drinking horns

Reading time: 7 minutes

Let’s debunk the widely held belief that mead originated with the Vikings. While mead bore a place in Viking culture, from sacred ritual to daily consumption, it predates the Viking era by thousands of years. Let’s look at how mead was part of Viking-era culture.

Mead and the Vikings: A Journey Through Time and Tradition

Imagine a robust Viking warrior, a symbol of strength and resilience, aboard a mighty longship. Common lore might have us believe that a horn filled with mead, a beverage synonymous with Viking culture, is in his hand. But did the Vikings really invent mead, or is there more to this story?

Unveiling the True Story Behind Mead: Beyond Viking Lore

Contrary to popular belief, the Vikings were not the originators of mead. Though this fermented honey drink was significant in Viking rituals and daily life, its history stretches far beyond the Viking Age. Historical evidence reveals a narrative that diverges from popular culture, offering credit to a broader swath of humanity.

Tracing the Ancient Roots of Mead

Mead, often revered as the “nectar of the gods,” is one of the earliest known alcoholic beverages. Archaeological discoveries have traced mead’s origins to 7000 BCE in regions like China and Ethiopia. This timeline suggests that humans enjoyed fermented honey long before the written word.

In ancient civilizations like Greece and Egypt, mead was not just a drink; it symbolized divine blessings and prosperity. Celtic mythology imagined rivers of mead in the afterlife and was mentioned in the ancient Indian Rig-Veda. Each culture that discovered fermentation regarded it as a magical or divine process, a testament to mead’s transcendent appeal.

Vikings: Enthusiastic Adopters, Not Inventors, of Mead

The Viking era, commencing around 793 CE, came nearly 8000 years after the earliest archaeological evidence of mead. As the Vikings traveled and traded, they encountered mead in regions where it was already a cherished beverage. They adopted it enthusiastically, integrating it into Norse culture, which symbolized feasts, festivities, and the forging of friendships.

The Social and Religious Significance of Mead in Viking Society

In Viking society, mead transcended its role as a simple beverage to become vital to social and religious life. Mead wasn’t consumed only for pleasure; it was believed to have held profound symbolic meanings and was essential in various rituals and ceremonies.

A Symbol of Status and Celebration

Mead, in the Viking Age, was a marker of social status. It was often reserved for the elite and warriors, signifying honor and achievement. The quality and quantity of mead served reflected a host’s wealth and generosity. Drinking mead was a celebratory act, often associated with victories in battle or successful voyages, and was a way to honor the gods for their blessings.

Central to Rituals and Ceremonies

The importance of mead was evident in Viking rituals, from weddings to the signing of truces. During weddings, the bride and groom shared mead in a ritual that symbolized the binding of their union. This custom, known as the “bride-ale,” or the drinking of mead from a loving cup, was central to the matrimonial ceremony, underscoring the importance of mead in initiating and honoring marital alliances. The term “honeymoon” is also frequently attributed to Ancient Norse culture. A honeymoon is the tradition of drinking mead for a moon cycle or 30 days following the union.

Mead served as a communal bond in diplomatic gatherings, such as establishing truces. Sharing mead was a gesture of goodwill and trust, a symbolic act of burying past conflicts and forging new alliances. This ritualistic sharing of mead was crucial in maintaining peace and harmony among different clans and tribes.

A Medium for Communing with the Divine

Mead also held religious significance in Viking culture in places like the sacrificial rites known as ‘blót.’ Modern practices commonly use mead instead of any animal sacrifice that happened in ancient times. These rituals involved offering mead to deities and ancestors as a sign of respect and devotion. The Norse gods were believed to partake in mead, and by sharing mead, the Vikings felt a closer connection to the divine realm. It was a way for them to seek favor and guidance from the gods.

Reflection of Community

The communal aspect of mead drinking played a significant role in strengthening societal bonds. Mead halls were not just places for drinking; they were social centers where stories were shared, alliances formed, and community ties strengthened. Gathering around a central hearth to share mead was an affirmation of unity and camaraderie.

Mead in Viking society was much more than an alcoholic beverage. It was a complex symbol that permeated various aspects of Viking life, from social status and community bonding to religious practices and ceremonial rites. The reverence for mead in Viking culture illustrates their deep-rooted values of honor, loyalty, and respect for the divine.

Mead and Viking Creativity

In the tapestry of Viking culture, mead was a drink of celebration and ritual and a key to the gates of creativity and artistry, particularly in the realm of poetry. The Vikings held the skalds, their poets, in high esteem, attributing to them the power to capture history, valor, and the very essence of life through their words. These skalds, often present in the courts of Jarls and chieftains, were thought to derive their inspiration from mead, which unlocked the doors of their imagination and eloquence.

