The New Gastronome
Where are you?
by Cameron Scott Clark
by Cameron Scott Clark
The story of mead begins, of course, with honey. As the work, art, cuisine, and lifeblood of bees, honey is an amazing display of symbiosis and transmutation. In brief, bees ingest the nectar of their chosen flower into a specialized stomach named, aptly, the honey stomach. Within the honey stomach sit enzymes and other compounds that begin to cleave the long-chain sugars of nectar into their simpler and more easily-digestible components, glucose and fructose. Once filled to capacity (about half of their body weight), the bees return to the hive to transfer the contents of their honey stomachs to “home” bees, who will continue to ingest, regurgitate, and dehydrate the nectar until it reaches about 70% water content, at which point it is stored in honeycombs. But 70% is still enough water for potentially toxic yeasts and bacteria to survive, so the bees begin a delicate dance of heating and evaporative cooling within the hive to extract even more moisture from the young honey, ultimately bringing it down to between 15.5-18%. This is the key to honey’s millennia-long shelf life: a low enough water content that no bacteria, yeast, or other organisms can survive within it. As a result, the nectar is now a rich, concentrated, and sterile food source that will sustain the colony through dry spells and a long winter. So long as it doesn’t catch the wandering eye of a clever ape…
Our species has been keenly aware of honey for millennia, if not our entire history. Its glistening sweetness would be irresistible to any hungry gatherer, and soon thereafter would be discovered its health benefits, preservative qualities, and perhaps its most attractive attribute: the ability to ferment and excite the minds of its consumers. Here enters the star of our show: mead. When honey’s water content is raised, life regains its foothold, and the sugars become a rich food source for bacteria and yeasts. Left alone for a few days or weeks, honey ferments into mead. It is likely that early humans stumbled upon the sweet, bubbly beverage by accident and quickly adopted it as their first domesticated alcoholic intoxicant. From there, it swept like wildfire through every culture that it touched. Honey ferments poorly on its own due to its low nutrient content to feed its microbial colonies, so brewers devised myriad ways to give it some extra oomph. A variety of mead spinoffs, such as honey wine (mead + wine), melomel (mead + non-grape fruits), and metheglyn (mead + herbs and spices), cropped up and adorn historical writings. Records show that many of our earliest and greatest civilizations have not only utilized honey but revered it as a gift of the gods and a direct connection to the divine. It was used by the Maya in rituals, in Ancient Greece and Rome in admixtures with wine and other herbs, and most famously among the Nords as a religious rite and celebratory icon. It was the hottest party favor in the burgeoning cultures of the world for millennia. And yet, around the 15th century, the trend died, and other alcoholic beverages stepped onto the stage. Today we are seeing a revival of old alcohol traditions as the cultural trends toward heritage-style drinks like craft beer and natural wines. So where is mead, and why has it yet to make its revival?
The first and most apparent reason for mead’s low production is economic. First off is the plain cost of honey, especially in bulk. Commercial mead production works on the order of hundreds of gallons. Knowing that a single bee produces 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime, we can appreciate that a single jar of honey is a massive communal undertaking by the bees and beekeepers, and so deserves a high price. Commercial mead production works on the order of hundreds of gallons per batch, requiring a large amount of honey. With a bulk price point of 1.50-5 Euro/kg of honey (depending on source, quality, etc.), the initial costs for a batch of mead are quite high. This cost can only be made up on the back end as a highly-priced bottle, significantly shrinking the pool of potential consumers.
Surprisingly, cultural barriers are perhaps even more powerful than economic ones. Elisia Menduni of Mieli Thun, a renowned nomadic beekeeping company in Italy, believes that the real limit on the modern craft mead industry is “not on the producer side, but on the consumer side.” Despite its rich history and intimate ties with cultures past, mead has largely been forgotten on the global stage. There still remain some strong mead traditions, such as in Ethiopia with its cultural drink Tej and in northern Europe, where the mead tradition has primarily been kept alive through the past centuries in monasteries. But for most of the world, the drinking culture has largely been subsumed by beer and wine, and the old mead heritage has been forgotten. Practically speaking, this makes sense. Alcohol has long been the vice of the masses, and said masses would have made use of the naturally abundant sources of sugar found in their surroundings and produced in their local agricultural economies. Up until the middle of the 2nd millennium, honey was the most abundant source of sugar for European cultures. But as the Columbian Exchange was established, 2 important agricultural products made their way back from the Americas that imprinted heavily upon European cultures: sugar cane and potatoes. Throughout the continent, relatively abundant sugar became the dominant sweetener over labor-intensive and low-yielding honey. In the north, potatoes became a major staple crop alongside grain. Therefore, these major sources of starch became the primary ingredients for alcoholic beverages in the forms of vodka and beer, respectively. In the warmer southern climates where grapes grew favorably, wine was and still is largely preferred. Historically, mead was used up and down the continent and often as an admixture to beer or wine. But this confluence of agricultural forces from the Americas in the 15th century diluted honey’s salience in the marketplace and the common consciousness, leaving Europe with amnesia around mead that remains to this day.
