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Oldest Known Mead Recipe

Updated on November 3, 2014
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Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.

An Ancient Mead Recipe From 60 BCE

In my article about The History of Alcohol I proposed that mead is probably the first alcoholic beverage known to man, and I do believe this whole heartedly. One must then assume that there are mead recipes from history scattered about, but in reality there aren't many from antiquity, and none known prior to 60BC.

Now there are both beer and wine recipes from Egypt going back much much further than this, but this doesn't mean that those drinks are older than mead. There is some evidence that Egyptians drank mead as well as wine and beer, but there is even stronger and older evidence that mead existed much much earlier than any earlier references to either beer or wine. Written recipes are not our only link to the history of food and drink, there are many things that we have no evidence of that we know ancient man consumed. For instance I know of no written recipe for Wooly Mammoth steaks.

WARNING!!!

Never, ever try to reproduce this recipe using the methods described. Wild fermentation is never advisable, if you are lucky you will simply get very very ill, if not death or fates worth than death could await those foolish enough to drink a beverage fermented in the open air.

Columella

Of the Roman Empire

Columella was a Roman living around 60BCE (Before Common Era), during his life he wrote a book entitled De Re Rustica, well to be exact he wrote twelve volumes of this title, the books were advice to another Roman named Publius Silvinus. The advice ranged all over the map of Columella's vast stores of knowledge and experience. One of these volumes contained information on viniculture (the production of wine).

In Columella's advice on viniculture there is a brief paragraph which can be said is the oldest known extant mead recipe.

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rainwater, then boil spring water.

What is Mead?

1) Honey Wine.

2) Delicious.

- Ken Schramm @CompleatMeadmkr

What the heck is this mead stuff anyway? - Some links to more information about mead

Mead is a wine that is made with honey and water instead of fruit juice. Want to know more about the wonderful beverage of mead, read some links and find out all the joys of mead, Wassail and enjoy your journey.

Why is this recipe so darned dangerous?

Need more info about the risks, well I aim to please folks

I've been asked, why didn't the romans die drinking this if its so darned dangerous. Well this is a complex question really, but let me expand upon the threatening warning that I wrote above.

Reason #1 Some did die from drinking these wild fermented beverages

Reason #2 The areas predominate wild yeast is exactly the kind of yeast that is needed to produce good alcoholic beverages, or at least relatively palatable ones. It may not be able to compete with the laboratory grown yeasts we now use, but they worked. In many parts of the world however most of the wild airborne yeasts are not the proper yeasts you want and may produce the wrong kind of alcohol. There are many types of alcohol and humans can only barely handle one, all others are extremely dangerous.

Believe it or not the stagnate rainwater is the safest component of this recipe (other than the honey), while the rainwater would have gathered some rather nasty bugs sitting still for a long time those bugs will not survive the alcohol produced by the fermentation process and in fact in the end, despite there being some risk that some of the wild yeast that grows in the mead might be the kind that produces alcohol that might kill a man, the fact remained it was still safer to drink this mead on average than it was to drink most of the water available, you were statistically less likely to get seriously ill.

But What About Lambic, Isn't That Safe?

Lambic Brewing is wild fermentation done in Belgium, and yes it uses wild yeasts, and yes it is open air fermented. There are safe ways to do it, if you insist on experimenting make sure you know what you are doing first. I still maintain that using wild fermentation in North America where the yeasts are so vastly different then Eurpoean yeasts is dangerous at best. It is possible to cultivate wild yeast that does work well for brewing, but always make sure you use the strictest safety procedures to ensure quality yeast production.

© 2012 Jeff Johnston

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    • CuAllaidh profile image
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      Jeff Johnston 12 months ago from Alberta Canada

      Wild fermentation is possible, and can be done safely, that being said there are inherent dangers. As this article is introductory I didn't want to give people with no idea of the different yeast strains the idea they can just allow spontaneous fermentation to occur and it would be safe. I admit I overstated the dangers.

    • profile image

      The Jewish Monk 13 months ago

      Wild fermentation is never advisable? Tell that to the Belgians. I'm sure they could use a laugh.

    • profile image

      AJ Fisher 15 months ago

      This is silly. You're not going to die from a wild ferment. I'd like to see some real data that says otherwise

    • profile image

      Rob 2 years ago

      Okay, I know this is an old article but I gotta say, the whole boogeyman story about wild yeast is ridiculous.

      If you've ever had wine, you've almost certainly drank a wild yeast fermentation - very few vineyards, including north american ones, use added yeast. Instead, they rely on wild yeast found on the grapes to provide the bugs for fermentation.

      For that matter, so do many beer brewers. There's plenty of folks in north america that regularly harvest wild yeast, and some homebrewers have contests to see who can find the nicest strains. I've personally harvested wild yeast on several occasions, and while the flavor results have been mixed (it's certainly very easy to get unpalatable yeast this way) nobody's ever gotten sick as a result of drinking the end product.

