The ancient Viking holiday of Winternight is similar to Mardi Gras. Feasting and binge-drinking are common, morals are relaxed, women of negotiable affection are on the prowl and sometimes you just chill all night on a barrow-mound hoping to be granted shamanic powers by your ancestors.
As the Viking holiday fast approaches, you might find yourself wanting to honor these seafaring bad-asses, but pillaging the British countryside just seems like too much hassle. Fear not! There is a Viking tradition almost as fun as sowing terror into the hearts of Saxon pansies – making your very own Viking beverage of choice, mead.
Mead, the original “nectar of the gods,” is the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man and was likely discovered thousands of years before the invention of the wheel, around 7,000 BC. Mead can occur naturally when honey is mixed with water and yeast. Scholars believe that during the Stone Age mead naturally occurred when honey became wet from rain, and yeast in the air settled into the mixture. Someone decided to have a chug and became the world’s first drunk and humanity was forever changed. Famed anthropologist (and jeans enthusiast) Claude Lévi-Strauss has made the argument that the discovery of mead moved civilization “from nature to culture.”
While it might be debatable how important of a cultural steppingstone mead was, one thing is certain: homemade mead packs a punch (usually around 12-15 percent alcohol by volume). Much easier than making home-brewed beer, mead requires just a few simple ingredients and not much equipment to make.
Mead made easy
1 gallon jug of water (room temperature)
3 pounds of unprocessed honey
1 balloon with a mouth wide enough to cover the jug of water
1 package of yeast for brewing; Fleishmann’s is a good brand (can be bought at any home-brew store and many grocery stores)
1. First make sure you are working in a clean and sterile environment. You don’t want anything living to get into your mix, take over your ferment and kill the yeast you want to grow.
2. Pour half the water from the jug into a clean and sterile container. Add the honey and yeast into the jug and top it off with the water you poured into the container. If you are having trouble pouring the honey, let it sit in a sink full of warm water to soften it up so it is easier to pour.
3. Re-seal the jug and shake vigorously. Just shake the hell out of it.
4. When the ingredients are evenly mixed, remove the cap and place the balloon over the mouth of the jug. Poke a very small hole in the balloon using a pin. This will allow gases to escape the mixture without allowing in any contaminates. Make sure the balloon is sealed around the mouth of the jug tightly. Use rubber bands to keep it tight, if needed. Over the next 24 hours the balloon will slowly inflate. If it looks like it is inflating to the point where it will pop off, poke another hole in it, but be careful not to ruin it. It’s usually a disaster if your rubber flies off or breaks in the middle of a good time.
5. When you feel comfortable that the structural integrity of your balloon will hold, place the the jug in a relatively cool and dry place that will stay at a temperature of around 70-75 degrees.
6. The fermentation process will take about two to three weeks. The balloon will go limp at the end of fermentation.
7. At this point a real viking would just chug the jug, but if you want your mead to be tasty it’s best to let it sit for another six weeks. Some mead aficionados suggest letting it sit for up to six months. Also, if you want more flavor, many different fruits can be added with the honey and yeast in step one. If you add fruit the mixture technically becomes a melomel, rather than mead. Try a few batches with different fruit combinations; oranges and raisins are popular choices. If you add fruit be sure to strain the mix before drinking.
Different varieties of mead
Adding different ingredients to the fermentation process will create a different flavor that might be more to your liking than traditional mead. Currently the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau allows you to make 100 gallons of mead for personal consumption (not to be sold, you must drink all 100 gallons!) per single adult residence and 200 gallons for a dual-adult residence, so feel free to make numerous batches at once and experiment with these variations.
Melomel: As stated above, melomel is a mead variation where fruit is added to the mix. Nearly any fruit can be used, even kumquats. Most fresh fruits contain water and sugars, so the alcohol by volume will be lower in melomel than traditional mead.
Pyment: Pyment is similar to melomel in that is uses fruit, however, only red or white wine grapes should be used for this variation. Historically, pyment was just wine with honey added for sweetness.
Cyser: Cyser is also a form of melomel that uses some form of apple derivative, most commonly apple cider.
Hippocras: During the late 15th century, parts of Europe experienced a honey shortage so grapes and spices (often cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg) were added to the mix so as to use less honey.This method was thought to be invented much earlier by the Greek physician Hippocrates, hence the name. Hippocrates is widely regarded as the father of preventative medicine, so we can only assume that drinking vast quantities of hippocras is great for your health.
Capscumel: This variation uses chili peppers. Yes it will be very hot to drink when completed. I have only drank this variation once and it ruined the taste of anything else I tried to drink that evening. An acquired taste, I suppose.
These are just a few of numerous kinds of mead that you can easily brew at home. I suggest making numerous batches of mead at once and experimenting with the different varieties. Don’t get discouraged if your first batches don’t turn out perfect. If you are really gung-ho about mead-making pick up The Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm. Despite spelling “complete” all douschified, Schramm provides excellent commentary on the importance of the ingredients going into your mead. He also provides some top-notch recipes, much more complex (and expensive to produce) than the one I provided you with. Now that you have everything needed to make mead it’s time to blast Zepplin’s Immigrant Song on the record player, don your Viking helmet, imbibe in your freshly made mead and let your inner berserker run wild. Enjoy!
By: James Laber