So why ought we reconsider mead? Let’s begin with the most obvious: it is delicious. Those of us who have come across mead have most likely encountered it as thick, sweet, and passito-esque. Maybe a sip or two is yummy, but a whole glass, let alone several, seems a serious undertaking and like a guaranteed headache in the morning. Yes, this format of mead exists, but to imagine mead in this way is to imagine that all wine is like passito. There is a vast world of styles and admixture recipes that showcase the honey beverage as thin, thick, dry, sweet, light, alcoholic, and everywhere in between. It can be flavored with fruits, spiced, or combined as a complement with other drinks. It is a gastronomic world as diverse as beer or wine, within which there is a flavor for everyone.
Further along this line of sensory interest is the potential for terroir expression in mead. Terroir is the hottest buzzword in the wine scene right now. A French word that has now escaped to global usage, it refers to the wholly unique features of a specific place: its geological underpinnings, soil composition, topography, native plant and animal varieties, climatic conditions, sun exposure, etc. It is the ecological essence of a place and is responsible for the particularities of a wine produced in Burgundy relative to a wine produced in Piemonte. Honey, and subsequently mead, take terroir expression to another level. Though grapes have an amazing ability to express place through their flavors, they are still most often non-native plants that are specifically cultivated in a place separate from their origin Honey is special because it is not the fruit of a single plant or a few plants but the result of a complex interaction between two branches of the tree of life – the link between plant and animal. And ideally, the plants involved are those that are native to a particular ecosystem at a very particular time of year. An amazing fact about bees is that, even when presented with an array of flowers, they hone in on that which is in peak bloom and do not move on until that particular nectar stock is sucked dry. Monofloral honey, then, is the snapshot of a single flower in peak bloom at a very specific time and place on earth. Though single-origin honeys are prized and limited in quantity, there is plenty of room for creative combination and expression. For example, dandelion honey sourced from many regions can be combined to paint a larger picture of a flower’s essence. Alternatively, the flowers of a single pasture over the course of a year can be mixed to paint a gustatory picture of a place through its seasons. There is immense space for artistic and gastronomic experimentation in honey and mead production, with a tie to terroir unrivaled in the drinks space.
Beyond the hedonistic sensory pleasure of mead is the obvious ecological tie of honey to land. We know well that bees are amazing pollinators and are a critical feature for any healthy pasture ecosystem. But today, bees face a number of challenges that seriously threaten their populations globally. Thanks to human industrial activities, habitat loss, disease, insecticides, air pollution, and even microplastics are decimating global bee numbers. As an illustration, the keepers of Miele Thun report a 20% reduction in honey production year-to-year. Bleakly, they don’t believe they will have honey left to sell by the year 2030. To support the mead industry is to support beekeepers by funding their bee stewardship and encouraging more people to enter the profession. Of course, as with all other forms of agriculture, producers can have more or less ecologically-respectful approaches, and honey quality and purity can vary drastically. Hence a craft, quality-focused mead industry could be a boon to small beekeepers who care for the well-being of their bees and create unique, terroir-driven honeys. Just as the growth of the natural wine industry has brought more small, artisan grape growers and wine-makers into the scene, an influx of commercial interest in craft mead could support local, ecologically-minded beekeepers.
Though there are clear causes for our modern amnesia regarding mead, there is no good reason our forgetfulness should continue any longer. Honey is an incredibly rich and complex food product, the flavors of which can be transmuted through fermentation to express variety and depth in a captivating alcoholic beverage. A whole new gastronomic world awaits through mead: different meads for different times of day, myriad food pairing possibilities, mead bars, and even mead sommeliers! The only thing keeping it off of our shelves is ourselves and our own lack of familiarity. So next time you’re out for a pint in London or find yourself at a bar in Brussels, I challenge you to sacrifice a glass of beer for a glass of mead. Let it sweep you back through the hands of the beekeeper, the honey stomach of the bee, and the sweet-smelling alpine pasture in springtime, to the revered pastime of our ancestors.
Chrisman, J. (2019, April 25). How the world’s oldest booze is finally becoming cool. Thrillist. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from shorturl.at/xzXZ0
Edo, C., Fernández-Alba, A. R., Vejsnæs, F., van der Steen, J. J. M., Fernández-Piñas, F., & Rosal, R. (2021). Honeybees as active samplers for microplastics. Science of The Total Environment, 767. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.144481
Ghosh, S., Jeon, H., & Jung, C. (2020). Foraging behaviour and preference of pollen sources by honey bee (apis mellifera) relative to protein contents. Journal of Ecology and Environment, 44(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41610-020-0149-9
Goulson, D., Nicholls, E., Botías, C., & Rotheray, E. L. (2015). Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers. Science, 347(6229). https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1255957
Karlsson, T., & Simpura, J. (2001). Changes in living conditions and their links to alcohol consumption and drinking patterns in 16 European countries, 1950 to 2000. Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 18(1), 82–99. shorturl.at/mwMU1
Long, L. M. (2017). Honey: A Global History. Reaktion Books.
Products archive. Dutch Gold Honey. (2018, June 18). Retrieved March 20, 2023,
Somerson, M. (2014, August 31). How bees make honey is complex process. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from shorturl.at/fqrBC
The opinions expressed in the articles of this magazine do not necessarily represent the views of
The New Gastronome and The University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo.
Photos ©Aarón Gómez Figueroa.