Do you fancy trying some Nectar of the Gods for yourself? Here are some simple steps to brewing your own mead, just like a Viking!
During the Viking era, mead (or mjød) was seen as a drink with magical powers. According to the myths, it was first drunk by the giant Suttung, until Odin stole it to gain knowledge for himself. It was said to give one the power of the bards — although whether this is merely attributable to the alcohol content is anyone’s guess.
Mead was associated with poetry and creativity. The community hall of a village where folk would gather was known as the mjødhall, or mead-hall, and mead continued to be an important part of Nordic life even after the introduction of Christendom.
And, after World War Two, this drink and its mythology inspired Ingebjorg Refling Hagens to start the Suttung movement, which focused around using art for cultural growth.
Your fermenting vessel will most likely be a demijohn, a bottlenecked glass vessel with a bung to attach on the top. The bung lets carbon dioxide out while preventing ambient air entering and turning the mead to vinegar.
The traditional Viking way was to use a wide fermentation bucket, often made of ceramic and covered with cheesecloth, but this is more easily contaminated, so use at your own risk.
Be aware when obtaining honey that you get wild or raw honey that has not been processed or had extra sugars added, otherwise it will negatively affect the taste of the mead. Likewise with the water — spring or distilled is best, but if you have to use tap water, boil it first. Viking brewers would use a ‘magic stick’ to stir the mead and initiate fermentation. This stick was rarely washed, to allow yeast from each batch to populate and carry over to the next. In modern times this is not always the most sanitary thing to do, however.
The first and most important step is to clean and sanitize your gear. If you know what you are doing and wish to replicate the Viking method with open-top buckets and magic sticks, do so at your own risk.
Next, fill the mixing bucket with water, and mix in the honey. If you boiled your water first, and it’s still warm, this can help mix in the honey. Wait until cool for the next step. Add more water if you want a drier taste, less water if you want a sweeter dessert-mead. You can optionally use a hydrometer to measure how strong the final result will be.
Take a small portion of the mix and put in the fermentation vessel, and add yeast. If you want to add a few raisins (for extra taste and extra yeast) you can do so now, or indeed any other flavourings, such as oak bark, grape leaves or a few squeezes of lemon juice. This forms your starter.
Cover the vessel (use a bung half-filled with fresh water if using modern gear, use cheesecloth if using a traditional open bucket) and put in a dark, warm place. Wait a few days for the fermentation process to start. With modern gear, you will know it has started when the bung is bubbling away. With traditional gear, you have to stir each day and look for froth forming.
Once the starter has begun fermenting, transfer to the racking vessel and add the rest of the mix back in. If you want to add a few squeezes of lemon to give a more bitter tang to the final product, do so now. Seal again, return to a warm, dark area, and wait. The mead is ready when fermentation stops, and this you can tell when the mixture is clear and no longer produces gas bubbles - this tends to take around two weeks. After this you can age it for as long as you like to develop the taste (we recommend six months). Just remember — the younger your mead, the more carbonated it will be, so take care when bottling and use swing-top or corked champagne-grade bottles. And then, it’s time to drink like the bards of old. Skål!