The Minoan Path: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

Walk the sacred labyrinth with Ariadne, loving goddess of ancient Crete who lives on in the hearts and minds of the modern world. This is not a reconstructionist tradition, but a journey of modern Pagans in relationship with Minoan deities in the contemporary world. Ariadne's thread reaches across the millennia to connect us with the divine. Will you follow where it leads?

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A Midsummer tipple, Minoan style

One of the aspects of archaeology that continues to amaze me is our ability to scrape tiny bits of residue out of ancient containers and figure out exactly what those containers held thousands of years ago. With this technique, we’ve been able to determine what the ancient Minoans ate and drank and even what kinds of cosmetics they used. Most people picture the people of the ancient world drinking wine, and they certainly did that, but the Minoans also drank mead. You might tend to think of this alcoholic beverage, brewed from honey rather than grapes, in connection with the Norse and the fabulous feasts at Valhalla, but mead was actually a popular drink all over the ancient world. Just be aware that it’s actually a wine, not a beer (honey beer/ale is a different beverage) so, unless you’re a god, don’t go quaffing it by the tankard-full. Today I’m sharing my recipe for mead so, if you like,  you can follow in the footsteps of the many people who have brewed and enjoyed this beverage for millennia.

My first foray into making mead – actually, brewing at all, since mead was the first brew I made – began in 1993. I was inspired by an article I read in the Lughnasadh issue of Keltria Journal. The author of the article, Steven of Prodea, outlined his method for brewing mead. Over the years I’ve refined my recipe but the process is really quite simple. You don’t need to go out and buy any kind of fancy equipment. I brewed my first batch using an empty gallon glass jug (from store-bought apple cider) and a balloon. The ingredients are simple, too: honey, water, and yeast. The only real requirement is that you make sure anything that touches the mead – your equipment, your hands – is scrupulously clean. You don’t want any unfriendly germs competing with the yeast in your brew. The results will likely be undrinkable. So wash everything with hot, soapy water or run it through the dishwasher before using. And wash your hands well, too.

Choose the honey you’re going to use based on its flavor, which will come through in the finished drink. Raw honey is best in terms of flavor, but it also has a natural antibacterial property that will help keep your mead from going bad. And please, PLEASE shell out the couple of dollars for real wine yeast. I'm in the U.S. and I order mine from E.C. Kraus but many large cities have brewing supply shops that can provide what you need. Believe me, bread yeast (the kind you find in the supermarket) will make your mead taste like honey-flavored liquid bread. Not a great drinking experience.

You should be aware that, at least in the U.S., honey is sold by weight rather than volume. A quart of honey (32 ounces by volume) weighs 48 ounces, so be sure you’ve got the right amount of honey for your recipe. For this one, you'll need a quart by volume.  It’s confusing, because in the Imperial measuring system, ounces can be used for both weight and volume. If in doubt, use a measuring cup.

My apologies to the highly evolved folks who use the metric system. I’m American, raised on the Imperial system of measurement, so that’s how my recipes are set up. You can use metric measurements for this recipe as long as you maintain the 3:1 water-to-honey ratio. In other words, you can use 1 liter of honey and 3 liters of water. You’ll need a mixing bowl or pot that will hold your total amount of liquid (4 liters). One packet of wine yeast will still be plenty to brew your batch (to brew up to 5 gallons, in fact).

Unfortunately, if you start a batch today, your mead won’t be ready to drink by Summer Solstice. It typically takes a month for the brewing process to complete, at which point you can either drink your mead or store it to let the flavor mellow a bit. I tend to force myself to be patient and store the finished mead for another three months; the flavor improvement is noticeable. At Midsummer, the Minoans celebrated the emergence of Dionysos from Rhea’s cave and his marriage (the hieros gamos) with Ariadne. Mead strikes me as a most appropriate beverage for that occasion. Provided it is stored in a clean container away from heat and light, your home-brewed mead will keep and still be flavorful for three to five years, so you can enjoy it for several Midsummers to come.

This recipe makes a half-dry mead, in other words, one that’s sweet enough to be pleasant to drink but not so sweet it makes your teeth hurt.

HOMEMADE MEAD

Makes 1 gallon

 

Ingredients:

1 quart honey (measured by volume; 48 ounces by weight)

3 quarts warm water ( about 110° F/43° C)

1 packet white wine or Champagne yeast

 

Equipment:

1 gallon container with narrow neck, preferably glass, but plastic will do

Clean balloon, color of your choice

Large bowl or pot, to hold 1 gallon liquid

Small bowl

Spoon for stirring

Funnel (optional, but helpful for getting the mixture into the gallon jug)

 

In a large bowl or pot, stir the honey and water together well, until the honey dissolves. Pour or spoon a few tablespoons of the mixture into a small bowl. Sprinkle the wine yeast over and stir until it’s dissolved. Let it sit until it foams up, about 10 minutes. This lets you know the yeast is active and ready to turn your honey-water mixture into wine. Gently stir the yeast mixture back into the honey-water, then pour the liquid into the gallon jug (this is where a funnel comes in handy). Avoid splashing as much as possible, since oxygen slows down the fermentation process. Stretch the mouth of the balloon over the neck of the jug, making sure it seals well (you don’t want microbes from the air to invade your brew). Set the jug in a place away from drafts, where it won’t be disturbed, and let it do its thing. In one to two weeks, the fizzing will stop and the balloon will deflate. Note the level of liquid in your jug, then carefully pour the contents of the jug into a clean container, leaving the sediment in the jug (it’s mostly dead yeast – add it to your compost!). Clean out the jug, pour the good stuff back in, and fill it back up to the original level with warm water. Put the balloon back on and let it sit for a few more weeks, until you’re sure the yeasties have stopped doing their thing. Pour the contents into bottles, leaving any remaining sediment behind, and enjoy!

You can scale this recipe up to make larger batches (I typically make 5 gallons at a time now). You can also throw in any spices you like – cinnamon, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cloves – just a few pinches in a gallon batch. You can substitute fruit juice (apple and grape are good) for up to half the water for a different flavor, but don’t sub more than half the water or the resulting beverage will be too sweet to drink.

Be aware that yeast is active in direct proportion to the temperature, so if you set your brewing jug in a cold basement, you may or may not get mead. If you set it on a hot porch, the balloon may blow right off. You want a gentle, mid-range temperature (70 to 80 F/21 to 27 C) for good fermentation, about the same temperature you would use for letting yeasted bread dough rise.

If you find you want to brew more and larger batches, you may want to invest in a few items such as 5-gallon carboys, airlocks, and plastic tubing. But really, all you need is a jug and a balloon.

Happy brewing and merry Midsummer!

In the name of the Bee -

And of the Butterfly -

And of the Breeze - Amen!

 

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; my most recent work is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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