An essay on the difference between fermented honey beverages in Latvian culture.


Honey is the most concentrated source of sugar that can be found in nature. It is sweeter than grapes, figs or dates, in which natural amount of sugar is no more than 16%. Also honey contains wild yeasts, that are brought into the hive from the flower nectars by bees. The only thing that stops yeasts from fermenting the hive is the huge concentration of sugar. A good way to check whether honey is pasteurized is by adding sterile water into a sterile and closed pot of honey - wild honey should start fermenting in a few days. 

A well-made honey should contain 81-82.5% of sugars, most of which should be simple sugars - glucose, fructose and sometimes saccharose - which bees usually divide into first two. Only southern flowers from Protea and Faurea plant families sometimes contain xylose - all other plant nectars usually contain previously mentioned three. All three types of sugar are a great source of food for the yeast - Saccharomyces Cerevisiae - which, to put it simply, eats sugar and releases alcohol and CO2. Remaining 17% of honey is water, minerals and vitamins content of which is dependant on the type of flower. Thus a fermented honey will contain alcohol, water and less than a percent of minerals and vitamins. It won't be sweet, cause yeast will eat all of the sugar found in honey and turn it into alcohol and CO2. 


Mead is simple - it's enough to dissolve a beehive in water to obtain an alcoholic beverage a few days later. Many believe that a first alcoholic beverage known to mankind came from a wild tree-hive that was broken in a storm and filled with rainwater - after tasting the content people started recreating the process. Interesting but up until the 18th century, the word honey was used to describe both the bee product and the fermented beverage. The brewing of honey has been described as an important activity for the Baltic tribes described in the Livonian Chronicles of Henry. 

A local Latvian beverage Miestiņš is an important distinction as a link between braggot (honey + malt)  and melomel (fruits + honey). The name is etymologically connected to an Indo-European word Mei - meaning "to mix", "to change". Name describes a fermented drink made from mixed sources of sugar (malt + honey, malt + juice, honey + juice). 

So is mead, braggot or miests an ale? 

The answer lies in etymology. The word "Ale" comes from proto-Indo-European "alu" one of the connotations of this word is "to ferment". For centuries most fermented drinks were described as "alu". Ancient meads were often spiced up with various herbs and hops to balance the taste. Only later "ale" was used to describe fermented malt drinks. Baltic tribes have used hops and malts for ages, it can be proven by the fact that malts and hops were used as a tax before northern Crusades. 

Tribal locals probably used to ferment both honey and malt types of ales. Only around 17th Century with depression in forest beekeeping due to an expansion of farming lands and a decrease in demand for wax candles malt fermented beverages outrivaled honey fermentation. A ratio can be seen in an episode from 1624. when some brewer paid a tax for 12 barrels of beer and 1 barrel of mead at St. Mathews church. 


There are several ancient ways of fermenting mead. All recipes start out by diluting honey in water and boiling it while taking off the scum. 

One must remember that beekeeping the way we understand it started only in 18th Century so all honey was gathered by destroying wild hives. Honey wasn't available in pure form only together with other bee products, including the hive and bees - all of this was strained before the addition of yeast. 

The honey to water ratio usually was 1:6, that results in a 7% ABV, up to 1:2 which during the brew loses approximately half the volume, resulting in up to 25% ABV. 

Unfortunately, only a few modern yeast strains can achieve such deep fermentation, these strains must be fed a vitamin cocktail to strengthen the outer shell of the cell. It is unlikely that any of medieval yeast strains were able to ferment such a high ABV, probably stopping at 10 - 13%. The fermentation would stop cause the yeast would start dying from the alcohol toxicity, leaving a lot of sugar (~250g/l) unfermented. This drink would be very inebriating - at that time 13% was an unearthly amount of alcohol. 

Another way of achieving a sweet mead is to drink it before the fermentation is done. If the fermentation is still going - then there is still sugar in the liquid. Since historical literature mentions that a time of fermentation was usually 2-3 weeks, we can guess that Latvians did not drink unfinished beer. 

A third way of using honey was by adding honey to a freshly fermented beer. This was called a honeyed beer. As it was impossible to measure ABV at that time, it is possible that innkeepers would fool their customers by serving honey-beer instead of mead. This practice became popular in the 17th century with the rise of prices of honey. 



Very often brewers and beer drinkers confuse terminologies. Industrial breweries will often use "mead" as a marketing ploy, communicating the ancient culture and health benefits of honey, when none are present. Unfortunately, the law doesn't demand brewers to put a full list of ingredients on the label. Based on previous discourse we offer a distinction in labels. 

1) Honey - a fermented drink made from water, honey and yeast. This beverage can be sweet only if ABV is 13% and above. 

2) Mead - a fermented beverage made from water, honey, herbs (including hops) and yeast. The drink is sweet only above 13% ABV, in all other cases its dry with alcohol sharpness and herbal flavorings. 

3) Braggot and Miests - a beverage which is fermented from mixed sugar sources. The mixture can contain malts, honey and juices, various herbs can be used for balancing. This drink can be sweet or dry, but below 13% the sweetness can't originate from honey - the sweetness can come from malts or lactose. 

4) Sweetened beer - a regular beer to which honey is added after the fermentation is over to add sweetness. This drink should be pasteurized to ensure that no additional fermentation occurs. 

5) Honey flavoured beer - we all know that crab sticks do not actually contain crab meat. Thus beer can taste like honey without any honey being present - this should be disclosed on a label.