Mead’s connection to creativity and poetry in Viking society is deeply rooted in Norse mythology. One of the most compelling tales from this mythology is the story of the Mead of Poetry. This myth tells of the god Odin’s quest to obtain a magically imbued mead brewed from the blood of Kvasir, a being born from the wisdom of the gods. According to the legend, this mead granted anyone who drank it the ability to recite any information and solve any question. This story, eloquently captured in the “Skáldskaparmál” and other Old Norse texts, underscores the belief that mead was more than a drink – a divine conduit of wisdom and poetic genius.

Furthermore, in Viking society, composing and reciting poetry was not just an artistic endeavor but a form of intellectual and spiritual expression. Through their verses, the Skalds often tackled themes of fate, human struggles, and the interplay between gods and mortals. Mead, in this context, catalyzed these creative expressions, a revered tool that helped transform thoughts and experiences into compelling narratives and sagas that have echoed down the ages. Thus, mead’s role in Viking creativity was multifaceted, intertwining with their culture, spirituality, and appreciation for storytelling.

Beyond Mead: Vikings and Their Beverages

In the Viking age, mead was revered for its ceremonial and cultural significance. Beer also held a crucial place in their daily lives and diet. Women often oversaw the brewing process, an integral part of Viking society, reflecting their essential roles within the community.

The pivotal role of women in the brewing process in Viking society underscores their broader significance in community life. Brewing mead and beer was a complex craft, requiring a deep understanding of fermentation processes. This responsibility, predominantly shouldered by women, was not just a domestic task but a revered skill, often passed down through generations and sometimes even considered part of a woman’s dowry. This practice demonstrates the economic and social value of women’s brewing expertise in Viking culture.

Women’s mastery of brewing was essential for sustaining the community, particularly for the numerous feasts and social gatherings central to Viking life. Their brewing skills went beyond household duties, representing a respected profession that contributed significantly to the social and cultural fabric of Viking society. This aspect of Viking life highlights the indispensable role of women in maintaining community cohesion and well-being.

Mead’s Cultural Legacy in Viking Life

Mead held a place of honor in Viking life, serving as more than just a beverage; it symbolized unity and celebration. It was integral to feasts and significant events; the deeply entrenched customs and rituals of mead drinking were part of the fabric of Viking society. These practices were not only reflective of the social hierarchy but also played a critical role in solidifying community bonds. Sharing mead during gatherings and feasts reinforced alliances and acknowledged mutual respect among community members.

Traditional Methods of Mead Brewing

Many ancient mead-making techniques are lost to history. In modern brewing, we understand microbiology and the importance of sanitation. While these ideas were likely explained as being more mysterious, the cause and effect were observed and remembered.

The art was a process steeped in tradition and rich in cultural significance. While the methods were relatively simple, they were highly effective and carried a profound sense of heritage. One particularly fascinating aspect of this tradition was using a “magic” stick.

These sticks, typically made from Birch or Alder, were not just brewing tools but revered family heirlooms. They were primarily held and used by the wife or matriarch, who was often responsible for brewing mead and ales. This practice reflects women’s significant role in maintaining brewing traditions within Viking communities.

The process of brewing mead and ale involved basic techniques: grains were malted, crushed, and then steeped in hot water. The “magic” stick was used to stir the wort for ales or the honey-water mixture for meads after they had cooled. This action transferred yeast trapped in the stick’s crevices from previous batches into the new brew. The yeast would then reanimate, initiating fermentation. Usually, the magic stick would stay in the active wort. This practice created a fresh inoculation of the most vigorous yeast strains for future brewing.

Magic sticks eventually evolved into the Scandinavian yeast logs and rings. Yeast logs, ranging from simple birch logs to elaborately carved pieces or rings made from straw or bone, were used to catch and store yeast, allowing for quick drying and long-term storage.

These traditional brewing methods and equipment underscore the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Viking brewers. The cultural practices surrounding brewing, from the sacred magic sticks to the intricately designed yeast logs, reveal a deep respect for the craft and its importance in daily life and communal gatherings.

Celebrate Mead’s Rich Heritage

At Sky River Mead, we celebrate the rich, diverse heritage of mead-making. Our mead is an homage to our Scandinavian and Irish ancestors, with a unique Northwest flair, embodying “Old World Inspiration for the Modern Palate.” This ancient craft, spanning the vast expanse of time, continues to bring joy and connection to the modern world.

Mead’s journey from ancient civilizations to Viking halls and now to our tables is a testament to its enduring appeal. While the Vikings did not invent mead, they played a crucial role in its history and popularization. Today, mead stands not just as a drink but a symbol of cultural heritage and timeless human ingenuity.


honey and herbs

Reading time: 4 Minutes

Explore honey’s journey from a natural sweetener to a historical remedy and modern medicinal ally, highlighting its nutritional value and diverse applications in food and health.

Disclaimer: Blog posts are for education and entertainment purposes only. Do not consider this to be medical advice.

