Mead vs Wine: History, Production, Taste, Culture, Health

Come with me as we step into a realm where ancient traditions collide in a battle of flavours and history. In one corner, we have the golden elixir of mead - steeped in Norse mythology and mystical allure. In the other, we have wine, a drink enjoyed by many early cultures and crafted over the centuries to become a byword for sophistication. 

History of Mead

There is some debate as to how far the drinking of mead goes back to. Archaeological evidence shows the presence of fermented honey and rice in pottery vessels from northern China dating from 7000 BCE, but of course this doesn't tell the whole story as humans would have enjoyed a type of mead, before we learnt the skill to make pottery.

One theory suggests that mead was first consumed in Africa some 20,000 years ago when, during the dry season, bees would nest in the hollows of trees. When the rainy season came, these hollows would fill up with water and natural fermentation would occur due to ambient yeast in the air. The resulting liquid would then have been collected and enjoyed by the local people.

This theory gains additional credence from the fact that we know mead was a prevalent part of Egyptian culture, where it was used for both religious rituals and daily consumption. We can also assume that is was held in high regard as of it has been found in several Pharaoh tombs, including King Tutankhamun. 

The earliest possible written evidence for mead dates back to 1700-1100 BCE. I use possible on purpose because it's not mentioned directly, rather it has been suggested by scholars that the soma in the hymns of the Rigveda, one of the sacred books of Hindu and Vedic faiths, could be referring to it.

Mythology of Mead

While the origins of mead are still up for debate and many cultures can claim a connection to it, it is for Europeans at least, the Vikings that first come to mind when discussing the drink.

The Vikings, where a group of seafaring Scandinavians circa 800 to 1050CE and it's their strong mythology regarding mead, and their belief of it being the 'nectar of the gods' that has cemented itself in our societal consciousness.

So the story goes that there once was a man called Kvasir and he was the wisest man in the world, born from the spit of gods. He would travel the world, answering the questions people posed to him until one day he was murdered by two dwarves. The dwarves drained his blood, mixed it with honey and fermented it and it became The Mead of Poetry.  So powerful was the mead of poetry that anyone drinking it would themselves become a poet/scholar/wise.

Despite this gruesome origin story (or perhaps because of it!) mead managed to gain traction across the lands the Vikings raided, and it found particular favour in England (although it wasn't called that back then). The tradition of drinking mead in the UK managed to last longer than the Vikings and was popular well through medieval times and into the Renaissance. We know this thanks to literature, such as a the oldest known English mead recipe which was found in a 13th century letter.

Top View of Bees Putting Honey. Article mead vs wine

History of Wine

The history of wine is no easier to determine than that of mead, due to its long history predating written records.

There is a theory to suggest that early humans gathered fruits and when left for a few days, a low-alcohol wine would naturally form at the bottle of the pile. This is actually similar to something we observe in nature today, as some animals purposefully seek over-ripe (and therefore slightly alcoholic) berries to eat. *

When it comes to physical evidence the residue of a rice, grape and hawthorn berry fermented drink was found in China from c7000 BCE, and a clay pot with residues of a more 'standard' wine liquid found in Georgia from 6000 BCE.

Perhaps even more exciting though is the oldest evidence of steady wine production ie a winery found in Armenia dating to 4100 BCE. Located in the Areni-1 cave (which is also the same place in which researchers found the oldest leather shoe) was a wine press, fermentation vats, jars, and cups.

The wine in the Areni-1 cave and indeed from Georgia and anywhere else it was made would not, however, have tasted like it does today.

Until very recently it was believed that the Caucasus was the originator of the modern vine, but new research has shown that in fact two events happened; one in the Caucasus and the other more significant, starting in the Levant. With humans moving away from a nomadic lifestyle, wild vines of the local variety were domesticated so that they would yield more fruit for the tribes. These vines then travelled along the trading routes to the west, and while doing so cross-breed with other wild vines. It was the cross-breeding of these vines in with the native Europe ones which led to the Vitis Vinifera family that we use today.

Mythology of Wine

Wine features heavily in many cultures; from its first mention in the biblical Book of Genesis, to the Greek story of Dionysus turning water into wine for a shepherd who fed him. In this tale, the shepherd became over awed with the wine, which till that moment didn't exist, and so Dionysus led him to a vine, crushed the grapes and explained how wine was made. Needless to say that once introduced to wine, the ancient Greeks sure made up for any lost time - I can only but imagine what happened in those Dionysian Mysteries!

A Statue of Dionysus

How mead is made

Mead is made from a combination of honey - the primary ingredient which hosts the fermentable sugars - water and yeast, with optional flavours coming from the addition of fruits, spices, and herbs.

Despite sometimes being referred to as honey beer or honey wine, it is actually its own category - in the same way that you wouldn't call cider, apple beer or apple wine.

