Ancient beverage provides sweet window into man's history with fermentation

There's nothing like swigging back a mug full of mead, grabbing your ax, donning your furs and sailing off to pillage new lands.

OK, OK, so this Viking dream probably wouldn't go over too well in Santa Fe, considering the lack of good sailing waters — and no, the Santa Fe River doesn't count — not to mention the fact that police frown upon ax-swinging warriors, at least within city limits.

But with a cup of mead in your hand, you almost feel in touch with the lively people who once partook of what may be man's oldest fermented beverage.

Mead, which is a honey-based alcoholic beverage on a scale somewhere between beer and wine, dates back easily thousands of years. It's relatively simple to make, even by accident, which could explain the age-old mystery of how man first learned that boozing it up by a roaring fire was an experience worthy of passing on to generation after generation, said Darragh Nagle, owner of Santa Fe's Falcon Meadery, the only consistently operating meadery in the state.

"It's probably the first alcoholic beverage — all you need is water and honey, and yeast occurs naturally in the air," Nagle said.

Mead probably first came about when ancient people would carry or store honey in clay pots for later use, Nagle said.

Most likely, a pot or two cracked during transportation and then it rained, letting water and some airborne yeast into the mix.

Perhaps six months later, in winter, when the lucky creators went to the storehouse to liberate some of their honey, they found the strange concoction, decided not to waste it and gave it a taste.

And it was good.

It was also probably created in several places at around the same time, Nagle said.

Mead's use has been noted in ancient Hindu cultures, ancient Greece and Rome, by early Germanic tribes, in Africa and yes, also by those pesky Vikings.

"The Vikings used to drink it, along with many other European cultures," Nagle said. "Before going into battle they drank a lot of mead. They said it gave them the strength of three men."

Nagle, who doesn't quite have the strength of three men, first tried mead more than 20 years ago, in the perfect location — outdoors by a roaring fire, he said.

"A friend of mine handed me a wineskin at a campfire, and I tasted it," he said. "And I said, 'Wow! I have to learn how to make this.' "

His first taste and the first batch he ever made was a blackberry mead, but being a natural tinkerer, Nagle soon expanded to other flavors.

"I started right away making blackberry, but then I went to peach, the strawberry," Nagle said. "I've made a lot of types since then. Right now I'm thinking about making a choke-cherry mead."

After years of experimentation, Nagle decided to share his concoctions with the rest of the world, so in 2005 he formed Falcon Meadery.

The company barely pays the bills, but for Nagle, it's more of a passion than a profit-making endeavor. And business has been growing.

Last year, he made and sold 500 gallons of his various mead types. In 2008, he hopes to make 1,000 gallons, he said.

"That's still very small for a winery," he added.

Don't just drink it, make it

Nagle brews his mead with local ingredients and tries to keep things organic, he said.

But while he'd love for people to check out his meads, he also encourages people to try making their own.

As a starting point, he recommends the following:

* Buy a 5-gallon brewer's barrel and a big spoon from a brewer's shop.

* Add 1-1/4 gallons of honey, 3-3/4 gallons of water and some brewer's yeast.

* If you want to add fruit, put it in a cheesecloth bag, then squash it up and stick it in before the yeast. The yeast should always go in last.

* The brewer's barrel has a lid with a cork and a bubbler. Stir all your ingredients up, then let them sit until the bubbler stops bubbling.

* Keep an eye on fruit you may have added and remove it when it gets nasty or spoiled.

* After the mix stops bubbling, in a few weeks, you can taste it. Nagle recommends waiting between six months and a year before drinking it, so the flavor has time to develop.

And when it's done, stick it in a wineskin, camp out by a nice roaring fire, and imagine yourself back in the ancient days, chugging away with those ax-wielding Vikings.

Contact Sue Vorenberg at

Want to try some local mead? Check out Falcon Meadery at or call 471-3432.

For home brewing supplies and information, visit Santa Fe Homebrew Supply at 6820 Cerrillos Road, #7 (across from Clayton Homes near Newman's Nursery); call 473-2268; or log onto

Vicky Rowe
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