Common things on the Rosh Hashanah table are honey cake, challahs, apples and, if you’re at my table, a glass of mead. The drink of epic fictional heroes and Vikings and likely what was in the goblets in Game of Thrones is this sweet elixir made by honeybees. This ancient alcoholic beverage is staging its renaissance right now, and what better way to celebrate than with Rosh Hashanah and a sweet new year?
Mead, otherwise known as honey wine, is believed to be the world’s oldest alcoholic drink. Made by fermenting honey with water, mead can be flavored in a similar way to beer with various fruits, spices, grains and even hops. But with higher alcohol content than beer (between 8 and 20% ABV), mead also shares similarities to wine.
Mead through the Ages
We can trace the history of mead all the way back to 3,000 BCE. In Norse mythology, there is a legend of a magical beverage called “Poetic Mead,” which was crafted from the blood of the wise Norseman Kvasir who was created by the gods. When he was killed, his blood was mixed with honey and whoever drank the Poetic Mead took on his intelligence. Mead was also drunk by ancient Greeks, Africans and Chinese, and Aristotle even mentions mead in his writings of Meterologica.
Why Not Wine?
Mead is often times associated with wines and ciders—being called honey wine doesn’t help—but it is part of its own distinct category of alcoholic beverages. Made from a fermentation of honey, yeast and water, mead stands apart from the crowd, as it’s not made of fruit (like wine) or grains (like beer).
With only three core ingredients, mead’s flavor varies significantly depending on the type of honey used in the fermentation process. During Rosh Hashanah, many of us do a honey taste test, sampling different kinds of honey. If you’ve ever done that, then you know that there are so many varieties out there! The taste of honey comes from the honeybee’s diet of nectar and pollen. More mild flavors of honey come from orange blossom, clover or acacia plants, while bees feasting on wildflowers, blackberry and buckwheat produce stronger, spicier honey. With so many varieties of honey out there, the opportunities are limitless in terns of mead production.
In addition to the honey and yeast, fruit, herbs and spices can also be added to mead. Used as a form of food preservation like pickling, summer produce can get thrown into the mix to make a berry-flavored mead for later in the year, while warm spiced mead is popular with gingerbread cookies and other winter treats.
So, in addition to the grape wine used for prayers, raise a glass of mead to toast this sweet new year! You can find mead in wine shops and grocery stores, or head to a taproom like Charm City Meadworks in Baltimore for a first-hand look at the mead-making process (note their mead is made with kosher ingredients, but is not certified). Feeling adventurous? Try making it yourself. Enjoy a glass of mead alongside some Apple Cake, Baked Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts or Seven Species Challah. It will be a great new addition to your Rosh Hashanah meal and another way to add some sweetness to your new year.
Photo credit: Madison Scott-Clary