allowed the ships to sail up the mouths of rivers like the Danube and Volga.
The boat was able to bear the ferocious storms of the North Atlantic through some engineering that was ahead of its time. The longships’ construction intentionally included significant allowances, making the entire hull flexible. It could bend with the rock and pitch of the waves. Unlike rigid-hull ships, which risked coming apart under their own weight in a storm, the longship could easily handle the journey from Scandinavia to Italy or Constantinople. The final feature that made a longship so advanced was its long, narrow hull. The sleek design allowed it cut through waves. Viking longships could arrive at shore as little as 60 minutes after appearing on the horizon, leaving unready villagers at their mercy. Reconstructed longships have reached speeds of nearly 25 knots.
The Vikings were also cunning strategists, and their tactics exploited the military asymmetries of the day. The Carolingians’ armies were pre-feudal, meaning that the decentralized nature of the vassal system had not yet permeated the continent, and armies were still poorly trained and relied on mass. Small groups like the Vikings were able to hit targets and run off before the slow-moving bureaucracy of the kingdoms was able to react. The Vikings also relied on their fearsome reputation to keep them out of fights entirely.
Thanks to a justified reputation for brutality and ferociousness, Vikings would often land at a prospective raiding site, only to find the locals unwilling to engage them at all, preferring to surrender their goods instead of their lives. The raiders will also willing to forego many of the rules of chivalrous warfare that existed among kings of the day. Vikings, when engaging in combat, ambushed, fought in closed terrain, and generally made every effort to ensure that more powerful forces were unable to bring their superior combat power to bear on a Viking raiding party.
The Vikings had another advantage on their side, a powerful drink deeply integrated into their religious and cultural life: mead. According to Viking legend, mead originated when two warring factions of gods signed a peace treaty and spit into a bowl to seal the agreement. From the bowl was born Kvasir, the wisest of all men. Kvasir met his death at the hands of a pair of dwarves, who collected his blood, also known as the “Mead of Poetry.” The mead passed from the dwarves to a giant. When Odin, the Norse god, learned that a giant held the mead, he ventured down to the giant’s lair, seduced his wife, and obtained the mead by transforming into an eagle and swallowing it. Norse legend also states that when warriors arrive at Valhalla in the afterlife, they are rewarded with a draught of mead served by beautiful maidens. Our modern term “honeymoon” refers to the Nordic practice of giving newlywed couples 28 days’ worth (literally one lunar cycle) of mead.
Mead was also a prominent cultural fixture. The Norse served mead during their three largest feasts: the celebration of the harvest, mid-winter, and mid-summer. Feasts were also held to commemorate life events such as a wake, christening, or even a barn-raising. The celebration and consumption of mead was a way to both commune with the gods and build bonds among the community. The serving of mead itself was highly ritualized, with the wife of the king or chieftain serving mead first to the king, and then to the rest of his war party in order of social rank and precedence. Norse drank their mead from intricate drinking horns or in elaborately decorated silver cups.
Mead is a simple beverage brewed with honey, water, and yeast. Many regard it as the oldest alcoholic drink known to man, and it has also gone by the names honey wine, ambrosia, or nectar. The drink is ancient in origin, and unique recipes can be found in Poland, Nepal, Croatia, England, the Scandinavian countries, Ethiopia, Greece and Mexico.
Mead, while thought of today as being beer-like, is usually 16-percent alcohol, though it can get up to 18 percent if fermented with modern methods. The balance of honey affects the sweetness — additives greatly alter the flavor. These additives range from hops and malt to fruit, spices, and even egg whites. Mead’s flavor can elicit comparisons ranging from beer to dessert wine.
Mead’s brewing process is relatively easy — so easy, in fact, that you can probably get everything you need to brew it at your local super store. Mead ferments in as little as a few weeks, or it may take as long as a year. For Vikings, mead represented an easy, potent, and delicious brew that facilitated closely knit communities and tradition in a way few other things at the time could match.
The age of the Vikings lasted until around 1066 AD. The cause of their decline is the subject of considerable debate, but a few common theories emerge. The first is the rise of Christianity, which for obvious reasons opposed the pillaging, looting, and killing inherent in raiding. Christian authorities also forbade raids against monasteries. Another reason was the increasing inequality in Viking society. Wealth in the society consolidated as fewer Norsemen held land, and more and more were landless serfs laboring to pay rent and survive. This left few Vikings available to go raiding. In continental Europe, the formalization of the feudal system meant that small localities and principalities were able to raise reasonably well-trained fighting forces to meet Viking incursions effectively.
