Drinks from Fermented Honey

by frankbeswick

In the past when honey was the main sweetener it was brewed into a range of drinks.

People only began to extract sugar from plants in the early Middle Ages, and then it was a rarity hardly known on the shores of Britain. For most people natural sugars were the only sweeteners. The practice of adding sugar to strengthen a brew was therefore unknown. But the main sweetener was honey, and this was at the basis of several brews, such as mead, piment and braggot, along with a range of others.

Image courtesy of mizar_21984

Mead and Mixed Honey Drinks

The history of mead,  sometimes known as honey wine,  is rooted in the depths of time, when people first mixed honey and water and saw that what was produced by fermentation through what we now know was natural yeasts. Over the years the making of mead became refined and people learned more about it,developing refined tastes.At some time brewers realized that the must, the mixture from which a mead is made, should be of a thickness such that an egg should float in it to half its depth. But strangely mead was not always very  sweet.The best brewers fermented much of the sweetness  from it so that what resulted was a dry, fiery tasting brew. Yet there were sweet meads, and it is said that one was a favourite at the court of Queen Elizabeth the First. In this kind of mead the sugar was not as fully fermented as it was in  drier meads.  Up to the late eighteenth century English working class sometimes drank alu,an ale strength mead weaker than the conventional wine strength meads mentioned above, as an alternative to barley brewed ales. This was  sometimes known as honey beer or ale mead. 

There were  hybrid drinks. One that faded out of sight at the Reformation was cyser, which was often brewed in the monasteries, which had both hives and  apple orchards. The alcohol was produced from the mead sugars and the pressed apple pulp, from which the best cider is made. A similar hybrid is braggot or braggon, which was made from a fifty per cent blend of mead must and ale must made of barley malt. This was still drunk in the eighteenth century, but faded from fashion. A third mixture was an ancient one used by the Romans, piment, which follows the fifty per cent honey mixture principle but mixes it with grape juice. It is said to make a sweet dessert drink. The advantage of these hybrid drinks is that they are cheaper to make  than mead is, for honey is not always in the greatest supply. A fourth hybrid was a mixture of mead and fruit juice make melomel. Any fruit can be used, but when red currants are used the brew is called red mead, whereas if the ingredient is white currants, it is white mead.

Next we come to metheglynn, which is a Welsh term  for medicine. It was customary among mediaeval herbalists to administer herbal potions in alcoholic drinks, for most the drink was ale, but at times they were administered in mead. Any herbs could be used in metheglynn.

Mead fell from favour in the nineteenth century when mass produced barley and white grain sugar became easily available to brewers, as did more effectively produced yeasts that could provide brews strong enough to take higher levels of alcohol than more primitive yeast varieties could. However, mead has been enjoying a come back among food and drink enthusiasts,   

Winter Warmers.

Some drinks contained honey mixed with herbs and spices. One is known as a bishop, which was a winter warmer. There is a wide range of bishops using a variety of ingredients. To make one take a citrus fruit, make incisions in the rind and insert whatever spice takes your fancy, but cinnamon, cloves, ginger or nutmeg were the most popular. Roast it in the oven. Put spices in a saucepan with a pint of water and boil until half a pint remains. Pour in a bottle of heated red wine. Then add the roasted citrus and spices and leave the lot for ten minutes. Strain and it is ready for drinking. If the wine used were claret the bishop became cardinal, and if champagne it was called pope. But if you want a genuinely rural English bishop, use blackberry or elderberry wine. When wine making I have sometimes blended these two berries and the result is a tasty wine. Traditionally in England a bishop was drunk from a pewter pot.

Negus, named after an English colonel, is a simple bishop. Any wine or spirit can be used, but in the eighteenth century rum was popular, having been the favourite of the navy. The beverage was heated with half a pound of honey,a few cloves and some lemon or orange juice, all heated in half a pint of water. Don't let it go to higher than 80 degrees, or the alcohol will boil off.