Once the ingredients are combined, the yeast works to convert the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This fermentation process can be left to fully finish, so resulting in a dry mead, or halted to produce a sweet mead. Once the yeast does its job, it 'dies' and falls to the bottom leaving a thick sand like layer. The mead is then racked; which is when the liquid is siphoned from one vessel to another, leaving the yeast sediment behind, so that it can clear up further and then be bottled.

Alcohol content can range anywhere between 3.5% to 20%, with classic mead being on the higher end of the scale. When it comes to shelf life the abv is a key component with lower than 12% best drunk within a year and those above 15% best consumed within 5 years, although technically these can last for decades.

How wine is made

Unlike mead which is mixed, wine starts with the crushing of the grapes. This is so the juice can be extracted, with the length of this process differing for each style of wine. For most white wines the time that the grape juice and grape skin stay in contact after crushing is minimal, while for red wines it will be extended. This is because it is the grape's skin that has the colour, not the grape juice which is clear - and so the colour needs time to leach into the juice.*

The juice/ juice and skins then ferment, and like mead can be completed fully or partially before it is racked, fined and filtered to remove any particles and bottled.

Alcohol content for wines can range from 5.5% up to 17% in some hot countries which produce very ripe, sugar packed grapes.

When it comes to the shelf life of wines there are usually two categories a bottle will fall into. The first is applicable to any wine brought from a supermarket; it should be drunk within the year. The second is with wines that are purposefully made to age, i.e. higher end Bordeaux. These can and are expected to be aged up to 50 years+.

[Side note. Legally anything labelled just as 'wine' has to be a grape wine. Of course various fruits can also be used to make wine, but the fruit must be used as a prefix ie blackcurrant wine, strawberry wine.]

Brown Woven Basket on White Plastic Container

What does mead taste like?

Traditional mead often has a rich, honey-forward taste with supporting floral notes and a sort of hops like finish, while modern variations are completely dependent on what might have been added. There is also a trend in experimenting with different base honeys - such as orange blossom honey which will of course be reflected in the final product.

What does wine taste like?

There is, I would say, a greater range in the flavours of wine; influenced by factors such as grape variety (there are over 10,000 known ones), to growing conditions and winemaking techniques.

Use of oak barrels can give a wine toasty, vanilla, clove, smoke and coconut notes depending on the wood used. While grapes grown in colder climates will often be zestier, and conversely grapes grown in warmer climates will often be much more ripe.

The genetic differences between the wine grapes themselves though is a huge factor, with each having a their own chemical makeup affecting how we perceive it. For example Syrah/Shiraz contains high levels of rotundone, a molecular also found in black pepper, and so a very classic tasting note for Syrah will include 'peppery'.

Red Yellow and Green Fruits

Do people still drink mead?

The prevalence of mead in the northern hemisphere has taken a nose dive in the modern era, although there are still remnants about which give us a glimpse into just how much of a popular drink it was.

The word honeymoon, for example, comes from a time when a newlywed couple would drink mead for a full moon cycle after their wedding, in the belief it would bring good luck and fertility.

In the Southern Hemisphere however it is a different story, and in Africa particularly the drinking of a honey-based beverage is a common occurrence. None more so than in Ethiopia which produces the most honey in Africa, around 40,000 tonnes, where the national drink, tej, is made with a mixture honey, water and the medicinal shrub called gesho.

The consumption of wine

Wine is no doubt the more popular alcoholic drink, with the global wine trade worth an estimated at around $500 billion and some 100 countries produce wine.

It could be argued though that the globalisation of wine has somewhat dulled down its cultural significance, because bluntly what tradition can a country who has just started making wine allude to?

However in countries with a long history of production like Georgia, wine is still very much a part of its heritage and society and celebrated as such.

Is mead or wine healthier?

Before we delve into this section it is sensible to iterate that both of these drinks contain alcohol and so moderate consumption is advised, however both so lay claim to some health benefits.

Mead, has been and is still used by many for its potential immune-boosting properties. This is due to the presence of honey, which can provide a natural source of antioxidants and antimicrobial benefits. 

For wine, particularly red wine, it is the presence of resveratrol, that bring about the health claims. In a number of studies resveratrol has been found to be effective in the prevention of some illnesses such cardiovascular diseases and cancer - due to its anti-inflammatory effects.

Perhaps the most famous study of all and the one to start it all was the 1980 study by French scientists called the The French paradox, in which the researchers said they observed low coronary heart disease rates in the population, despite a diet of lots cholesterol and fat i.e. from cheese.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the decision of which reigns supreme in this showdown comes down to individual tastes, the occasion and personal values. Either way I think these ancient drinks deserve us raising our glasses to toast them... let us savour the richness of their flavours, the depth of their histories and appreciate the unique essence that each brings to the table. Cheers!

*This is a great book on this subject that I would recommend if you wish to read about it more. Natural History of Wine

*There are a very very small number of grapes which do actually have red juice. These are called teinturier grapes.

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