Story by Alex Hicks
Photo by Andy Abeyta
The air inside George and Shale Vaughn’s house is thick with the smell of incense—a curious mixture of wintergreen and lavender. The lights are dimmed. A warm glow is cast by a recently lit candle as smoke unfurls in slow, climbing coils. Four basins of caramel-colored mead sit on a hickory wood table ready to be drunk from a brass drinking horn as a homage to Odin. Two additional basins of Beowulf’s preferred beverage sit fermenting beneath the hickory, diagonally across from which stands a 42-inch flat screen TV. Mead has entered the modern world.
Though mead is known to many only through references in period fantasies such as Beowulf or Game of Thrones, it was the world’s first fermented beverage, dating back to circa 2000 BC. Also referred to as “honey wine,” mead is made by fermenting honey with water and then adding extra ingredients like berries or hops for flavoring.
“How it started, I envision, is something like…bread with honey getting dropped in a bucket of water and getting left until the bread went moldy…because [moldy bread] is where the yeast originally came from,” Shale says.
In addition to being the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, mead likely has the widest cultural significance. It is an integral part of cultures across the continents—mead was described as the “preferred drink” in Ancient Greece and even has origins in the earliest forms of Hinduism.
“The interesting thing about mead is that there is mead in nearly every culture on the planet,” Shale says. “Every culture that has honey has mead.”
Although mead enjoyed widespread popularity in times of antiquity, its resurgence in the modern era is a result of being able to physically procure honey. According to Huy Tran, the marketing director for Eugene, Oregon-based Blue Dog Mead, honey’s limited availability in the United States until the 20th century hurt mead’s market viability.
“Honey wasn’t a commercialized commodity until the 1950s [in the United States],” Tran says. “So you didn’t see a lot of experimentation with it.” However, the most recent decade has seen a significant rise in meaderies across the country. “There were only 40 or 50 meaderies in the US five years ago,” Tran says. “Now you’re seeing over 400 or 500.”
Now that mead has successfully entered the modern American world, people are continuing to use it to remain connected to the ancient cultures from which it originated. Take Shale and her husband George, for example. The two practice Ásatrú, a form of Norse paganism that originated during the Viking Age. Referred to as “the Poet’s Drink,” mead is used in every ceremony or celebration in the religion. “Anything celebratory, religious, spiritual, toasting, bragging…any sort of celebration was mead, mead, mead,” Shale says.
Two such rituals are called sumbel and blót. During each event, Ásatrú observers gather in a circle and offer toasts, oaths, or brags. Sumbel is less formal and occurs more frequently, while blót is a rarer ceremony during which observers invoke the gods.
“Sumbel is more like the kind of thing you do every Tuesday,” George says. “Blót is a bigger deal, where you call Gods and Goddesses from all four corners: ice to the north, fire to the south, earth to the east, and water to the west.”
As each speaks, the other members of the circle drink mead from a horn. However, if someone toasts to something other members don’t agree with, they may opt out of drinking. This is often the case with the far right side of Ásatrú who affiliate with principles of White Supremacy.
“You get these White Supremacists, we call them ‘Nazatrus,’ who will toast to Hitler during sumbel,” George says. “We don’t drink to that. We won’t turn around or spit on the ground because it goes against [Ásatrú belief in] of hospitality, but we won’t drink.”
In addition to toasting, mead is also used as a sacrifice. Such sacrifices are made during religious and magic ceremonies, as many observers of Ásatrú also practice magic. These offerings are a form of compensation, a significant value in Ásatrú. As opposed to Christianity, where observers ask favors of God with no tangible offering in return, such exchanges in Ásatrú are conducted as a deal. Shale, in particular, uses these offerings in a thoroughly modern way.
“I was up for a job at work, and I really wanted it,” Shale says. “So I made a public oath on my Facebook (modern heathenry for you), that if the Gods would help me get this job I would offer up five bottles of mead, three pieces of precious amber, and get two tattoos representing the Gods as the sacrifice.”
Rather than using her homemade mead for these sacrifices, however, Shale chooses to offer up mead purchased from an actual meadery. “For offerings I like to use nice mead that I bought because it cost me something. I’m going to go buy mead that I like—that’s expensive, that’s a treat.”
One of these meaderies is Blue Dog Mead, the first meadery established in Eugene. Blue Dog was started by Simon Blatz, a 24-year-old graduate from the University of Oregon. Blatz started brewing mead as a hobby with his mother. However he and his UO classmate Huy Tran saw a way to turn a hobby into a legitimate business opportunity. Since its establishment two years ago, Blue Dog Mead has already expanded into multiple markets and stores across 11 different states and has even begun packaging mead in cans to make the transport easier.
One reason for Blue Dog’s rapidly expanding popularity, Tran speculates, is the rise of concern for Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance. “[Mead] catches a lot of eyes because it is gluten-free and so unique,” Tran says. “And with all the different flavors you can include, it’s very versatile. You can’t have cider every single day—people want variety.”
What makes Blue Dog truly stand out from other meaderies, however, is its dedication to perpetuating the mead culture. The owners choose to focus on education as well as selling their own products. Their website is packed with video tutorials on how to make your own mead, mead recipes, and a list of mead-making books, all aimed at making mead more relevant.
“Like everyone, I read Beowulf back in high school, but you never really think of [mead] as anything other than a component of a story, rather than an actual commercial product on the market,” Tran says.
It’s clear that there is a reason mead has stood the test of time. Its irresistible sweetness connects the drinker to thousands of years of history and hundreds of different cultures across the world. “We don’t want it to be just a niche market for the Renaissance fair,” says Tran. “There’s no reason that it shouldn’t be available to everyone.”