Honey: More Than Just a Sweetener

When we think of honey, visions of a golden drizzle on toast or in tea (or coffee, in my case) or the sweet goodness of mead come to mind. But honey’s significance extends far beyond its delicious taste.

Let’s Buzz beyond its role as a natural sweetener. This amber liquid, a constant on our tables for millennia, is a health giant, not just a sugar substitute. It’s steeped in medicinal history, too.

The Making of Honey: Nature’s Sweet Factory

It all starts with bees, the busy, tireless workers of nature, collecting nectar from a vast array of flowers and forage. A bee’s work  is a complex, natural process that turns nectar into the sweet, thick honey we love. The exact forage of a hive dramatically influences honey’s flavor and properties. Each landscape  can paint a very different honey portrait, from clover to buckwheat.

A Historic Panacea: Honey Through the Ages

Let’s travel back to the hieroglyphs in Egypt and to the ancient texts of Ayurveda. Honey wasn’t just food; it was a gift from the gods, a symbol of health and wealth. Its role went beyond sweetening dishes; it was a balm for the body and soul, treating everything from superficial wounds to complex diseases. It wasn’t simply food but a symbol of divine benevolence and a marker of prosperity and well-being. Its legacy appears throughout time and across civilizations.

In Ancient Egypt, Hieroglyphics tell tales of honey, a gift bestowed by the gods. The Egyptians, known for their medicinal knowledge, used honey to treat superficial wounds and skin ailments to complex ailments and as a natural embalming agent.

Ayurvedic Traditions: Ayurvedic practitioners value honey for its ability to enhance herbal preparations and celebrate it for its balancing-restoring properties. Honey is commonly used to treat digestive issues and respiratory infections and as a natural booster for overall vitality.

Across Cultures: This golden elixir’s reputation as a panacea wasn’t confined to Egypt and India. In ancient Greek and Roman texts, honey was recognized for its health-giving benefits and was believed to be a gift from the gods. Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Hippocrates extolled its virtues in their writings, noting its goodness in treating conditions from the common cold to more severe infections.

Beyond Medicine: Beyond its medicinal applications, honey symbolized abundance and health in various cultures. Honey was often used in religious ceremonies as an offering to the gods, symbolizing purity and sweetness. In some traditions, honey played a role in birth and marriage rituals, signifying the start of a sweet and prosperous journey.

Honey in Modern Medicine: The Ancient Future of Healing

In today’s world, science is beginning to catch up with what ancient civilizations have known for millennia: honey is more than just a sweet treat; it’s a potent medicinal instrument. Recent research underscores its therapeutic benefits, making it a subject of interest in modern studies.

Antibacterial and Antimicrobial Properties:

Honey is known for its natural antibacterial qualities. This is primarily due to the presence of hydrogen peroxide and its low pH levels. Studies have shown honeys effectiveness in fighting bacteria, making it a natural alternative for wound treatment and infections.

Anti-inflammatory and Antioxidant Effects:

Honey is rich in antioxidants that help combat inflammation and oxidative stress. This aids in general health and reduces the risk of chronic diseases.

Cough Suppressant and Immune Booster:

Honey has long been known for its ability to soothe soar throats and calm coughs. In fact, it frequently outperforms its over-the-counter pharmaceutical counterparts. Modern medicine has come around to agree with this folk remedy. Some studies suggest honey’s immune-boosting properties can enhance the body’s natural defenses.

Nutritional Profile of Honey: What’s in this Liquid Gold?

Honey isn’t just a simple sweetener. Its intricate composition sets it apart from other sweeteners, offering a range of health benefits.

  • Natural Sugar and Calories:
    Honey is composed of natural sugars, primarily glucose and fructose, which provide a quick energy source.
  • Vitamins, Minerals and Antioxidants:
    Honey contains trace vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. Its antioxidant qualities are noteworthy, with compounds like flavonoids and phenolic acids playing a crucial role.
  • Glycemic Index (GI):
    The glycemic index of honey varies but is lower than processed sugar. This makes it preferable for a gradual increase in blood sugar levels, but diabetics should still use caution.

Honey in Diet and Lifestyle: Sweetening the Deal

Honey isn’t just for tea and toast. It’s a culinary shapeshifter, enhancing everything from yogurts to meats with its unique, delicious flavor. Honey can be found in recipes from smoothies, honey-glazed nuts, and unique cocktails. Honey has a place in cosmetics, face masks, and hair treatments. Honey is the Queen where Mead is concerned as well!

Precautions and Recommendations: The Sweet Truth

Honey is fantastic but comes with a caution label, too. Honey is sugar; thus, moderation is key. Too much of a good thing is still too much. Honey is also a potential allergen and shouldn’t be enjoyed by children under a year old as it can, on very rare occasions, contain botulism spores, which could pose a threat of food poisoning to the very young.

Quality matters with honey. Honey directly from your local beekeeper is ideal. The closer to the hive, the better. This honey will contain nutrients and micro goodness, whereas processed honey may not.

