Past, Present and Future of Mead
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.
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.
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
Wassail, drink up and enjoy mead!