Happy Mead Day! Yes, 6 August is Mead Day — not that I expect anyone to know that. Nor did I know it until I searched up “mead day” a couple of weeks ago and discovered that it was already coming up. Why this date? I don’t know. There are certainly other days more associated with mead in my mind. On Lammas (1 August), for one, Britons traditionally drank lambswool — a wassail mixed with mead. In the play, Twelfth Night, revelers mark the Twelfth Night of Christmas (5 January) by drinking metheglin — a mead flavored with herbs and spices. For whatever reason, though, the American Homebrewers Association decided that today should be Mead Day in 2002. Whatever their reasons, Mead Day seemed like as good an excuse as any to explore mead history, mead culture, and — most surprising to me — the growing number of meaderies in and around Metro Los Angeles.
Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey and mixing it with water. It is sometimes referred to as honey wine (although true wines are made from fermented grapes or other fruits). It’s generally flavored with the addition of fruits, spices, grains, and hops or another bittering agent. It may be still or carbonated, and sweet or dry. It was widely popular throughout much of the world from prehistoric times until the mid-16th century, when the high cost of honey allowed home-brewed ale, cider, and perry to muscle in on its turf. No money, no honey, indeed.
In 2022, I rarely encounter mead on the shelves of any of the grocery stores that I routinely walk to. At Trader Joe’s, they usually have a few bottles of Chaucer’s Mead in the run-up to Thanksgiving. Unsold bottles are always, in my experience, returned before Twelfth Night. Why? Again, I don’t know. Maybe Thanksgiving is the most old-timey of American holidays, having as it does, roots in the Colonial era. The colonists in Jamestown did, indeed, brew mead in 1607. I don’t know anyone whose Thanksgiving customs involve mulling mead. After all, isn’t Thanksgiving well known for being Beaujolais Nouveau Day? Maybe it’s because Chaucer’s, sold as it is with a bag of mulling spices, merely makes for a nice winter warmer — even though our Southern California winters are often already unpleasantly hot. I have asked workers at Trader Joe’s why they stock mead when they do and none of them seem to know either.
When the Bargetto Winery began making their Chaucer’s Mead, they no doubt chose the name because, in the West, mead is widely associated with the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I first heard of mead when we read Bēowulf in high school. That poem, written sometime between 975 and 1025 CE, and is set in the 6th century. Much of the action within revolves around Danish king Hrothgar‘s mead hall, which has been attacked by Grendel. After Bēowulf kills Grendel, he kills his mother, with whom he’d lived in the wilderness. There’s also lots of mead in the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, and even sort of a mirror story involving Lemminkäinen, who is maltreated in a mead hall, and who lives in the wilderness with his mother.
Despite mead’s associations with medieval Europe, it was historically popular throughout much of Africa and Asia as well. In fact, mead was likely invented in Africa — and possibly well before the advent of either ceramic pottery or agriculture. In Southern Africa, the San and Khoekhoe traditionally fermented honey with yeast inside of trees. Mead has always been popular in Ethiopia and Eritrea, though — not coincidentally the only two African countries not to have been colonized by Europeans or Americans, who by the colonial era were much more inclined to brew beer or plant vineyards. The oldest archeological artifacts associated with mead are pots from Henan, China that have been dated to approximately 7000 – 6500 BCE. The Chinese word for honey, 蜜 (mì), is probably derived from the same ancient sources as the English mead.
Regardless of its African and Asian roots, though, mead has, until recently perhaps, been the sort of beverage drunk by the kind of people given to slipping without warning into English accents and peppering their speech with archaic words like “methinks, “huzzah,” and “prithee.” I doubt that the erasure of mead’s non-European roots is deliberate but, at the same time it’s certainly part of a long pattern of re-casting non-European things in a thoroughly European light. In researching this piece, nearly every article published in a commercial news source mentioned Vikings and Greek Gods. Not one mentioned the Horn of Africa. Neither did any mention California’s central role in mead’s revival. Why do people continue to subscribe to that crap?
My first taste of mead, like many Americans, took place at a renaissance fair — the 1995 Minnesota Renaissance Festival. I remember it well. It was robust and, um, tasted a bit like a horse stable smells — a possible indication of Brettanomyces yeast. One renaissance fair was sufficient to satisfy my curiosity for medieval cosplay but my taste for mead continued. Luckily, when I moved to Los Angeles, I discovered that I loved Ethiopian restaurants and they always seemingly have mead on the menu. I’m eager to try some of these new meads at the next convenient opportunity.
