My glorious Citizens! It is with great satisfaction that I share with TFD Nation that the Wazirzada of Workaholism – YOUR TFD! – is at long, LONG last on vacation! It has been several years since I have done so, but as of 4 days ago I am in the magnificent country of Iceland until August 3! The unmatched home of fire and ice as one is My spiritual homeland and while I will be working a FEW days (I have clients in Iceland I haven’t seen since before the pandemic!) I plan to take some well-deserved time-off as well.
To celebrate My triumphant return to the land of the modern Viking, I have decided to share a rare ‘homebrew’ recipe – in this case, for making your own ancient Norse-style mead, the acclaimed honey wine that was beloved by Vikings across Scandinavia as well as in Iceland! The simplest form of this drink is a mixture of water, honey and yeast. Once fermented, it’s delicious. Mead, or mjöður (pronounced meeohthur) in Icelandic, is said to have been enjoyed by gods, royalty, warriors, giants, and the heroes of old as noted in the acclaimed Icelandic sagas! <August 28, 2021 update – I just discovered there is an intriguing Jewish history to mead making in Europe, as noted in this article!>
Here’s an interesting factoid related to mead: ever heard the word ‘honeymoon’? Of course you have. The word’s origin comes from the Norse custom of presenting a newly wed bride and groom with enough mead to last for one ‘moon’, and that the couple drinking that mead after the nuptials would be drunk/horny enough during the month after their vows to procreate the family line as soon as possible! So, there is a little historic etymology for you, Citizen!
Since home brewing requires a level of deep familiarity with the black arts of fermentation, I shall respectfully call on My dear friend and proud Icelandic Texan Brent Skarðaborg. Brent is an expert mead maker and has most graciously agreed to share his hard-won techniques with TFD Nation! <TFD update 9/15/21 – Brent passed away today due to COVID-19 – rest well and easy, my Brother – you will be sorely missed.>
First however – THE HISTORY!
As noted in this fascinating (and excerpted) scholarly article by Megan Arnott:
In Old Norse literature men and gods alike regularly consume mead. For example in Lokasenna, or Loki’s flyting, Loki asks the other Norse Gods specifically for some of their mead.
In the kings’ saga Heimskringla, Haraldr the fair-haired is drinking mead when he falls in love with Sneofrithr. In the next chapter he looks around at the mead that has been served and says: “Mjök eru mínir rekkar/til mjöðgjarnir fornir/ ok hér komnir, hárir” [I find my old hoary henchmen are ever far too fond, of the mead cups] (Heimskringla 80-81).
These texts depict scenes across Scandinavia and into the mythical realm of the Gods, but they are, by and large, written in Iceland. However, unlike other contemporary Scandinavian countries or settlements, there is a lot complicating the idea that the Viking Age, or even medieval Icelanders, were regularly consuming mead.
For instance, Beowulf’s depiction of mead is unproblematic because both the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes were known to have mead and honey production. Due to the unreliability of sources as historical documents, and the lack of archaeology supporting conclusions one way or another (and I would seriously love to hear if I’ve missed something, especially archaeologically), this paper can only definitively show that the issue is complex, something audiences already know.
However, what an interdisciplinary look at the evidence suggests is that the consumption of mead in Iceland is rare and exotic, and that mead drinking in Icelandic sources depicting the Viking Age shows the wealth and power of those who can afford the beverage. Mead (Old Norse mjöðr) is the oldest alcoholic beverage (Ward 4). According to both Robert Gayre and Eva Crane the drink can be created spontaneously, without any brewing. Raw or unpasteurized honey often contains the necessary wild yeasts or bacteria for fermentation (Gayre 174).
This is especially true for moist or diluted honeys. Happening on a mixture of honey and rain water may have created the necessary conditions for mead (Crane 502). Archaeology from the grave of a girl at Egtved in Jutland showed that honey-based drinks were enjoyed in Denmark as early as 1500 BCE (Crane 516).
As mentioned earlier, mead is a conspicuous part of texts such as both the Prose and Poetic Edda. Eva Crane has this to say about the discrepancy between the agriculture and the references to mead:
Iceland was probably settled between AD 870 and 930, by Vikings who came mainly from Norway and from Viking settlements in Britain and Ireland. The Poetic Edda, collected in the 1200s, often mentions mead; for instance, brave Viking men who died in battle were believed to feast afterwards in Valhalla, drinking mead. The poems are thought to reach back in the roots of Germanic mythology and legend (Jones, 1968), and these may perhaps be the source of the references to mead” (Crane 517).
This is a distinct possibility, though it should be pointed out this does not mean that Icelanders do not know what mead is. Skáldskaparmál , also called The Language of Poetry, tells us both about how Óðinn came by the mead of poetry and also how the mead is made; Kvasir, the god of wisdom created from the spittle of gods, is killed by the dwarves Fjallar and Gallar, who drain his blood into three vessels.
Then “[þ]eir blendu hunangi við blóðit, ok varð þar af mjöðr sá, er hverr, era af drekkr, verðr skáld” [they blended honey with the blood, and there it became such of a mead, which each, when he drinks of it, becomes a poet] (Heimskringla.no). Literary references this paper will refer to later will demonstrate that Icelandic authors have an understanding of mead as a honey fermented beverage. Therefore, if Icelanders know what mead is, it does not necessarily have to be an older tradition that the Icelanders are remembering, though it could be.
But the Eddas, where this information is found, are not depictions of how the Icelanders saw themselves. For that we turn to the Islendingasögur or Sagas of Icelanders. While these cannot be taken as indisputable history, they are telling Icelanders stories of their own ancestors and so they invoke at least a picture of Icelanders’ history.
