Lithuanians love their honey and its medicinal qualities

Honey is used in small number of alcoholic beverages, either as a base ingredient or a sweetening flavor enhancer. Until the discovery of cane sugar, honey was one of the very few sweeteners available, and was considered an indulgent luxury. Only the rich and powerful could spare honey for use in the production of beer and wine, and even then it was used primarily to improve the flavor of weak ales.

Mead is the most prominent example of a product fermented from honey. The honey is first mixed with water and sometimes grain mash (from which it is separated following fermentation) and the resulting liquid is then allowed to ferment. The alcoholic strength of mead varies from 8-17 percent ABV, unless fortified with grape spirit or grain spirit. Regional variants of mead exist in several localities around the world, such as Hydromel in France, Honigwein in Germany and Toaka in Madagascar. Mead which has been aromatized with herbs and/or spices is known as Metheglin. The most common additions to Metheglin are lavender, thyme, mint, cloves, cinnamon and ginger.

 

Lithuanian Mead – The world’s oldest alcoholic drink

Lithuanian Mead is a world’s oldest alcoholic drink – the recipe of which finds mention in the ancient Indian text Rig Veda 6000 years ago.

The Lithuanian company Lietuviškas Midus (Lithuanian Mead) holds the patent for this unique drink whose roots can be traced back to India. They produce 200,000 litres of it annually and require 100 tonnes of honey for its production. The drink’s low alcoholic content and unique sweet taste is bound to be a hit with Indians”.

Mead plays an important role in culture and nutrition of many nations. It is no surprise that so many nations consider mead their national drink as mead is a worldwide phenomena by its origin and distribution. One will meet many nations in Africa and in Europe, in the Americas and Asia that are proud of mead as their national beverage.

Over the course of centuries, mead was a ritual and a casual drink, used in different feasts, and a common supplement to food on the tables bothof kings and peasants. The Western tradition of mead dates back to antiquity and to early mediaeval times.

Mead is sometimes called the Northern or Eastern European wine. It is difficult to imagine the life and religion of ancient Germans, Balts and Slavs without this drink.

Lithuanian ancestors Balts were using mead thousands of years ago (since 1600 B.C.).

They drank mead out of drinking horns coated with metal (the most elaborately decorated are found from the period of 4th – 6th century A.D.).

The Anglo-Saxon traveller and merchant Wulfstan of Hedeby (about 890-893 A.D.) while describing the Aistians referred to the fact that they have plenty of mead.

About 1326 the chronicler Peter of Dusburg, writing about the Baltian tribe – Prussians, mentioned that they drank honey wine, or mead.

Historical sources make reference that in the Lutsk meeting (1428) convened by Vytautas the Great, the Lithuanian Grand Duke, also attended by Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor; they drank 700 barrels of mead every day.

Mead was widely used by Lithuanian rulers in their manors, and for state representation also in later times. For instance, in the 16th century in the royal manor of Geranainiai close to Vilnius, in Krichevo (Byelorussia) and other in places they were keeping royal mead stock.

Some remaining data indicate that in the middle of the 16th century in Vilnius (Antakalnis) and other places they had mead breweries with highly specialised brewers.

Historical sources indicate that in the 17th century mead was also used by the most famous Lithuanian noble family, Radvila.

Mead prevalence in Lithuanian urban culture, according to historical statements, can be well reflected by the so-called church fraternities of mead in Vilnius and other towns, whose members were brewing, consuming and selling mead on religious occasions. Probably the biggest amount of mead was used by population in inns (karčema), the network of which, in the middle of the 15th – 18th century covered nearly the entire territory of Lithuania.

The epoch of Lithuanian mead development lasted till the 18th century. In that time, with the development of agriculture, the use of grain for the production of bier and vodka increases. Many bier breweries and vodka distilleries appear and the peasants are forced to buy vodka from the estates. As tree hollow apiculture starts to disappear, the production and use of mead declines.

The 20th century sees the rise of interest in Lithuanian mead production. The first company that started producing mead was Beini Šakovas Prienai bier brewery. There four kinds of mead were produced. Mead was left to mature for five years and a bottle of three quarters would cost eight Litas. This mead was exported abroad, mostly to Palestine. It is told that this mead was liked by President Antanas Smetona. When in 1940 this brewery was nationalized, the production of mead was stopped. In 1944, Prienai bier brewery was bombed out.

Further history of Lithuanian mead is closely related to the life of Aleksandras Sinkevičius. In 1957, Aleksandras Sinkevičius, a technologist at Klaipėda bier brewery Švyturys, received an approval of the then board of food industry to start producing Lithuanian mead. However, only after the change of several factories, on September 8, 1958, at the old boiling department of Lietkoopsąjunga (Union of Lithuanian Cooperatives) Stakliškės brewery Gintaras the first 700 litres of mash for Lithuanian mead Dainava were produced. In July 1960, the first 1200 bottles of very mild, racy, amber-coloured, 10% alcohol by volume Lithuanian mead Dainava went to the shops. Since a successful start of this mead, several other mead varieties were created and strong beverages were started to be produced using mead as their basis.

The author of national beverages Aleksandras Sinkevičius claimed that there was a noble reason underlying the production of honey drinks: one wished to create beverages that would decorate our festive table, would express Lithuanian hospitality and would not harm a person.

On March 25, 1969, the then invention committee of the Soviet Union registered the production technique of a honey drink Lietuviškas midus (Lithuanian mead) as an invention.

 

In Lithuania, the mead has been declared a national heritage product

Historical records show that on September 30, 1969, Queen Elizabeth II granted the Stakliskes factory Lietuviskas Midus with the patent number 1280830 making it the sole producer of this drink.

No formulations have survived of the old Lithuanian mead, produced several hundred years ago, but it is believed that in those times, water and honey solution were heated with spices (thyme, ginger, lemon, cinnamon, cherries, wild strawberries, blackberries, lime buds, juniper berries and sometimes hops) before the solution was filtered and fermented using beer or wine yeast. The base for the production of this drink is natural bee honey.

At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, mead was almost no longer produced, thanks to beekeeping suffering a serious crisis.

In the 20th century, the interest for Lithuanian mead production saw a sudden revival.

This drink with added vitamins is now made from honey, hops, lime flowers, juniper berries and other vitamin C-containing additives, aged for at least 18 months.

In 2002, Stakliskes mead was given the status of Culinary Heritage in Lithuania.

 

Ingvar Henry Lotts
Dr. Ingvar Henry Lotts is the founder of the Baltic Review (ISSN 2029-2643).

He is member of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of the BALTIC REVIEW and President of the Union of Lithuanian Germans (LVS).

Ingvar Henry Lotts lives in Vilnius with his wife Elvyra, a orphanage director, and their daughter Anna-Gertruda, student of the Vilnius University.