Mead, interestingly, had shed some of its medieval associations by the early 20th century. British soldiers in World War I were introduced to “bee wine” in North Africa and Southwest Asia. A newspaper account in a California newspaper from the 1920s reports that soldiers procured what the writer identified as “Balm of Gilead” of Abyssinian and Arabian origin in Mesopotamia. Rival claims were made that it had medicinal properties or caused cancer. Another article claimed that British “Drys” had been drinking bee wine “for years,” based on the claim that it contained no alcohol. This was dispelled by an inquiry from the ministry of health, who learned that mead, indeed, was alcoholic. California had ratified Prohibition in 1919 but that didn’t stop Californians from making bee wine. A 1926 article from the Whittier News reports on the “wine bee” (or “scofflaw bee”) that “merely wipes his hind feet in a bucket of sweetened water and converts it into high-powered hooch.” Interestingly, the same article claims that “California Indians” had, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, brewed mead inside of trees that “rivaled the best mule whiskey.”
There is supposedly no evidence that Los Angles’s indigenous people, the Chumash, made alcoholic beverages — and not because they found no use for intoxication as they definitely used datura and peyote. The Tataviam, Tongva, and their relatives arrived much later but it’s hard to imagine that, at the very least, they were familiar with alcohol — since their Mesoamerican neighbors to the south made beverages from fermented agave, cassava, Desert Spoon, maize, palms, and prickly pears — all plants that are also abundant in Southern California. Furtheer south, the Maya made balché, a beverage made from fermenting honey and the bark of a particular evergreen tree, which they traditionally consumed through enemas until the Spanish banned the practice. Luckily, we still have many examples of artwork depicting the practice.
One thing that is certain is that after Prohibition ended in 1933, Californians no longer had to resort to drinking alcohol brewed in bathtubs or fermented in tree trunks. At the same time, though, there was an upsurge of interest in the Middle Ages swept across Europe and Anglo-America. Medievalism itself was hardly new — stretching back at least to 1605, when the first part of Miguel de Cervantes‘s Don Quixote was published. In the years that followed, Sir Walter Scott, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Gothic novelists, the Arts & Crafts movement, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Nazis had all drawn inspiration from the “Dark Ages.” In Southern California, there were all sorts of medieval and renaissance revival buildings, including Gothic, Norman, Provincial, Romanesque, and Tudor — all often occupying a single neighborhood. My own neighborhood was developed as Ivanhoe, and given street names like Lockelsey, St. George, and Waverly.
There was, it seems, an upsurge of interest in the 1930s in medieval-inspired fantasy fiction. In 1932, Robert E. Howard introduced Conan the Barbarian. In 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien (a member of the Inklings with C.S. Lewis and other like-minded fantasists) published the Hobbit. That same year, Hal Foster debuted Prince Valiant. Warner’s Bros.‘ The Adventures of Robin Hood was one of the biggest films of 1938. The medieval revival continued into the 1940s. The revival of interest in mead does seem to have benefited from rewed interest in the olden days. On 19 September 1947, Mead Makers Ltd. was formed in Gulval, Cornwall. In 1948, a surprising number of American newspapers printed a press release from the meadery that they had formed with the intention of exporting to the US. Their meads wouldn’t cross the Atlantic, however, until 1952 — and only then to shops in New York City.
Angelenos had had relatively easy access to mead, by then, for a few years. Los Angeles’s Venge & Co. was importing Vencom mead from Denmark at least as early as February 1950, when a writer at the Los Angeles Times reported that Al Wiese sold it at the Farmer’s Market to a man who’d looked everywhere for it and until then only found it “in the dictionary.” By March, Vencom was being advertised in Solvang, a heavily-Danish town that in 1946 had begun giving its downtown a medieval maker in order to attract tourists.