If there is mead in early Iceland it is expensive and quite rare. Mead being an expensive, exotic drink fits with it being the drink of the gods. It is the drink of ancient ancestors, and of foreign kings. It is the drink of the Vikings of popular culture, thanks to medieval sources like Beowulf and the myth of the mead of poetry. But yet I have explored here the apparent strange disconnect between the drinking of mead and the Icelanders, who, despite being separated from this major part of the Viking drinking culture, have left us what are still some of the best literary images of it.
As further expounded on the intriguing site medievalmeadandbeer.com:
Anyone thinking of Vikings also thinks of mead, the two seem inextricably linked. It should seem surprising to then find that there was basically no local honey production in Norway and most of Sweden before the middle of the 18th century, and even after, access to honey was extremely limited. Maybe the reason mead is mentioned so often in the Saga’s is because it was such a rarity – was it truly only a drink for kings and the Gods?
The earliest recorded account of the production of mead in connection with the Northern lands is in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern People – 1555) by Olaus Magnus – Archbishop-in-exile of Uppsala, as at that time Sweden was not Catholic anymore. During his exile Olaus Magnus wrote extensively about his home lands, including a chapter with instructions on making mead. He then added two chapters on making Polish, Lithuanian and Goth mead.
As this broadly overlaps with the trading areas of the Viking era one wonders if most of the mead consumed by the Vikings was imported from down south, way down south. Another early cookbook with mead recipes of the Scandinavian region is the Danish Kogebog (1616), which literally means cookbook. It includes two chapters on mead, with much practical information including which herbs work well to spice the mead, and the numerous health benefits of mead.
It is clear mead was made by the Danish, but then, even though Denmark is part of Scandinavia it is geographically connected to Germany, not the Scandinavian peninsula, and much more southern and more hospitable to beekeeping.
From Chapter 23 of Olaus Magnus: “On the voluntary drowning of King Hunding in mead or hydromel.”
Lastly, I shall further quote from this exceptional article on the subject I found at warontherocks.com:
The Vikings had another advantage on their side, a powerful drink deeply integrated into their religious and cultural life: mead. According to Viking legend, mead originated when two warring factions of gods signed a peace treaty and spit into a bowl to seal the agreement. From the bowl was born Kvasir, the wisest of all men. Kvasir met his death at the hands of a pair of dwarves, who collected his blood, also known as the “Mead of Poetry.”
The mead passed from the dwarves to a giant. When Odin, the Norse god, learned that a giant held the mead, he ventured down to the giant’s lair, seduced his wife, and obtained the mead by transforming into an eagle and swallowing it. Norse legend also states that when warriors arrive at Valhalla in the afterlife, they are rewarded with a draught of mead served by beautiful maidens.
Mead was also a prominent cultural fixture. The Norse served mead during their three largest feasts: the celebration of the harvest, mid-winter, and mid-summer. Feasts were also held to commemorate life events such as a wake, christening, or even a barn-raising. The celebration and consumption of mead was a way to both commune with the gods and build bonds among the community.
The serving of mead itself was highly ritualized, with the wife of the king or chieftain serving mead first to the king, and then to the rest of his war party in order of social rank and precedence. Norse drank their mead from intricate drinking horns or in elaborately decorated silver cups.
Mead is a simple beverage brewed with honey, water, and yeast. Many regard it as the oldest alcoholic drink known to man, and it has also gone by the names honey wine, ambrosia, or nectar. The drink is ancient in origin, and unique recipes can be found in Poland, Nepal, Croatia, England, the Scandinavian countries, Ethiopia, Greece and Mexico.
Based on these historical primary texts, it is painfully clear that mead was by no means a common Viking tipple – quite the opposite, in fact! That said, I now wish to share a mead recipe flavored with not just honey, but also herbs, spices and fruit juice that TFD can personally attest is well and worthy of the heroes of Valhalla! The use of fruit juice, herbs and spices along with honey technically means my mead recipe is in actuality a metheglin (the proper term for the above, adopted from Old English) but there is historic precedent that a similar beverage was enjoyed by the Vikings as well!
As it happens, just yesterday I visited a modern recreation of an excavated Viking longhouse in Þjóðveldisbærinn Stöng and saw ample evidence of just how important both drinking and wild herb usage was to these ancient Norsemen!
My research has revealed to me that a fairly wide range of herbs and spices were used by the Vikings in their meads – including some very surprising ones from Africa and Asia thanks to their raiding and trading ways! These included juniper, cumin, chamomile, ginger, apple, grains of paradise, and lingonberry juice. My mead-making buddy also uses lavender in his mead recipe and SWEARS by it, so I’ll take My lead from him and include it, even if it isn’t ‘authentic’.
To make homebrew of any form, you will need the proper tools to do so – according to Brent, these are all available for a total of under $60 and include:
- 1 gallon carboy with airlock
- Pyrex measuring cup
- Star San brewing cleaner
- A couple of funnels
- 1 spray bottle
- Plastic measuring cylinder
You can watch a very informative video of Brent making his version of mead here:
Unlike most homebrew recipes, this doesn’t require making a huge amount of mead or fermenting it for months – thanks to Brent’s discovery of using a Norwegian farmhouse yeast known as kveik with potent fermentation properties, you can make mead in less than a week! Buy the kveik from here. Lastly, you will of course wish to quaff your epic mead from an equally epic drinking horn – these are top-quality!
My Citizens – the last year (who am I kidding – the last few years) have weighed heavily on the troubled brow of your beloved Leader – I am hopeful time in My soul’s paradise shall enable Me to once more rise like a Phoenix from the fiery crater of Fagradalsfjall volcano!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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