Conclusion: A Toast to Honey

So, here’s to honey! More than just a culinary delight, it’s a testament to nature’s ability to provide us with a nourishing and healing elixir. From its historic role as a powerful remedy to its recognition by modern medicine to its place in our tea, on our toast, and naturally, in our mead, it’s not just added sweetness; it’s a golden drop of goodness brought to us by the ladies of the hive!

bees on passionflower and a bee keeper harvesting honey

Reading time: 4 minutes

Honey is a natural sweetener that has captivated the taste buds of humanity for thousands of years. It is not just a product but a testament to nature’s complexity and efficiency. The world of honey naturally begins with the bees and ends in the kitchen, bridging the gap between the natural world and culinary delight.

The Bees

Foraging for Nectar

The journey of honey begins with bees! Specifically, worker bees, the ladies of the hive, venturing out from the hive to collect nectar from flowers. Honeybees, equipped with proboscises (a tube-like tongue), siphon nectar, a sugary liquid flowers produce, into their “honey stomach.”

Nectar Collection and Conversion

After collecting the nectar, bees return to the hive and pass the nectar on to younger bees, known as house bees, through a process called trophallaxis. During this process, the nectar is mixed with enzymes in the bees’ saliva, which starts turning the nectar into honey. The enzymes added by bees, primarily invertase, begin breaking down the complex sugars (sucrose) in nectar into simpler sugars such as fructose and glucose. This enzymatic activity makes the sugars more digestible and less prone to crystallization.

Storing Honey in Comb

Once the house bees process the nectar, it is stored in the honeycomb cells. The honeycomb, a marvel of bee engineering, is constructed by the bees from wax secreted from their bodies. These cells provide the perfect place for honey to mature and thicken. Bees circulate air in the hive by fanning their wings, accelerating evaporation. Evaporation gradually thickens the nectar, turning it into honey.

Capping the Honeycomb

When the honey reaches the ideal consistency, approximately 18% moisture, bees seal the honeycomb cells with a wax cap. This capping process preserves the honey and keeps it from moisture and other contaminants. Beekeepers know the honey is “ripened” and ready for harvest when capped.

Beekeeper’s Role, Hive Management

  • Monitoring Bee Health: Beekeepers manage hives to ensure bees’ health and productivity. They monitor the health and productivity of the queen, observe behavior, look for signs of stress or disease, and ensure sufficient population.
  • Controlling Pests and Diseases: Beekeepers are always on the lookout for pests and diseases like Varroa mites or American Foulbrood. If something is amiss, there are natural and chemical treatments available. Bees are naturally very clean creatures, but sometimes, the environment gets ahead of them, leaving an opening for problems.
  • Nutrition: Some beekeepers leave ample honey in the hive to last through spring when the nectar flow is reliable. Others supplement with sugar syrup or pollen cakes to help the colony remain strong until the nectar flow is generous.
  • Hive Maintenance: Beekeepers constantly monitor the hive for damage from weather or animals, ensure ample ventilation, and expand the hive with additional boxes, ideally before the hive swarms!

Harvesting Honey:

  1. Timing the Harvest: Honey is most often harvested in late summer or early fall. Many beekeepers will also harvest “Spring honey” in early summer. When harvesting in the fall, beekeepers must ensure they leave enough honey for the bees to survive winter.
  2. Removing the Honeycomb: Frames of ripened honeycomb are gently removed from the hive. Bees don’t appreciate this! Beekeepers generally use a smoker to calm the bees and minimize disturbance while removing frames of honey.
  3. Extracting Honey: Once the frames are removed, the beekeeper will cut or scrape off the caps, place the frame in a honey extractor, and then spin the frames to force the honey out of the comb by centrifugal force.
  4. Filtering and Bottling: Extracted honey is generally filtered before bottling. This course filtering still allows the honey to be considered “raw” as it only removes bits of wax and debris from the honey; pollen and healthy nutrients remain.


Honey is the only sugar with a net positive impact on the environment. Responsible beekeepers focus on sustainable practices, proper hive management, and the overall health of the hive.

Quality and Varieties:

Nectar Source: The type and quality of the nectar collected by bees greatly influence the honey’s taste, aroma, and color. For example, nectar from orange blossoms yields an intense citrus flavor and aroma, and honey from a lavender field will produce honey with floral notes; in contrast, buckwheat honey generally has a distinct barnyard flavor.

Processing: Raw, unfiltered honey will retain its natural flavors and nutrients. Heavily processed honey will lose much of its unique character. Heavily processed honey tends to be blended to create a more consistent generic “honey” flavor.

Storage and Aging: How and at what temperature honey is stored can affect its texture and flavor. Honey stored at a consistent temperature is slower to crystalize, but almost all honey will crystalize over time. This natural, expected process does not affect the honey’s quality or indicate spoilage.

