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Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey with yeast. It is not a beer, wine, or spirit in the normal sense; it is its own class of alcohol, and many people believe it is the oldest of the alcoholic beverages. This drink has held a pivotal place in many cultures throughout its nearly 8,000 year history, and it is still enjoyed throughout the world.
The first meads were most likely made simply by taking honey and water and letting them ferment with the naturally occurring yeasts found in the honey. Evidence of early versions has been found in Egypt and on the island of Crete, and it was drunk in Greece throughout the Golden Age. In many early cultures, bee goddesses held central roles in the pantheon, and many have postulated that this was because of the intoxicating effects of mead harvested from local bee hives.
There are three main classes of mead, with many variations on each. Traditional meads are made using only honey, water, and yeast. Metheglin is made in the same way as traditional, but has various spices — such as cinnamon or vanilla — added. Melomel mead is similar, but has fruit added as well. Various types of melomel include those with mulberries, known as morat; with pears, known as perry; with apple juice, known as cyser; and with grapes, known as pyment.
Mead retained its place of honor as a highly valued drink in many cultures until the introduction of wine. As wine became a mark of wealth and prestige, many lords began turning to it instead. The peasantry continued to enjoy mead, as it could be easily made from ingredients they could get their hands on and didn’t require special storage. Over time, however, beer replaced it in the lives of the commoners, and mead became a drink set aside for special occasions.
Many people trace the English word honeymoon to a practice of fathers to supply their daughters with enough mead to last a month as a dowry. Drinking this beverage throughout the first month of marriage was meant to ensure that the firstborn child would be a male. Other holidays, such as the Yule festivals, also included drinking it as part of the festivities.
Mead is still a regular part of the Ethiopian tradition, where it is known as tej. Ethiopian mead has the bark of a plant called gesho added to it, giving it a somewhat hoppy taste and making it similar to the beer-like mead known as braggot. The Ethiopian variety varies in alcohol content and sweetness, with some being quite potent, and others, such as the variety known as berz, having a low alcohol content.
Want a great hobby? Mead making is a good choice. It's incredibly easy to get started in the hobby and it is inexpensive -- you can start brewing your first batch in a milk jug with raw honey, spring water, some raisins (for tannins and food for yeast) and oranges (for some necessary acidity). A good mead is rather like a good wine in that aging the stuff for about a year will result in a fantastic drink. The hobby appears to be growing as there are support forums all over the Internet full of people willing to share advice and help out people who are new to the hobby. I grow three gallons of the stuff for Christmas every year (a basic mead with nutmeg, cinnamon and clove added) and it is always a hit.