Many people have never even heard of mead so I will quickly get the obligatory introduction of what it even is out of the way. Mead, also known as honey wine is the oldest fermented drink in the world, in it’s most basic form it is essentially honey, water and yeast. It can be dry or sweet and can be plain or flavoured with fruits, spices etc.
I’m a beekeeper and mead-maker not a historian, but researching this article I believe the points I am about to raise are logical. In my opinion, there are three main reasons mead lost out to wine in popularity over the past few hundred years and they are:
- Cost/Availability of honey
- Difficulty in production
Honey was not always the mass-produced commodity that anyone can obtain from the supermarket relatively cheaply. Hundreds of years ago it was a luxury item. It’s only relatively modern history (the past 300 years), that simple ingredients that are so cheap today like salt, sugar, tea and spices were luxury items. Honey would have also fallen into this category.
Even today it is more expensive to produce the honey for a litre of mead than it is to produce the grapes for a litre of wine. Even a mead that is mass-produced and therefore has a low cost per bottle you will never see for less than $18 a bottle. In comparison, you can get bottles of wine for $5-$10. Admittedly a $5 wine is usually pretty bad but they exist, a $5 bottle of mead though is just not possible.
When I talk about culture playing a part in wine’s popularity, I am referring to England’s cultural history. Like it or not, England’s colonial endeavours had spread their rule and culture to most of the planet so if at some point in history grape wine replaced mead in England, so too will it spread. I acknowledge there are still a few countries in the world today that mead is a bigger part of their lives than here in Australia (Poland for example) but even in those countries when surveyed fewer than 10% of the population had drunk mead in the past year.
Without a detailed history lesson, England has been conquered by many different cultures over the years, Celtic, Romans, Anglo-Saxons (basically Vikings and Germanic tribes), Normans. It is around 1066 when Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons that mead began losing popularity amongst the wealthy. Mead was seen as the drink of those barbarians that were previously in charge, wine being much more sophisticated and elite.
Today you will be hard-pressed to find a Meadery that does not use Viking imagery or naming to appeal to fans/believers of Norse mythology, which make up a large percentage of the customer base. I lack the knowledge to comment on whether Viking branding is doing a service or disservice to mead becoming popular again in the long run.
Difficulty to Manufacture Mead
Honey is not easy to ferment, to put it simply, it’s not yeast’s favourite food. There are only a few yeasts that are commercially viable to make a nice tasting mead and even they are often difficult to manage, requiring very specific temperature ranges and nutrient additions.
If not carefully prepared these mead yeasts can also be outclassed by wild yeasts in honey (honey is naturally anti-biotic due in part to low water content however when water is added to the mix those previously dormant feral yeasts will have a field day) If this happens the batch is soured. It requires almost hospital levels of hygiene.
Without modern yeasts, nutrients, sanitisers and other winemaking equipment, I expect making a good mead throughout history would have been difficult in comparison to the cheaper raw materials like wine or beer.
In today’s world, anything can become popular if enough money is thrown into advertising. Through lack of promotion Mead has got to a point where most people have never heard of it or if they have heard of it in video games or TV think it’s something not available anymore.
That is changing beginning to change though. In 2003 there were only 30 meaderies in the USA. According to a 2019 article, there were around 500 active meaderies in the USA with license approvals pending for an additional 200. In 2021 I would expect there would be a minimum of 700 in the USA. In Australia, there are not many more than 20 meaderies, so Australia is where the USA was 20 years ago. The rapid rise could be in part due to media such as Game of Throne, video games, however, I think it more likely to be riding on the coattails of the craft beer boom. Younger people particularly are wanting to try new things.
Hopefully it will continue to grow and more people can try this unique drink.