Caudle is another favourite from the Elizabethan age. Take a quarter pound of honey and pour over it two pints of brown ale and stir in a spoonful of oatmeal. Keeping it covered to avoid loss of alcohol, leave in a  low oven for two hours. Strain off and add spices. This drink was a winter  warmer,but also administered in large doses to women in childbirth. I don't think that women would be allowed this in a modern hospital, but I suppose that anything that eases childbirth is a good thing.

There is a wide variety of recipes for any folk foods, but what I would say is that to be true to tradition, if you are using beer or ale, ensure that you use real ale. Modern chemical brews are an insult to our national drink. 


"Wass Hail, drink ale!" This was a rallying cry at the midwinter festival, an Anglo-Saxon term meaning good health, drink ale or whatever alcoholic substance you could get. We got the mediaeval term wassailing from this; and thus comes  the folk song, a refrain from which is as follows: 

"Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green

Here we come a wassailing so fair to be seen

Love and joy come to you and to you your wassail too

May God  Bless you and send you a happy New  Year

And send you a happy New Year

Wassailing was the custom of children going round singing carols and expecting goodies in return.

With folk drinks like this there are no hard and fast rules. The basic recipe is half a pound of honey, onto which is poured a bottle of either wine or real ale. Boil for five minutes and add whatever fruits and spices you desire. Then heat in a slow oven until it is around eighty degrees. Take out and savour. 

I like traditional recipes from the British Isles, whether they be British or Irish,for a feel that they are integral to my heritage;and my lifestyle which aims at a high level of self-reliance draws much on traditional ways when possible. I have given you a taste of Britain past. I hope that this taste will endure and flourish into the future, and I have every confidence that in this over-automated  age  people will return to the safe roots of tradition. 

Updated: 10/08/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 10/20/2015

Hook Tower may have been a site of metheglynn making, but Skellig Michael was very limited in size and resources, so I doubt that metheglynn would have been made there. I suspect that they might have foraged on the mainland for berries to make wine, and medicinal herbs would have gone into this wine.

My preference is white drinks over red, so white currant mead is my favoured, but I do drink other kinds.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/19/2015

frankbeswick, Thank you!
Do you prefer red or white currant mead?
The availability of meaderies always seems like such a connection to the "old ways" since the drink has been around for so long.
Would Dubhán at Hook Tower and the monks of Skelligs have made metheglynn?

frankbeswick on 10/13/2015

Heather honey turned into alu/mead is a traditional British drink, but it is the preserve of connoisseurs and expert brewers. I have made mead and melomel, but heather mead has eluded me, as I have been unable to source the heather flowers, which take a long and arduous time a-picking.

These drinks are not popular in the USA, you say, but one thing is sure, in a large, vibrant free country, as the USA is, someone somewhere is producing these drinks.

ologsinquito on 10/13/2015

I"ve never had any of these either. They're not popular in the US.

frankbeswick on 10/13/2015

Almost all honey can be fermented, though eucalyptus honey has presented some difficulties due to its chemical content. What we must realize is that honey is not just sugar. It contains a rich blend of plant chemicals, and the wider the range of flowers from which the bees have fed the wider the chemical content. This is why honey should never be purified, as purification gets rid of these beneficial chemicals, and that is why raw jungle honey is so health giving,for its rich chemical blend must be good for us. Honey contains nutritious minerals.

In Britain there are experts who can tell what plants the bees have been feeding on from the taste of the honey. Heather honey, produced when the bees have been foraging on the high moors in heather flowering season, is deemed especially tasty. I have seen bees flocking around lavender, and on my allotment I kept a patch of borage for the bees to feast on-they love it. But I do not keep bees and so I cannot have any of their honey.

WriterArtist on 10/13/2015

I am surprised that honey would be so versatile. Though I haven't tasted any fermented honey drinks, I am sure they will be tastier than the conventional drinks sweetened with sugar. Besides, raw jungle honey is good even for diabetics. I so much wish that traditional recipes get preserved, they were healthier and would not cause all these diseases related to high sugar and cholesterol.

blackspanielgallery on 10/08/2015

Interesting that in olden days they learned to check the density of a liquid with an egg.

And wassailing has always been a mysterious word in a Christmas carol.

Nice lesson in history.

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