Environmental Factors: Humidity, temperature, and general climate of the bees foraging area and where honey is stored play a significant role in quality. The hive location and its surrounding flora will have the most significant impact on the honey taste.

Varieties of Honey:

Floral Varieties: Each flower type gives honey a unique flavor profile. For example, raspberry honey is known for its clean, clear taste, while buckwheat honey is known for its intense barnyard flavor.

Seasonal Varieties:  the season nectar is collected will influence honey quality and flavor. Spring honey tends to be lighter, while late-season honey tends to have a more robust flavor.

Honey production  is a complex dance between nature and humans, from bees’ meticulous foraging activities and the hive’s complexity to the (hopefully) thoughtful stewardship of the beekeeper. Each step in the process reflects a balance of natural instinct and learned skill.

The variety and quality of honey are not just measures of taste but also a reflection of a healthy (hopefully) and diverse ecosystem and also the dedication of those who tend to them. Each jar of honey is a preserved sampling of one of nature’s most fascinating gifts.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Aging mead combines art and science. Explore practical tips and explanations of the various roles from tannin to residual sugar and alcohol level. All highlighting mead aging as a journey in taste and discovery.

From Barrel to Bottle: Unlocking the Secrets of Aging Mead

Aging mead or honey wine is an art shrouded in romanticism yet grounded in science. Aging blends time-honored techniques and personal taste to create unique flavors. Aging mead enhances desirable qualities and subdues undesirable flavors. Whether aged in carboys, barrels, or bottles, this guide delves into the nuances of mead aging.

We’ll look at the impact of oxidation, the importance of ingredient choice, and oak aging. We’ll also look at practical tips for aging mead, including the ideal conditions and how personal preferences, alcohol content and ingredients influence aging time. Aging mead blends science and personal discovery, leading to a satisfying, personalized taste experience.

Maturing mead over time enables desirable flavors to meld and evolve, allowing harsh flavors to diminish. The Mead maker can age before bottling in carboys, barrels, or bottles. Consumers may age in the bottle.

Commercially made meads are generally ready to be enjoyed when released. Interestingly, over 90% of meads and grape wines are made with immediate consumption (within a year) in mind, and approximately 1% are made with the intention of long-term (more than five years) aging.

What happens during aging? And the benefits?

  • Oxidation: Exposure to oxygen allows the flavors to meld and tannins to mellow. Prolonged exposure can add a sherry-like quality to mead, something best done intentionally rather than left to chance.
  • Harsh alcohol flavors or “heat” can mellow over time.
  • Phenolic compounds become smoother, and acids become more balanced. In general, acidity diminishes over time. Flavors integrate, and the mouth-feel smooths.

Barrels of Sky River Mead in front of cases

Oak barrel aging 

Barrel aging can add interesting complexity, including hints of vanilla, caramel, smoke, and even coconut. The flavors imparted will be different depending on the origin of the oak.

Mead can age in new oak or barrels previously used for wine or spirits, particularly whiskey or bourbon. Each barrel will impart its unique flavor profile.

An alternative to barrel aging is aging on oak spirals or oak chips. Spirals and chips impart flavors more quickly due to the increased surface area. Barrels can be alarmingly expensive, depending on the particular barrel. Spirals and chips offer a much more affordable alternative.

Bottle and carboy aging

Aging in the bottle or bulk carboy aging allows flavors to integrate over time. The flavors will mellow and integrate without the addition of much complexity.

Characteristics of an age-worthy mead

Residual Sugar- Sweeter meads often have the longest life. Honey has a natural preservative quality. The higher the residual sugar, the more preserving attributes are maintained.

Alcohol- Moderate alcohol levels (11-13% ABV) correlate with a long lifespan. As well as fortified meads (~20% ABV)

Tannins– Tannins do not naturally occur in mead but are frequently added through fruit additions, tea, grape tannins, or barrel aging. In grape wine, tannins come from the skins and stems of fruit or barrel aging. Tannins add structure and encourage graceful aging.

Acidity- Meads with a higher initial acid have a better chance of maintaining desirable flavors over time. Over time, acidity is gradually lost. A properly balanced mead can move through the initial aging with an acidic profile, move to a pleasant brightness, and gradually flatten after it reaches its aging peak.

How does one age mead?

The short answer is cool, dry, and on its side (if it has a cork closure). Ideally, it should be around 50°F and in a sealed bottle or carboy with limited headspace to avoid oxidation. The most challenging part of aging is leaving it alone. Aging requires time and patience.

How long should mead age?

Personal preference- Individual taste is essential in deciding a mead’s aging time.  Some enthusiasts prefer young meads’ bright, fresh flavors, enjoying them without lengthy aging. Others prefer the depth and complexity achieved through extended aging, often waiting several years for flavors to mature and meld fully.

