Photo: Bruce Murray
The world’s oldest drink is more fashionable than ever
You may not have tried mead, but you’ve likely heard about it in movies and books. It’s what the Vikings have in their giant mugs, what people are sipping at Renaissance fairs, and what guests toast with at medieval weddings. Lords and ladies drank it. The Greeks called it “the drink of the gods.”
A fermented beverage made with honey, mead is an ancient drink dating back millennia. Beer, wine, and spirits have long eclipsed it, but mead is coming back and growing in popularity.
“When people started watching shows like Game of Thrones, mead became more known to the general public,” says Nathaniel Jarvis, who along with his brother Jack, opened Ursan Meadery in New Ross five years ago. “Since then, in Nova Scotia anyway, we’ve had several other meaderies open locally, which has been great.”
Jarvis says the idea to make mead came to his brother one night after, you guessed it, a night of drinking.
“It was New Year’s Day, and he said to me, ‘That’s it, we should have a go at making mead,’” says Jarvis. “He jumped right in and started studying up on it.”
Mead has always been common in the U.K. — particularly where the Jarvis family is originally from in Plymouth, southwest England — and the brothers were keen to bring their own version to Canada.
They started offering three types: sweet, blueberry, and baklava (spiced). They later added seasonal meads, using local peaches and apples, and then short meads, which mature quicker and are lighter and drier.
Common mead varieties
- Melomel: Mead with fruit added
- Hydromel: A weak or watered-down mead
- Metheglin: Mead with spices
- Sparkling mead: A carbonated mead, like sparkling wine (typically achieved by adding a small amount of honey or sugar just before the mead is bottled)
- Cyser: Mead fermented with apple juice instead of water
- Mulled mead: Mead that is heated before drinking (usually spiced)
While afire worldwide, mead is still in an introductory stage here in Nova Scotia. To spread the word, Jarvis attends farmers markets, caters to weddings, and pours at beer festivals.
“Before the pandemic hit, we had a fantastic couple of beer fests,” he says. “We made it a little bit theatrical. We dressed up in old linen shirts and our booth was like an old-style trading stall. We had lines of people waiting to try it. It was a fantastic experience.”
Ursan Meadery is on Jarvis’s parents’ farm. When the pandemic started, business dipped, so they launched an on-site store.
“We really wanted people to be able to come out to the location and see what we’re doing and try the different products we offer,” says Jarvis. His mother Helen runs the store. The mead is also available by delivery and occasionally sells at NSLC.
He says one of the things that fascinates him most about mead is that it’s hyper-local. Ursan’s honey is all from the Annapolis Valley. The bees primarily pollinate blueberry fields and apple orchards, so the honey is light with a floral finish.
“The way we’re making mead could be the same way as someone making it in the U.K. or Poland or in the U.S., but if you have a different honey, you’re going to end up with a different product,” he explains.
The growing local mead industry isn’t just about the meaderies. Other businesses are seeing the potential as well. Places like New Scotland Brewing Co. in Dartmouth, Chain Yard Urban Cidery in Halifax (offering a mead-cider blend), Tanner & Co. Brewing in Chester Basin, and Planters Ridge winery in Port Williams, which sells a sparkling mead.
Wendy Collins, retail and hospitality manager at Planters Ridge, says mead just makes sense for them.
“We had imported these large tanks from Germany — which was a big investment — but they were only being used to harvest grapes once a year,” she explains. “We had to think of some creative, supplemental ways to get more use out of them. Honey was something we could get year-round from a local beekeeper, so it seemed like a perfect fit.”
Also, most of their wines are on the drier side, so mead lets them offer a sweeter option.
In addition to the sparkling mead, Planters Ridge offers a still mead called Valley Nectar, and Pink Ambrosia, tasting of cherry pie and wildflower honey.
“A lot of people associate it with beer,” says Collins. “I think they’re picturing medieval taverns and people drinking mugs of it. They know it’s ancient, but that’s about it. Once we present it to them, they become interested.”
She says people often assume it’s going to be thick, syrupy, and cloying, and are pleasantly surprised. “It’s quite light and delicate,” she adds.
“Mead is such a fun product to try and to talk about,” says Collins. “It has so much history, as it’s the oldest form of alcohol known to man.”
- Mead dates as far back as 7000 BCE in northern China, where pottery was found containing chemicals consistent with honey, rice, and organic compounds linked to fermentation.
- The term honeymoon is said to come from mead. In medieval times, it was common for a couple to be gifted mead as a wedding present. They had until their first full moon cycle together (a month) to consume the mead, which would provide increased fertility to conceive a child.
- In Norse mythology, mead was said to be created by mixing the blood of a wise man named Kvasir with honey. Whoever drank it would turn into a poet or scholar. It became known as the Mead of Poetry.
- Ancient cultures often associated mead with health and vitality. It was allegedly given to Greek warriors after a fight to help heal injuries.
- A recent resurgence in mead’s popularity is sometimes attributed to Game of Thrones, but it also existed in other literature, including the Lord of the Rings. Mead is, apparently, one of Middle-earth’s favourite drinks.