The Viking tradition remains alive today, in everything from TV shows to T-shirts. The Viking code of bravery and sacrifice resonates with many, particularly the small, tight-knit military community. Today’s world could also benefit from remembering the Viking society’s deep sense of community and mutual support.
Mead is a simple recipe that even an amateur home brewer can make with relative ease. Below is a simple one, courtesy of LoveBeerLoveFood.com:
Start with a large pot of boiling water. Boil the water for 10 minutes to ensure it is sterile, and then chill it with an ice bath (immerse the pot in ice water). Sanitize a funnel and the carboys prior to adding in the warmed honey, and just enough sterile water to nearly fill the carboy. Each batch then gets one third of the contents of a rehydrated yeast packet and 1 teaspoon of yeast nutrient. Seal in your carboy, and place somewhere with a cool, consistent temperature. Test the taste periodically after a month or two, but be prepared for it to take up to a year to fully ferment.
And remember, the first toast of any feast is always: To Odin!
Paul Lewandowski is a graduate student, veteran and writer. He prefers a good gin gimlet to just about anything else. America is his favorite country and his favorite color is a tie among red, white, and blue.
Mead in Early History
Ethiopian mead is called tej and is usually home-made. It is flavored with the powdered leaves and bark of gesho, a hops-like bittering agent which is a species of buckthorn.
A sweeter, less-alcoholic version called berz, aged for a shorter time, is also made. The traditional vessel for drinking tej is a rounded vase-shaped container called a berele.
Evidence exists that mead was also made in India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, and Central Africa. Mead is also mentioned in many old north Anglo-Saxon stories, including in the epic poem Beowulf, and in early Welsh poetry such as Y Gododdin.
The word “honeymoon” in English is supposedly traceable to the practice of a bride’s father dowering her with enough mead for a month-long celebration in honor of the marriage.
Let's talk: Mead
Mead is an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with water, sometimes with various fruits, spices, grains, or hops. The alcoholic content ranges from about 8% ABV to more than 20%. The defining characteristic of mead is that the majority of the beverage's fermentable sugar is derived from honey. It may be still, carbonated, or naturally sparkling dry, semi-sweet, or sweet.
Mead was produced in ancient history throughout Europe, Africa and Asia.
Mead has played an important role in the beliefs and mythology of some peoples. One such example is the Mead of Poetry, a mead of Norse mythology crafted from the blood of the wise being Kvasir which turns the drinker into a poet or scholar.
The terms "mead" and "honey-wine" often are used synonymously. Some cultures, though, differentiate honey-wine from mead. For example, Hungarians hold that while mead is made of honey, water and beer-yeast (barm), honey-wine is watered honey fermented by recrement of grapes or other fruits.
With that out of the way, let's discuss! What are your experiences with Mead? Any favorite brands, or cocktails youɽ like to share?
Let's talk: Mead is part of a bi-monthly discussion series in r/alcohol. As a reminder, downvotes are meaningless and ignored.
What kinds do we make?
We started making mead October 11, 2015. Thanks to Bob Johnson, my mentor, we crafted my first batch of mead, a lemonade mead. It wasn't till the following year that I was able to reap the benefits of my patience. I was hooked. I started making more mead immediately. My next two batches were an elderberry and a pumpkin. Now it is 2018 and I just got my licenses to sell mead as a farm winery. It took me 7 months to navigate the process from the federal government down to the town level. I am gearing up for next year with over 10 batches in the works now: Lemonade, Cranberry, Elderberry, Pumpkin, Blueberry, and Peach.
Kvasir was the wisest man that had ever lived and was born from the spit of the gods. He travelled the world giving sound advice to all who asked it of him, never being asked a question that he could not answer.
Fjalar and Galar – The Murderous Dwarves
While on his travels, he met two mischievous dwarves, Fjalar and Galar, who invited him into their home where they brutally murdered him. The dwarfs wanted Kvasir’s wisdom for themselves so they brewed three vats of mead by mixing his blood with honey, knowing that anyone who drank it would become a great poet or scholar when asked by the gods where Kvasir was, the two dwarfs replied that he had choked on his own wisdom.
