The Greek poet Ovid wrote that Bacchus invented mead, and both the Greeks and Romans identified it with ambrosia, the food of the gods. The ancient geographer Strabo wrote about Arabian cave dwellers who brewed mead for their tribal leaders. But mead was invented long before the Greeks and Romans wrote glowing stories about it.
Mead is thought by some to be the oldest alcoholic beverage invented by man, and it appears almost anywhere in the world where honeybees can be found. It is almost certain that Neolithic people made mead long before they invented writing, probably discovering the process by accident when a jar of mixed honey and water was fermented by wild yeast.
The oldest archaeological evidence uncovered so far, however, was the discovery in northern China of jars containing a fermented mixture of rice, honey and fruit dated to around 7,000 BC. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of mead in a number of digs, including one cache dating back to around 500 to 550 BCE.
Archaeologists have also discovered gigantic, ornate vessels created especially to hold mead, some of which could hold several hundred gallons of the sweet brew. Special drinking cups and goblets were created just for drinking mead, which became a sort of ritual in its own right in many instances. These cups and goblets were frequently buried with their deceased owners, who undoubtedly hoped to enjoy their favorite drink in the afterlife.
While we usually associate mead with the Celts and the Vikings, variations of this versatile brew have been made around the world. The ancient Mayans made and drank honey wine in special ceremonies. The Australian Aborigines also make mead, as do many African tribes.
Mead appears in numerous legends, such as the Mabinogion, the Rig Vedas of India, the Aeneid, and is even mentioned in the Bible. The drink was sacred to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.
Mead was always an expensive drink, and usually was served by the richest individuals in a society as an expression of their wealth and power. But peasants who kept bees frequently created and enjoyed their own versions of mead.
At its most basic, mead is a mix of honey and water, with a fermenting agent added. It is frequently mixed with various spices, fruit and berry juices. Honey is known to be an antibacterial, and the use of mead may well have been therapeutic as well as pleasant to those who drank it.
The origins of mead go so far back into antiquity that we will probably never know exactly how or where it was produced the first time. But even today, many people enjoy the rich, sweet taste of a good mead.