View Full Version : Seminar at the Meadfest

Dan McFeeley
11-05-2004, 09:34 PM
Dang. I gotta retype this. The first post was too long and I lost the text. I'll have to post this in a series of e-notes.

I brought a lot of material to the seminar, expecting to only get part way through it but hoping to cover the main areas. What I wanted to focus on was this general theme: Mead, a fermented beverage of great antiquity, with a rich but little explored tradition.

In order to better delve into the antiquity of mead, I made a few preliminary remarks on history and culture. History as a discipline looks seriously at questions such as: Is history a science? What is the object of study in history -- people, cities, nations, ethnic groups? Are there historical trends, and what might they be?

Mead, however, is not an event, person, city, etc. It is an item of cultural interest and there lies the clue to the proper object of study in the history of mead. Culture is the proper focus, the cultural value of mead to a particular group. It's not enough to simply look at historical references to mead, as interesting as they may be, but to take a broader look at mead culture.

An important consideration in the framing of historical or anthropologiical questions is that of contextuality. The terms and concepts we use in academic inquiry tend to carry tacit Westernized concepts from our modern era which can inadvertently skew the answers we find.

For that reason, my suggestion is to avoid questions such as "which came first, wine, beer or mead," because there are modern day concepts of scientific categorization adhering to the use of these terms. Better to ask "How long ago did humankind first begin making fermented beverages, and what materials did they use?" This allows for the establisment of a historical line of continuity going way way way back. First mead? Hard to find. The archaelogical record consistently reflects ancient beverages, using honey, that do not fit into our categories, and there lies our kinship as modern day meadmakers with the most ancient of all fermented beverages. As meadmakers, we deal with honey, as did Neolithic, Mesolithic, and maybe even upper Paleolithic peoples, with their stone age brews of herbs, cereal grains, and honey.

Gotta stop here and pick up in another post.

Dan McFeeley
11-05-2004, 09:45 PM
Back again --

After that warm up, I ran through a review of archaelogical findings showing the truly ancient use of honey in the making of fermented beverages. Especially exciting are excavations in China, with the discovery of 9,000 year old pottery jars which held a beverage fermented from rice, grape, and very likely honey. The honey was difficult to positively identify. Dr. Patrick McGovern was able to identify the hydrocarbon chains indicating a wax, but apparently could not progress further and distinguish it as either beeswax, or a plant wax. Beeswax does sound like the most likely canidate, and if this can be positively identified, it will show the use of honey in the making of fermented beverages at the very dawning of the Neolithic era.

Other exciting findings have been found in Scotland -- the Ashgrove site which indicates honey commerce. The artifact, dated to 3046 yrs before the present, used cereal grains, lime honey, and meadowsweet. Lime honey is not to be found in that immediate area and apparently was brought up from the more southern areas of England. Artifacts from the Scottish isle of Rhum have been tentatively dated to 3890 yrs before the present, but the dating is based on the material that was surrounding the pottery sherds -- not the sherds themselves. The archaeologists commented that the sherds were likely much older but could not say exactly how old. Further work has to be done here.

Of course, there are our friends, the Iron age Celts, with their love of good wine, and of course, good mead. Most interesting is the Hochdorf site, with a cauldron that once held honey spiced with material from over one hundred different plants, many of them brought from long distances. Once again the value of mead to this particular culture is shown by the trouble taken in making what seems to have been a very complex metheglin.

At this point I glanced at my watch and saw I was running out of time. I kind of hop skipped through a few of the more unusual examples of mead culture, a sort of psychotropic ancient Mayan mead relying on poison from the skin of the Bufo Marinus toad, Jewish folk lore focusing on mead, and what seems to have been an ancient Greek "Bee cult," which may have used honey and mead with toxic properties in order to inspire the prophetic trances of its oracles.

Think I better cut off here before this gets too big again . . .

Dan McFeeley
11-05-2004, 09:57 PM
In conclusion, I read a quote from Californian winemaker Tim Mondavi. Mondavi was writing about the change in perception of the winegrape, and the change in quality of US winemaking this helped bring about. Up until the early 1970's, the winegrape was seen in terms of negatives, something frail that had to be rescued with technology. The result was an approach to winemaking that was essentially overcontrol. A shift occured when winemakers began to see the winegrape in terms of positives, and how winemaking technique could best be utilized in order to bring out these positive qualities.

My suggest was that a similar shift has not yet occured in meadmaking. For the most part, honey is seen in negatives, i.e., lacking nutrients, acids, buffers, and needing rescue by the use of technology. Not much more than a supersaturated honey solution, with aroma and flavor derived from floral source.

Not so. Honey is a very unique product of nature with unusual biochemical properties. All honeys have antibacterial properties, but a varietal honey from New Zealand is sufficiently strong to be used in the medical treatment of wounds. Honey has been found to have anti oxidant and anti browing properties, and even shows promise in winemaking as a substitute for the use of sulfites. There is a protein in honey that apparently clears apple juice. My own research has shown that the acidic properties of honey are unusually complex and when not taken into account, can skew analytical procedures using a simple acid/base titration.

Research into honey composition has been mostly guided by the food industry, lending substance to the old adage of mead being the "forgotten child" in the research of fermented beverages.

This can change, and it is events like the meadfest that can help bring this about. By continuing to promote mead, meadmaking, and commercial meaderies, or the promise shown in the formation of the International Mead Association, which will be organized today, academic researchers will hopefully be alerted to the as yet untapped potential of mead and honey fermentation research.

Whew! I finished leaving Gary Glass only five minutes to set up for his presentation.