Fjalar and Galar apparently had a taste for murder and soon after, they drowned the giant Gillig then killed his wife by dropping a milestone on her head. However when their son, Suttung, heard what had happed he was furious. He threatened to kill the dwarfs but was persuaded to spare them when they offered to give him the brew they had made, which became known as the Mead of Inspiration. After receiving the alcohol, Suttung hid the vats beneath a mountain and appointed his daughter, Gunnlod, to guard them.
Odin’s Quest for the Mead of Inspiration
When Odin learned of Kvasir’s death and the existence of the knowledge giving drink from his trusted adviser, the decapitated head Mimir, he was furious and vowed to acquire the mead for himself. He disguised himself as an old man and made his way to the farm of Baugi, Suttung’s brother. While there, he met with the farm hands and offered to sharpen their scythes, which he did so well that each wanted to buy the whetstone that he had used. He agreed and threw it into the air, watching in amusement as the farmhands scrambled for it, killing each other in the process with their supernaturally sharpened scythes.
He then made his way to the farm house and told Baugi that his servants had all killed each other in a dispute. Odin offered to do the work they could not now do and in return, all he wanted was a sip of the Mead of Inspiration. The giant replied that while he had no control over the mead, if the old man could live up to his end of the bargain and do the work of nine men, he would help him in any way he could.
Odin wins for men the magic mead (1920) by Willy Pogany (Source - Wikipedia)
At the end of the growing season, Odin had done as he promised and Baugi reluctantly agreed to help him gain access to the mountain where the mead was hidden. He told the giant to drill a hole into the ground and after much work, Baugi claimed he had finished. To check, Odin blew into the hole and when the dust blew into his face, he knew he had been lied to. He bade his companion to keep going until the job was finished which was complied with and the next time Odin checked, the dust blew through the hole signalling the job was indeed done.
The Seduction of Gunnlod
So as to be able to fit into the hole, Odin transformed himself into a snake and made it in just in time, as the double-crossing giant tried to stab him as he slithered his way into the mountain. He then transformed again, this time into a young giant so irresistibly hansom, he knew he would be able to seduce Gunnlod, who guarded the vats of mead for her father Suttung.
His plan to seduce her worked and he promised to sleep with her for three nights if in return, she allowed him to take three sips of the mead. After the third night, Odin went to the three vats and emptied the contents of each one in three giant sips. Odin then changed his shape again, this time into an eagle and flew off towards the home of the gods, Asgard. Suttung happened to be nearby and when he learned that his daughter had been tricked, he also turned into an eagle and set off after Odin.
How Man Acquired Inspiration
When Odin made it to the vats, he regurgitated the mead into them but as he did so, some of it fell from his beak down to the dwelling of mankind, Midgard. These drops would go on to be the source of inspiration for all bad and mediocre poets and scholars amongst men. Conversely, those who are talented in these fields have had, so the legend goes, the Mead of Inspiration given to them by Odin himself.
An 18th century illustration of Odin being chased by Suttungr by
Jakob Sigurðsson (Source - Wikipedia)
Mead was the first alcohol. Our hunter gatherer ancestors discovered it fermenting in the hollows of bee hive laden trees. Rainwater and wild yeast mixed with the honey and wah-laa, hunting and gathering got a lot more fun.
Cultures popped up around the world and mead was a part of them. From 7000 BC China, to 4000 BC India, 3000 BC Turkey, 2000 BC Middle East to 1000 AD Central America, Europe, Scandanavia… the monks and warriors and wise people around the world made and shared mead. Shakespeare, Gilgamesh, Tolkein, Homer, Harry Potter, Chaucer all include mead… we could go on, but suffice it to say, mead was a global tradition since the beginning of human culture.
“A drink I took of the Magic Mead, and I began to know and to be wise, to grow and to weave poems” - Odin, The All Father of the Norse People in the Epic poem The Runahal
“Give beer to the weary, wine to the sick at heart and [mead] to those that are close to death.” -Proverbs, Torah/Old Testament
“In the widestriding Vishnu’s highest footsteps, there is a spring of Mead” -Rig Veda
While mead was a mainstay in cultures across the world, it is hard to find commercially. Beer and wine and spirits are cheaper and easier to produce.
Mead on the other hand, is an art made reproducible by science. While no two batches of honey will ever be the same, we can make some of our meads relatively consistent.
Golden Coast Mead started October 24th, 2010.
We rented space from Triple B Ranches winery in Valley Center, CA. We did a custom crush. We went from making 5 gallon batches to 300 gallon batches there.
