Mead is the spit of the gods.
Norse legend has it that to end the Æsir-Vanir War, the gods gathered together and expectorated in a vat. From this spittle they created a man named Kvisar, a man so wise there was no question he could not answer, and this spittle-man traveled the world bestowing the gods’ wisdom on mankind. This wisdom apparently did not extend to avoiding ambushes, for one day Kvisar was killed while visiting a pair of dwarfs named Fjalar and Galar. The dwarfs mixed Kvisar’s blood with a vat of honey and produced a potent beverage called the “Mead of Poetry,” which translates as “Inspirer of Wisdom.” Anyone who imbibed this drink became an instant “skald” (scholar) and could pen lyrics beyond imagination or make sound arguments out of jumbled thoughts. Thankfully, the mead did not stay in the hands of the dwarfs. To cut a long saga short, it changed hands several times until Odin, one of the most famous Germanic gods, tricked and/or seduced the maiden who was assigned to guard the mead. After three exuberant nights, he swallowed as much mead as he could, turned into a bird, and flew away. When the maiden’s father heard of this, he also transmogrified into a bird and chased after him. But before Odin could be caught, some of the mead dribbled from his mouth and fell down into the human world. There, the humans took a great interest in the mead and the inspiration found in it. The term “Nectar of the Gods” is merely a more palatable term for god spit.1
A more down-to-earth explanation (but no less exciting) is Western History’s theory on the first encounter with mead. It is thought that mead was the first alcoholic drink. This is because it is very simple to create. When honey mixes with water in an open environment, air-borne yeasts are introduced and they begin turning the sugar into alcohol – fermentation. One can imagine the scenario: early hunter-gatherers came upon a hollow tree filled with a strange, bubbling water. This hollow formerly held a colony of bees, but something happened which allowed the water to flow into the cavity. Though the water smelled strange, one of the brave hunters tried it. The rest of the band watched him to see what happened, and when he started laughing and dancing about, they drank the rest and all felt drunk for the first time in human history.
That incident happened many, many thousands of years ago. From there, techniques of creating alcohol rose independently and repeatedly throughout cultures. This is thanks to tiny microorganisms which change the original food’s sugars into acids, gases or alcohol. Fermented foods, in general, play a base role in a culture’s identity: the wine and cheese of France, beer and sauerkraut of Germany, olives and bread of Italy, soy sauce and miso of Japan. Add to this already noteworthy list: coffee, chocolate, tea, yogurt, and you see we how much we need to thank these busy little yeasts.
The original purpose of fermentation was to preserve food in a time when refrigeration was non-existent. Salt and a lack of oxygen allowed foods to keep for much longer time periods. Though people had been preserving food for as long as memory, they didn’t know what was physically happening to the food. The scientists of yore knew nothing of germs, yeasts and bacteria, instead believing in the phenomenon of spontaneous generation: maggots appearing magically in dead flesh, the goose from the goose barnacle and anchovies from sea foam, to name a few. But this theory fizzled with Louis Pasteur, the French chemist of Pasteurization fame, who wrote that fermentation was not death or putrefaction, but a correlative of life.
Pasteur’s confirmation of the germ theory helped kindle mankind’s fear of them. America, especially, was built on an idea of cleanliness, as immigrants left the dirty hovels of the Old World to find cleaner, open spaces. This mindset has evolved to the present day where there is a drive for complete domination of bacteria, as witnessed by the ridiculous hand sanitizer craze (and subsequent warnings about the creation of superbacteria). But these small creatures are everywhere – in the air we breathe and in every bite we take – and are imperative to all of our physical processes. More creatures live in a linear centimeter of our colon than all the humans that have ever been born, quipped Neil deGrasse Tyson.
My interest in fermenting began with a housemate who kept a handful of strange, bubbling jars above the fridge. He was a sourdough master, always feeding and stirring his beloved starter, and every now and then he would whip up a batch of tangy pancakes for the house. Through him I realized that while tasting your own food-creations is satisfying, making them is even more so. Later on I came to realize a fermentation project is a bit like …