Sunday, January 1, 2012

A True, Viking-Sytle Mead (Mjöð)

Mead. The Sacred Drink of Warriors, Vikings and the Gods. This honey wine that has been with us for millenia and is yet, out of favour, an anchronism, misrepresented, and fast becoming more and more misunderstood.

It's Honey! Its made from Honey! - 13th Warrior

Mead is sweet to semi-sweet. It is made from honey water that is fermented and aged. It can contain, fruits, blossoms, herbs and/or spices wich change the balance of sweet against bitter and/or acidic.

We know how the Romans made it. We know it's been made in China, Mesopotamia, and even Australia!?! From ancient times. Yet our ongoing knowledge of it seems to come from the sagas, those great stories of heroism and battle, of monsters and Vikings.

So, How did the Vikings make mead?

Short answer? We don't know.

There is little in the archealogical record that indicated how food or drink was made, recipes etc. by the Vikings. We can only infer from eyewitness reports,  from findings from similar cultures from around the times of the vikings, and, by drawing a long (a very long) bow from surving nordic traditions.

What we do know is that honey was scarce and valuable. We also know that mead was considered a sacred/ceremonial drink, and not used as a regular quaffer.  We know that honey was managed by specialist bee keepers and that  the must used for making mead was most likely a byproduct of honey extraction, rather than a deliberate mix in fixed ratio of honey and water, e.g. Roman mead was made with an approx. 80% honey water solution. There is some suggestion that with stronger, spiced meads, the must may have been additionally fortified with raw honey to increase the overal strength, but this is not known for sure. However, it doesn't make logical sense that efforts would be wholly put into to making approx. 1 litre of mead per harvested colony, even if beekeepers were managing  20 or more active, harvestable colonies at a time.

Viking beekeepers would build hives: known as skeps; populate them with bees and then terminate the hive population, the brood, in order to extract the honey by plunging the hive into water. The Housewife would then take the extinct hive, or extract the combs and place them into cloth to be hung to drip the honey free. The remaining comb and dross would be squeezed to extract second grade honey, and the remains then soaked in warm water to extract any last remaining honey into a watery syrup (must). The wax would then be separated from the dross and stored. The concentration of the must would vary depending on temperature of the water, time of year, and efficiency of draining and squeezing the comb. The total yield from a typical skep colony was somewhere in the vacinity of 4-6 kg with the honey must accounting for, possibly, 10-15% of the total yield.

We also guess at that the equipment typically used in Viking times for cooking by exploring burial findings, and comparing and contrasting with contemporary and later, written accounts, such as  the equipment recomended for the 'English' household: which hadn't changed in style or nature for the better part of 500 years leading up to the last century. Basically, wooden utensils for measuring, stiring, ladeling; wooden, ceramic or soapstone pots for cooking, boiling and or storage; iron cauldrons and lifting forks for bulk processing of meat; wooden, ceramic, glass or metal beakers for drinking, and ceremonial decorated horns for special occasions. Heating was accomplished by direct heating pots on a fire trench, and/or by plunging hot hearth stones/rocks into liquids.

From surviving Nordic brewing traditions we know that fermentation could be effectively carried out in covered wooden buckets, and that filtration, at least for brewing beer, was carried out using a wooden trough lined with branches and straw. Often these branches were of junper, and the straw could have been from grain, marsh reeds, or other tall, stiff grasses. Dedicated wooden fermentation buckets would naturally accumulate their own yeast colonies, to some extent somewhat like a totem stick, but perhaps less reliably so.

Finnish Bakers Yeast, also used for brewing Finish Sahti as well as for baking bread, is a special yeast that seems as though it may be directly tracable back to Viking times. It's differentiated from normal brewers yeasts in that it seems to be multi-colony rather than a monoculture. While yeast is not specifically necessary for causing honey to ferment, it self ferments, the addition of yeast to the must is not implausible.

To assist with determining when the mead was ready, raisins would be added to the ferment, which possibly may have introduced an additional source for wild yeasts. The raisins would float to the top when the mead was ready. Various additives may have also been used to modify balance the sweetness of the resulting mead and to promote fermentation. A lot has been made of the use of herbs such as juniper, hops, bog myrtle and the like. Some of these may have been used because it was expedient to filtration, others may have been used more deliberately, like the use of flowers and juices.

We know know that mead fermentation is greatly enhanced by the use of additives such as urea or potassium yet these would not have been available, as we know them, to Viking mead makers. However, boiled animal urine, a source of urea, and perhaps used as a medicinal might have found it's way into the fermentation bucket, if but a splash or two. Similarly, the leachings of ash with water, pottash, was a source of potassium and it is not unfeasable to consider that a splash or two of ash water also might have made it into the fermenter. An additional source of ash could possibly come from fire deposits on hearth stones that may have been used to directly heat water by plunging the stones into the water. Today, we might use the pure forms of such additives in a tightly controlled and regulated manner.

From all this, we can might surmise that the following process could be one that the Vikings may have used, or would very likely recognize, to make their Mead: allowing for modern minor variations.

A True, Viking-Style Mead

(For extra authenticity, these steps should be supervised and/or conducted by, 'The Lady of the House.')

1. Start with 40kg of good full, dripping, honey comb
2. Wrap in muslin cloth and set aside to drain for 12-24 hr
3. Tranfer the raw honey into a jar and set aside
4. Crush the honey comb in the cloth and squeeze well, place a heavy stone on top to press the cloth
5. In a wooden, soapstone or clay pot, heat an equal amount of fresh spring water, by weight/volume as compared with the squeezed honeycomb and cloth (approx. 5L of water,) to the temperature of a hot drink, by placing fire heated hot rocks into the water to heat the water above the wax melting point (60-65 deg. C)
6. Remove the rock(s) and suspend the cloth with squeezed honeycomb into the water. Wrap the stone or clay pot to keep warm
7. Remove the muslin cloth and spent honeycomb from the must and squeeze dry, set aside to cool then strain through cloth and straw/juniper branches to remove the hard wax
8. Innoculate the strained must must with Finnish Bakers (Sahti yeast) and cover (or just leave undisturbed until it starts to self-ferment), add a pinch of powdered urea and/or dash of hearth ash
9. When the yeast cake has collapsed - 10-40 days, carefully tranfer the must to a clean, wooden,  soapstone or clay pot, add a handful of raisins, and cover
10. Taste the mead to check the flavour balance. This can be adjusted to taste using a strong infusion of juniper, hops, and/or common guit herbs. Flowers and/or juices may also be added at this time.
11. Store in a moderately warm, dark place until the raisins float to the surface.
12. Line a clean pot with cloth and carefully pour, without splashing the mead into the cloth. Raise the cloth out of the pot to strain the mead and remove any last floaty bits.

The mead is now ready to bottle and age.


Kitchen & Food

Alcoholic Beverages


Food Additives


Until next time,

It's Your Shout, Mate!