But our story starts before that. Our founder, Frank Golbeck and his two co-founders, Joe Colangelo and Praveen Ramineni, were friends at UC Berkeley. The summer after freshman year, Frank was helping his grandfather clean out his garage and there in the attic of the garage was an old case of bottles. A bottle of raspberry wine, a bottle of pear wine, a bottle of grape wine. A bottle of apple wine, another bottle of grapewine. A bottle of mead. Frank’s grandfather’s last bottle of mead.
Frank’s grandfather was an apple grower who retired from growing apples and had a little tasting room where he sold all sorts of fermentables. But the mead was the magical one.
Frank would watch his grandfather pour the mead from behind the bar and watch as grumpy old people transformed into laughing friendly people.
Frank read Beowulf and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and mead, the drink of vikings and wizards and elves, was the stuff his grandpa made and sold.
He had to get his hands on some. However, there was none to be had anywhere. Until that summer day, cleaning out the attic in the garage.
Frank’s grandpa gave him that last bottle. Frank brought it up to school with him. He shared it with his girlfriend at the time who is now his wife. They decided that they needed more mead in their lives.
Frank started making small batches. Pretty soon, people started drinking five gallons in a night, Frank’s friends Joe and Praveen among them. Dance parties would ensue. Once, one of those dance parties spawned a dance off and someone slid across the floor on their knees and ripped off their shirt.
Joe once said to Frank, “You know, Frank, people like this stuff. That means that they’ll probably give us money for it.”
Frank looked back incredulously.
Joe: “No really, that’s what a business does. It makes things that people want and people give them money for it.”
After school, Frank was in the Navy. It was where Frank learned how to work hard. 16 hour days, 7 days a week for the better part of two and a half years while his ship was getting deployed, or ready for deployment or fixed after running aground while on deployment.
Frank’s wife intervened. Frank had come home from work one night and simply laid upon the ground after crossing the threshold of their little cottage in Kensington, a small neighborhood in San Diego.
She saw that Frank was not happy. She said, “Frank, I don’t think you are happy. I don’t think this is the way that we want to spend our lives. What if you had all of the time, money and energy in the world, what would you do?”
Frank realized this was the best question that we can ask ourselves and each other. It is a practical approach to creating one’s own heaven on earth. But I digress, I am writing a history piece here, not a philosophy tract.
Frank answered her (after a few days thinking between chasing down parts and repairs and standing watch on his ship), “I would farm, live in community and make and share mead.”
Frank’s wife said, “Sounds good, let’s figure out how to make a living and do that.”
So, Frank called Joe. They started scheming. Joe and Frank shared mead with Praveen. They got him to join the team. They pooled their resources. They wrote 60 cold emails looking for a place to make mead semi-professionally. They got three emails back - one from Greenflash Brewing, one from Ballast Point, both saying they couldn’t make mead legally and one from Triple B Ranches.
Call it fate. Call it luck. Obi Wan would call it The Force.
Frank might say it was the Mead Gods’ doing.
One batch of Orange Blossom Mirth in a Bottle released in June of 2011 after hiking the first three bottles from Valley Center to be plunged into the Pacific Ocean.
Another batch of OB Mirth (sparkling this time - incredibly good).
Two batches that got stuck and failed. Got distilled.
Three more batches of OB Mirth. Then a farmhouse batch in Ramona. Made in a barn with dirt floors and no lights. Once, when Frank and Joe were cleaning tanks in the middle of the night to execute an emergency mead transfer, Joe was holding up his cell phone flashlight while Frank washed the tank from the inside in his board shorts. Joe said, “You know Frank, if the universe is really infinite, it means somewhere somebody is paying to do what I’m doing right now.”
If the universe really is infinite, there is an earth where everyone gets to do what they’d do if they had all of the time, money and energy in the world.
We hope that one of the things you’d do in that universe is enjoy the magic of mead.
Since our founding, many people have helped us build this dream. We are a team of dreamers and doers, garage scientists and wild eyed schemers. Some of us hear the celestial music regularly. Some of us like nothing more than the pleasure of finding something out. Some of us are vagabonds and slow money-ers and one of us basically built skynet.
All of us love to delight people. All of us love mead.
We welcome you to join us, and share your gifts with the world.
-If you liked this story, or it inspired you in any way, please consider buying some mead from us here, and after you place your order, share with us and our community what you’d do if you had all of the time, money and energy in the world @goldencoastmead on IG and Facebook. #Allthetimemoneyandenergyintheworld.