Alcohol- Alcohol content heavily influences mead aging. High-alcohol meads require longer aging to soften harsh flavors and reduce the warming sensation, while lower-alcohol meads can achieve their best taste profile more quickly.

Ingredients- The mead’s specific ingredients, like fruits or spices, influence how long it should age. Different ingredients integrate and develop over varying times, shaping the mead’s aging needs.

General aging guidelines

Traditional meads usually require six months to 2 years for the flavors to mellow and smooth and any off flavors to diminish.

Melomels or fruit meads can take six months to 5 years for the flavors to fully integrate and the tannins and acids to mellow.

Metheglin or spiced meads are quicker, six months to a year. While the flavor integrates more quickly, it can also fall off quickly, depending on the particular botanical.

Oaked mead can age from 6 months to several years. Taste preference and oak type will determine how much time mead should spend on oak.

In essence, the art of aging mead is a personal journey. It’s about exploring and understanding your taste preferences through various aging techniques.

The process is an exciting adventure in experimentation, where each method and ingredient choice can lead to uniquely satisfying flavors.

Whether you prefer the youthful zest of a fresh mead or the rich complexity of an aged mead, the key is to embrace the experience and learn what delights your palate. Ultimately, aging mead is less about rules and more about the joy of developing something that delights you personally.

sci-fi science scene with beakers

Reading time: 3 minutes

Ever wonder about the “Contains Sulfites” label on your mead or wine? Let’s dive into the world of these essential preservatives and debunk some myths. Join me in exploring the intriguing role of sulfites and keeping your favorite drink perfect.

As the evenings get cooler, there’s nothing quite like curling up with a glass of your favorite mead (or wine). I love a good label, so I’m likely to examine every little bit of it while sipping my delicious libation. Inevitably, that innocuous message “Contains Sulfites” usually appears on the back.

This message doesn’t sound any alarm bells for me, but I’ve often heard others blame them for the infamous wine headache, so I thought I’d dig a little deeper.

Sulfites are an often misunderstood part of the fermentation world. They play a crucial role in keeping our favorite libation fresh and flavorful from the hive or vine all the way to the glass. Let’s uncork this mystery and perhaps quell any fears about these compounds.

What Are Sulfites Anyway?

Sulfites, or SO2 in winemaking parlance, are preservative compounds used in winemaking to inhibit harmful bacteria and prevent oxidation. These compounds are both a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation and an additive. Sulfites have been intertwined with the art of fermentation since Roman times. The ancient Romans observed that burning sulfur candles inside the amphorae would help keep the wine from turning to vinegar.

Sulfites continue to play a crucial role, acting as antioxidant and antimicrobial agents. They safeguard against unwanted bacteria and yeast, ensuring that the mead or wine remains unspoiled as it makes its way from fermentation to our glass. This is especially important in mead, where microbial mischief can easily overshadow the delicate flavors.

Sulfites Labeling Lore

The label “Contains Sulfites,” generally in all caps, may sound alarm bells for some. It should be seen as a declaration rather than a warning per se. In the United States, this label must appear on any wine containing more than ten parts per million (ppm) of sulfites. The label “no added sulfites” does not mean no sulfites; remember, it’s a natural part of fermentation.

In the United States, the maximum allowed by law is 350 ppm, with an average of about 50 ppm in commercially made meads and wines. Even the highest amount allowed by law is less than you’ll find in many foods ranging from French fries to dried fruit and most processed foods.

The Sulfite Scale

The quantity of sulfites in mead or wine varies based on factors like acidity, color, and sugar content. Interestingly, red wines often require fewer sulfites than their white counterparts, defying the common myth linking red wine to higher sulfite content. Meads vary according to the style or what has been added beyond honey.

Breaking Down the Sulfite Scare

The sulfite sensitivity scare chiefly concerns a very small percentage of the population, particularly those with severe asthma. Research points towards other compounds like biogenic amines (such as histamines) being the more likely culprits behind the infamous wine headaches rather than sulfites.

Some mead makers pride themselves on skipping sulfites. However, like wine, mead too can benefit from the protective shield of sulfites, especially when battling spoilage villains like bacteria and oxidation.

Managing sulfite levels in mead is a blend of art and science. Ensuring a balanced sulfite level not only secures the longevity of your beverage but also keeps undesirable odors and flavors at bay.

With a deeper understanding of sulfites, we hope to swap the sulfite skepticism for a toast to the meticulous craftsmanship that goes into each bottle of mead (or wine).

spoonful of creamed honey

Reading time: 2 minutes

Creamed honey, with a velvety smooth, spreadable consistency, is the shelf-stable product of a bit of kitchen wizardry. It’s not commonly used for mead-making but is as fermentable as in its original raw honey form. So, if you fancy a tasty and crafty spread, creamed honey might be just the right treat …alongside your glass of mead.

