Alistair Morgan, owner of Viking Mead Ltd, discusses magical sticks and the science of creating the sweet taste of mead
It's early September and at eight o'clock in the evening the sun is still high in the sky. at a latitude of 60 degrees north, Shetland enjoys sunlight in the summer months that stretches on late into the evening. It's the perfect time to take a walk out into the hills of my farm at Burwick to gather some of the vibrant purple heather that is now in full bloom.
After gathering the heather and walking back down the hill, looking out over the various islands on Shetland's west coast, it is easy to imagine the Vikings that settled these islands hundreds of years ago making a similar pilgrimage to gather the ingredients for their brewing.
Looking around I can see the remains of ancient stone settlements dotted across the landscape, including the remains of a broch on the southernmost tip of Burwick which gives the place its name (Burwick means broch bay, from the Old Norse borg and vík).
Living on these remote islands, I am inspired by the resourcefulness and self-reliance of the people who came before. That is what started me on my journey to create Viking Mead. Shetland's Viking heritage is rich, you can see signs of their influence everywhere you go on these islands and, after brewing as a hobby for some time, I wanted to know more about how our Viking predecessors might have done it.
I am by no means an academic expert on the ancient origins of mead, however I have heard an interesting and "common sense" theory about the possible origins of mead, which seem quite plausible to me, at the very least it does make for an interesting story.
In the times before domestic beekeeping, the only way to get honey was to harvest it from wild hives. This of course presented the challenge of getting to the honey without getting stung by many angry bees. A possible solution to this was to take the hive and submerge it in a vat of water, thus drowning the bees and allowing easier access to the honey. During this process some of the honey would have dissolved in the water and if the vat was then left undisturbed, wild yeast present in the environment would then begin to convert the sugars from the honey into alcohol and carbon dioxide. the vat would start to bubble and fizz and become increasingly alcoholic, and of course if you had no concept of microscopic life, you might maturally assume that this was the result of magic or a gift from the gods!
As time went on, and this process was repreated and refinements were made, different botanicals and flavours were added as part of the process and the vats of honey water were stirred with a stick in order to mix in the honey. Colonies of yeast made themselves at home on the surface of these sticks and when they were used for stirring other vats, the yeast would start to do its work and the process would begin again. These became "magic sticks" and were passed down from one generation to the next as family heirlooms, and to this day still exist in parts of Scandinavia. Despite the advances in our knowledge and brewing techniques, there is something magical about taking honey, water and yeast and turning it into delicious mead.
I start by filling a large metal pot with spring water from the well towards the north of the farm, which provides all our water. The metal pot is hung over a large wooden fire and brought to the boil, the fresh heather is added along with some young nettle leaves and some alehoof to add some bitterness. The pot is left uncovered and moved away from the flames slightly to allow a rolling boil for about an hour.
After the boil is complete, I take the pot off the heat and sift out the larger pieces of heather and nettles with a wooden spoon and allow the water to cool to a "blood warm" temperature. Now it is time to add the honey. Shetland's climate means that there is currently not a great deal of honey produced locally however, in its warmer past, wild hives may have been more common or, given how long honey can keep for, it would not be surprising if the Vikings imported honey to the islands. I have sourced some raw heather honey from one of my beekeeping friends to use in the brew. Its quality is undeniable when compared to an off the shelf jar of clear runny honey. The heather honey is thick, with a rich sweet smell of heather. Emptying it into the pot is like scooping ice cream, and it takes several minutes of stirring to dissolve it into the water.
Next it is time to transfer the liquid to the fermenting vessel, which in this case is a small oak barrel. I place a fine meshed cloth over the barrel's opening an pin it in place before slowly pouring the liquid through, straining off any of the small bits of heather and botanicals is it goes. I then rinse off the cloth and replace it over the opening of the barrel. Now it's time to wait and hope that the yeast starts its magic.
Wild yeast is unpredicable so it is difficult to say how it will perform and what the end result will taste like, but sometimes that's half the fun. Fortunately, after checking on it anxiously over the course of a couple of days, I can see and hear signs of fermentation. The cloth is removed and the barrel is sealed with an airlock. After a couple of weeks, the mead is transferred to another barrel and left to age for a few months.
It's now late November and the long winter nights have set in. It is dark by four o'clock in the afternoon and today there is a hard frost setting in. There is not a breath of wind and standing out on the decking at the front of the house it feels like the perfect night to start a small fire and ope the mead. Drawing the bench in closer to the fire to stay warm, I sit down and take in the balance of contrasing experience: the chill of the frosty air, the heat of the fire, the the dry wood smoke ... and the sweet taste of mead.
Alistair Morgan is owner of Viking Mead Ltd, which he founded in 2017.
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