      Obviously you have to exercise a bit of caution - if you see mold in your collector, it's best to toss it and try again, but if you just get a nice bubbling fermentation that's mold free, chances are the worst thing that's going to happen is you'll have a sour drink.

      I encourage people to experiment with wild yeast, just don't use mold. The best way to collect yeast is simply to make a half dozen mason jars half full of must or wort and covered with a light mesh to keep bugs out. Toss them all out in the yard for a few hours, then collect them, put the covers on (but don't entirely seal them unless you want them to explode) and put them somewhere warm but not hot, then wait a night or two to see what happens. Chuck any moldy ones, sniff the rest and see if you like the aromas. If you do, a quick taste will tell you if you're on track, and if you are... congrats, you found a good strain.

    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @Gypzeerose: I don't know about THE expert, but I've done a fair amount of research into it :D

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 4 years ago

      I love your mead lenses! You are obviously the expert.

    • Carashops profile image

      Cara 4 years ago

      I'm rather partial to a glass of Moniack Mead. Slàinte mhath!

    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @Anthony Altorenna: actually making mead is quite safe, its the use of wild yeast in certain parts of the world, North America for one has some pretty nasty yeasts floating around in the wild. There are safe ways to ferment with wild yeasts, but the process is more involved then I've ever bothered with due to the risks. Using cultivated yeast strains (aka commercial strains) is to me the safer and easier bet, it provides a consistent product and no risk of producing poison by mistake (assuming you follow safe brewing practices) :D

    • Anthony Altorenna profile image

      Anthony Altorenna 4 years ago from Connecticut

      Very interesting! I didn't realize that making mead was potentially hazardous -- other than consuming too much! I thought that back in old days, mead was safer than drinking much of the local water because the fermentation process.

    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @SetlikeJelly: Thanks... the beard is gone now, may yet grow it back....

      The Mead Hall is in the process of changing over to a strictly recipe site, working on that, so it's a little light on content right now.

    • SetlikeJelly profile image

      David 4 years ago from Europe

      Savage beard!!! i've made 2 successful meads (a simple honey, and a cyser) as well as adding honey to some of my homebrews from time to time. defintely going to check out the mead hall. hmmm...but i may yet try a wild yeast fermentation (so if you don't hear from me...)

    • fbcivcoming profile image

      fbcivcoming 4 years ago

      Impressive! Haven't heard of Mead until this lens. I can say I learned something new today. I've been sober 6+ years but after reading this I certainly feel like I was just an alcoholic and didn't know anything about it. Lol!!!

    • VictoriaKelley profile image

      VictoriaKelley 4 years ago

      Making mead is something my husband and I have been talking about for quite some time. Glad too see this

    • tonybonura profile image

      Tony Bonura 5 years ago from Tickfaw, Louisiana

      I have read a lot about mead in the fantasy novels that I love so much. Even Marvel comic books had references to mead way back when.

      TonyB

    • Rosetta Slone profile image

      Rosetta Slone 5 years ago from Under a coconut tree

      Mmm I love mead and history, so this lens was a treat to read.

    • profile image

      Terrie_Schultz 5 years ago

      How interesting! I love mead.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 5 years ago from Canada

      You really are a wealth of information. Reading your articles it is easy to see how knowledgeable you are on a wide variety of subjects (or you do great research). Glad you are sharing here at Squidoo as it sure makes for interesting reading with my morning coffee.

    • kevkev227 lm profile image

      kevkev227 lm 5 years ago

      This is very cool...love ancient recipes, they really help you to imagine living in those times. First time I tried mead was at Bunratty Castle in Ireland, also first time I tried snuff. Needless to say, I don't remember much of that night, except that there were bagpipes present and apparently I misplaced my jacket and cell phone :)

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 5 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      I love mead. I tasted it the first time in an open air food festival in Montreal. As for the roman recipe asking for rainwater kept for several years...thanks but no thanks!

    • SadSquid profile image

      SadSquid 5 years ago

      Very cool lens, I am originally from Poland, where mead was historically the tradiitonal drink, many historical tales have the aristocracy drinking mead in large quantities. I have tried it myself a few times.

    • profile image

      Tolemac 5 years ago

      I always enjoy reading the history of different items, so thanks for the information. I have a good friend who lives in Denmark half of the year, and he sends me various Scandinavian meads. My current favorite is Viking Blod. ;-)

    • JeanJohnson LM profile image

      JeanJohnson LM 5 years ago

      I don't plan on trying my own batch of this stuff, it's not worth dying for!

    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 5 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @greenspirit: LOL yes, but they were very serious about their mead ;).... at least you had the option of using boiled spring water.

    • greenspirit profile image

      poppy mercer 5 years ago from London

      rainwater kept for several years...the mind boggles!

    • rayray131 profile image

      rayray131 5 years ago

      Thank you for such an insiteful lens.