A Velvety Delight in the Kitchen
Creamed honey and mead making: a Curious Connection

In the sweet world of mead-making, we get questions about not just mead but honey as well. Two interesting, related questions are: can you make mead from creamed honey? and what is “Creamed honey” anyway? Have you ever wondered about the velvety magic of creamed honey or if it could make a tantalizing mead?

First, I wouldn’t make mead from creamed honey unless I ran a little short, but you certainly can. It will ferment just like its raw counterpart. Now, onto creamed honey. It is truly a delight! It feels like a velvet caress and tastes like heaven, but what exactly is it? It’s 100% pure nature honey that has undergone a very controlled crystallization process. Contrary to what the name would infer, no dairy is involved in the process. Creamed simply describes the luxurious texture of the honey. Occasionally, this happens naturally, but more often than not, it is initiated.

Exploring the Origins of Creamed Honey
The Dyce Method: A Revolutionary Technique

The process for creamed honey was patented in 1935 by Professor Elton Dyce of Cornell University. He heat-pasteurized raw honey, then cooled and seeded the honey with micro-crystals. This was all done at precise temperatures and started the crystallization process. His method is still used for commercial honey creaming, cleverly called the “Dyce Method.”

DIY Creamed Honey: A Simple Guide
Creamed Honey vs. Whipped Honey

A simpler, more DIY approach commonly used now is to introduce micro-crystals into room-temperature liquid honey. The seed honey can be purchased or created by grinding honey crystals with a mortar and pestle until creamy. The only real trick is to ensure the honey is cool so the crystals don’t melt in the increased temperature created by friction. Once stirred into the room-temperature liquid honey, these crystals will begin to replicate themselves, and when the crystallization process is complete, you’ll have a jar of delicious, creamed honey. How long this process takes is dependent on the temperature and ratio of liquid honey to seed crystals. 10:1 is a good average. It’s important to note that if creamed honey is heated, it will return to its liquid state and must be reseeded to return to its creamed state. Creamed honey made in this way maintains all the nutrients and goodness of the raw honey from which it was made.

Creamed honey is shelf-stable, and the crystal structure will remain over time, maintaining its silky, delicious form. Once creamed, honey is more solid, thus easier to spread without drips.

Whipped Honey

Another variation on this theme is “Whipped” honey. To whip honey, add partially crystalized honey to a mixer and allow the beaters to grind the honey into fine, creamy crystals. Pour it into a jar and wait a short while and Voila! silky, delicious honey. Crystals will continue to form, but the new crystals will replicate at a much smaller size.

Give one of these methods a try if you’re curious. It’s delicious science!

Heather covered hillside-mead terroir

Read time: 4 minutes

Indulge in the unique flavors of mead, the ancient drink crafted by the harmony of honey and terroir. Each sip offers more than a mere buzz; it’s a sensory journey through local terrain, a testament to the tireless work of bees. Our mead captures the essence of its origins, with each drop narrating the tale of geography, climate, and soil – infused with whispers of wings among lavender fields and blackberry brambles. This isn’t just mead; it’s a glass filled with the neighborhood’s finest nectar, a liquid homage to the distinct place and season, meticulously curated by thousands of bees and the artistry of our mead-makers.

The Magic- The Heart of Mead and Terroir
A Sip of nature’s Nectar

Picture this: You take a sip of mead that magically transports you to a radiant sun-drenched field with honeybees dancing from flower to flower, each gathering pollen and nectar as they go. Can you taste those floral notes? Maybe a little sweet earthiness? Welcome to the intricate and nuanced world of terroir.

Terroir – the Heart of Honey’s Flavor
Geography, Climate, and Soil – The Trinity of Terroir

Terroir is a French term most frequently applied to vinifera wine, but I would argue that it is equally relevant to honey and, thus, the art of making mead. Terroir combines influences, local geography, climate, soil, and the unique qualities they lend to agricultural products. In this case, it’s honey. Yes, honey is one tiny step away from the plant, but it is inextricably linked.

The origin of honey influences the flavors in your glass of mead and tells a story of a specific place and time. Intrigued? Let’s take a whirlwind tour to explore how the concept of terroir is creating a buzz among mead-makers and mead-lovers alike, one hive at a time.

Before we go further, let’s revisit the term terroir. Terroir is the unique set of environmental factors – geography, climate, and soil – that imbue an agricultural product with distinct characteristics. It’s why a Pinot Noir grape grown in the Willamette Valley tastes different from grapes grown in Burgundy despite being the same varietal. Similarly, when it comes to honey, terroir plays an essential role in creating unique flavors and aromas that go beyond just ‘sweet.’

