Back in the days of yore, before craft beer wars and Chinese wine conglomerates, there was mead.
The earliest references to mead, an alcoholic fermented honey beverage, come from the hymns of Rigveda, according to the American Mead Makers Association, a sacred Hindu text dating somewhere between 4000 and 1500 BC. Mead was the drink of deities. ”God, as our Priest, be thou the first to drink it: We give thee of the mead to make thee joyful.”
Mead has been traced to ancient Egypt, ancient China, ancient Greece, and ancient Rome—to name just a few cultures that claim mead as part of their heritage—but it is most commonly associated with the European Middle Ages. The “mead hall” figures prominently in Beowulf, the epic Old English poem, dating between the 8th and 11th centuries, and considered by some to be the most important work of English literature ever. (It is also mentioned, centuries later, in the actual most important work of English literature ever, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.)
The word “honeymoon,” according to the National Honey Board, is actually a reference to the practice of newlyweds drinking mead, believed to be an aphrodisiac, for a month following the wedding. (The term does have other origin stories, however.)
At some point mead was nicknamed the “nectar of the gods.”
But, alas! The gods are fickle and mead later fell out favor as sugar replaced honey as the primary sweetener. Wine and beer pushed it further out of its domination of the alcoholic beverage market.
That is, until recently. In 2008, Slate asked, Is mead poised for a comeback? In 2010, the Washington Times answered in the affirmative.
So do the numbers. By every measure thus far, mead’s popularity is still rising. In 2008, the first year of The Mazer Cup International Mead Competition, there were approximately 200 home entries and 125 commercial entries, President Pete Bakulic told Quartz. In 2015, there were 400 home entries and 350 on the commercial side.
In its 2nd Annual Mead Industry Report (p.30), the American Mead Makers Association says that while the industry is still small, it is growing very quickly. Though the report is based on responses from only 52 commercial meaderies, the data still provides the best insights available into the growth of the fledgling industry.
The report found that in 2013, sales of mead went up 32% from the year before. In 2014, that number went up again to 42%. To put that in perspective, that same year, wine sales were up 6.3%, according to the Silicon Valley Bank Wine Report (p.37). But the real story, according to the report, is the increase in mead production.
Production at the 52 responding meaderies went up 128% between 2013 and 2014. As the report says, “That is remarkable.”
Leading mead makers offer several explanations for mead’s lasting resurgence. For one, it simply tastes better than it used to. “Mead in the modern era is very different and crafty,” says Bakulic. Modern meads are “nothing like past meads,” says Michael Fairbrother, President of the American Mead Makers Association (and founder and head mead maker at Moonlight Meadery in New Hampshire), noting the new “diversity of choices and expressive flavors.”
And then there’s the Game of Thrones effect. Fairbrother says there is definitely a connection between mead’s current popularity and the HBO television fantasy series, set in the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos, similar to Medieval Western Europe. Fairbrother says he was “tickled to death when Game of Thrones came out.”