It was also in Southern California that the renaissance fair was born. The first Renaissance Pleasure Faire took place on 11 and 12 May 1963 at Haskell’s Ranch in Studio City. It was organized by schoolteacher Phyllis Patterson and her husband, Ron, as a fundraiser for KPFK — the local Pacifica Radio affiliate. It attracted some 8,000 attendees. I don’t know for certain whether or not mead was on offer but it seems likely. Mead was mentioned in coverage of the Pleasure Faire by 1967. Coverage a year later didn’t name the manufacturer but did mention that it was “imported from Sussex, Eng.“
Interest in mead and the pre-industrial old ways mingled in the hippie movement. In 1966, The Byrds released “Renaissance Fair,” a tune co-written by Roger McGuinn (then still Jim) and David Crosby, who by then had taken to dressing a bit like a Hobbit, and who’d been inspired by having attended the Pleasure Faire earlier that year. In 1966, the Society for Creative Anachronism was founded in Milpitas — and they actively promoted mead. By 1966, Toluca Mart was advertising kosher Kadem mead for its Pesach sale (99 cents a bottle). In 1968, a winery at Elk Gove then operated by the Gibson Wine Company became (according to the California Agricultural Department), the sole producer of mead in the US, which they sold as Wassail Mead Honey Wine until at least 1979. In 1969, the Long Beach Unitarian Church through a “medieval frolic” for Christmas at which attendees were served mead.
Chaucer’s Mead, long the most common brand, has its roots in a pre-Prohibition winery in the San Francisco Bay established by the Bargetto Family in 1910. They later moved operations to Soquel where they specialized in dessert wines. Around 1974, they launched their now well-known Chaucer’s Mead. Linganore Winecellars was founded in Maryland in 1976 and began making a mead. By the late 1970s, these mass-produced meads were targeted primarily at the Renaissance Fair crowd. In 1978, however, Jimmy Carter signed a law reopening the beer market to small craft brewers and home-brewers and a few people began making mead in their homes.
For Habesha Angelenos, there’s presumably never been anything quaint, affected, or old-fashioned about drinking mead, which in Amharic is known as ጠጅ (tej). Tej has been produced for thousands of years without interruption. Tej is still often home-brewed but there are commercial operations, too, like New York‘s Brotherhood Winery, Pittsburgh‘s Ferenj Tej, and Washington‘s Makeda Tej. Most tej is homemade and uses a bittering agent called gesho (Rhamnus prinoides; a species of buckthorn endemic to Africa) to balance out the sweetness of the honey and which imparts a distinct flavor. In 1988, Gekere Gebre-Mariam opened Los Angeles’s first Ethiopian restaurant, Rosalind’s, which planted the seeds of Little Ethiopia. Today Los Angeles is home to the nation’s second-largest Ethiopian American community (after Washington, D.C.‘s) and thirty or so Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants. I’ve probably eaten at half of them and don’t recall any that didn’t have tej on the menu.
The US’ first purpose-built meadery is Rabbit’s Foot Meadery, which began operation in Sunnyvale in 1995. By 2003, there were apparently about sixty registered meaderies in the US. Americans, in my view, began thinking about our relationship with honey bees more around this time. “Colony collapse disorder” was coined in 2007 — around the same time that urbanites began building apiaries in cities and people were losing their minds for Mānuka honey. Around 2009, the Mazer Cup International Mead Competition was inaugurated. The American Mead Makers Association was founded in Washington in 2012. In 2015, Los Angeles City Council repealed a 136-year-old ban on beekeeping within city limits. The prohibition against beekeeping had been passed shortly after the 1873 creation of the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association, based on the misinformed view that bees were somehow bad for citrus orchards. Bees, we now know, are good — and so is mead.
Today there are about 450 registered meaderies in the US and roughly 50 wineries that make at least one mead. Regional wineries and breweries that make at least one mead include Apiary Beverage Company, The Blending Lab Winery, Good Omen Brewing Company, Serpentine Cider, and SoCal Vibes. Brewers even more focused on mead in Southern California include Batch Mead, Chubby Cheeks Meadery, Golden Coast Mead, Heidrun Meadery, The Honest Abe Cider House & Meadery, Honey Pot Meadery, Lost Cause Meadery, The Meadury, Meadiocrity Mead, O’Neill Honey Company, Raging Cider & Mead Company, and Twisted Horn Mead & Cider. At the time of writing, I haven’t been to any — but today seems like as good of a day as any to rectify that situation. Otherwise, perhaps get some Ethiopian today and wash it down with a bottle of tej.
Please drink responsibly — which means, above all, transit responsibly! That means walking, taking a train, or taking a bus to and from your watering hole of choice. It’s my opinion that bars and restaurants that serve alcohol should be required by law to turn their parking lots into beer gardens, parks, or housing. Just say no to driving.