Geography – The Landscape of Flavor
From Lavender Fields to Citrus Groves

Geography isn’t just about maps and boundaries; it’s about ecosystems, plant life, and the flowers and forage unique to an area. The area surrounding the hive shapes the honey in profound ways. Depending on who you ask, bees will forage anywhere from 2 to 5 miles from the hive. The more dominant a particular forage, the more influence it has on the flavor of the honey and the resulting mead. If a preferred forage is abundant, the bees will stick closer to the hive, creating an even more distinct honey. A great example is lavender, a favorite of both honeybees and humans. An area with abundant lavender will produce floral honey, frequently with herbaceous, citrus, or woodsy notes. Orange blossom honey is more well-known and retains much of the intensely delightful aroma of citrus blossoms, while meadowfoam honey tastes almost like toasted marshmallows! These locale-specific bouquets of flavor don’t just make the honey interesting; they capture the essence of a place. These unique qualities shine through with each sip of mead made from the honey.

Climate and Seasonality – Nature’s Rhythm
Honey’s Seasonal Symphony

Climate and seasonality are the ever-changing elements of terroir. It dictates what will bloom when, what forage will be abundant, and perhaps what will be scarce. Drought years will also alter honey’s color, flavor, and abundance. Climate is increasingly a factor in the era of climate change. Seasons affect honey, too. Spring honeys are generally lighter and more floral as the bee’s forage is likely to be things like clover, maple blossoms, and dandelions; late summer and fall tend to bring darker, more robust honey with forage such as buckwheat and knotweed being abundant. These are very general rules, and the examples are particular to the Northwest. The seasonal variations in honey add an element of time to the flavors present in honey and make each batch of mead a time capsule of sorts, capturing the atmospheric conditions of a given year.

Soil – The Foundation of Flavor
Unearthing the Subtle Influences of Soil

Soil and the surrounding habitat form the bedrock, quite literally, of terroir. The soil’s mineral content, particular nutrients, moisture level, and pH all impact the plants growing there, which in turn affects the nectar and pollen bees collect and the resulting honey. These distinctions, granted, would be subtle but can undoubtedly influence the complex layers of flavor present in a well-made mead. The soil contributes to a taste experience deeply rooted in its natural habitat.

Connecting the dots or drops…. Terroir, Honey, and Mead
A Journey in Every Glass

Let’s connect the dots between terroir, honey, and mead. Just as a skilled chef knows that the best dish begins with the finest ingredients, a skilled mead-maker knows that honey with a strong sense of terroir provides the backbone for a genuinely distinctive mead featuring a harmonious tapestry of flavors and aromas.

So why does all this matter?

Understanding the concept of terroir is like having a peak behind the curtain (or into the hive) to the art of mead-making. It can elevate your experience from simply enjoying a tasty libation to appreciating all that goes into that delicious creation. Knowing a little about the geography, season, or even the soil that nurtured the blossoms the bees foraged might add extra meaning and enjoyment to each sip. It’s about connection; you’re not just tasting honey, water, and yeast. You’re tasting a moment in time at a particular place and the labor of thousands of bees, making each glass a journey unto itself.

A piece of honeycomb with a low sunset in the background shining through the golden wax.

The short answer: Forever.

Better answer: Honey is known as the only food that never spoils. As of this writing the oldest known sample of honey dates back approximately 3000 years to the Egyptian tombs and were found to be completely edible.

Honey will eventually crystalize but is still perfectly enjoyable. Some form large almost crunchy crystals, others form very fine crystals similar to creamed honey. Crystallization can actually be an indication of higher quality honey, as honey that never crystalizes is generally either highly processed thus no longer contains the health benefits of honey or has been adulterated with something like corn syrup (or both). Honey’s that crystalize slowly have a higher fructose level such as Tupelo honey and sage honey. Higher glucose levels such as alfalfa, dandelion & cotton crystalize more quickly. Honey that crystalizes quickly will have smaller crystals.

So, what makes honey crystalize?

It’s a combination of factors. The major 3 factors:

  • Ratio of fructose to glucose; the major types of sugar found in honey. Higher glucose levels will create a more rapid crystallization.
  • How or whether then honey is processed. Highly processed honey may never crystalize as the enzymes, pollen, propolis and bits of wax that serve as the nuclei for crystallization have been removed.
  • Temperature. To slow crystallization store at room temperature. To speed it up crystallization honey can be refrigerated. Honey will slowly burn if stored someplace that’s perpetually warm such as on top of an espresso machine or the back of a range.

Ideal storage temperature to discourage crystallization: 70-80° F, to encourage crystallization: 50-59° F

How to get rid of crystals

To maintain the healthful qualities of honey:

  • Fill a pot of water deep enough to submerge your honey jar halfway. Use a glass jar not plastic container, lid removed.
  • Heat water and honey jar but do not bring to a boil.
  • Stir frequently to help break up the crystals.
  • Remove from heat to a protected surface and cool once honey has returned to its smooth delicious state.

Note: Honey can be microwaved 30 seconds at a time, stirred and microwaved again until smooth but I don’t recommend this method as it might eliminate many of the nutritional benefits of honey.

Photo by Kai Hawes