Book Review: ‘Make Mead Like a Viking’ is a magical historical journey
I first heard about Jereme Zimmerman when I was scoping out mead recipes for an article I was writing a few months back. Stumbling onto a small excerpt from his book that was soon to drop, Make Mead Like a Viking: Traditional Techniques for Brewing Natural, Wild-Fermented, Honey-Based Wines and Beers, I felt just from that little bit of text that I knew him and we were great friends.
Jereme is an active community member and contributor at Earthineer, a community-driven online marketplace for modern homesteaders which gained unexpected virality when it struck a chord with self-sustained homesteaders who now had a much needed online trading post. Jereme is a modern homesteader himself, with experience not just in mead but also in farming, cooking, and community sustainability. On the piece of land where he grew up, his mother Jan still raises Nubian goats and his father Wayne made wine for many years mostly from what he grew in the garden. His family of four now lives largely off their small urban plot and get what they can’t produce themselves from local farms. As Jereme tells me,
“I garden, grow mushrooms, brew with what I grow when I can, and am taking steps to start keeping bees. Although I do know folks in town who keep chickens and even goats, I don’t currently. However, I have relationships with several local farms, and often visit the farm where I grew up. That’s where I tend to get the meat, vegetables and milk I don’t produce myself.”
In his earlier days, Jereme found himself in Seattle answering the call of homebrewed ale, where he developed a dislike for the sterile lab-coat culture that brewing has evolved into. As he was carefully monitoring temperatures and measurements while brewing beer, he found himself yearning to brew in the wild and ancient fashion of the original brewers, who didn’t have the tools modern brewers now consider essential.
“I’m all for taking advantage of modern conveniences, but I have a tendency, like one-eyed Odin, to keep one eye focused on what surrounds me and the other closed to allow contemplation on what came before and what is within.” – Jereme Zimmerman, Prologue
As he explored his newfound calling for brewing using traditional methods, he honed his craft through trial and error and by deferring to masters within the growing and exceptionally friendly and helpful meadmaking community.
Up until I got my mitts on Jereme’s book, I was fumbling along through mead making forums and other resources, often confused by conflicting advice. To be fair, many times these things don’t have a right or wrong answer. But reading about Jereme’s perspective on mead really made me realize how much the way you brew at home represents your personality.
“For the Norse and many other ancient cultures, music, dance, meditation, and community were all integral components of the brewing process. To them this was magic.” Introduction to Jereme’s Make Mead Like a Viking
Those who take a more modern, clinical perspective to meadmaking aren’t wrong by any means, but their approach is worlds different than Jereme’s, which expresses reverence for the parts of the process that are wild, mysterious, and magical. Jereme’s values of honoring ancient tradition and maintaining an intimate connection with the land are apparent in the way he brews, and, more importantly for us, the way he writes about brewing.
As he says in the introduction, “my goal is to weave a narrative on why you should brew (and drink) like the ancients.” To that end, the book is a huge success.
Not just a Recipe Book
When this book was in the mail making its journey to me, I imagined it was full of mead recipes and maybe a few personal anecdotes in the style of most modern cookbooks. To my pleasant surprise, it’s actually a compendium of Jereme’s vast knowledge of Viking traditions and beliefs that somehow also manages to act as a potential textbook for Wild Meadmaking 101.
While it would be worth its cover price by only containing Jereme’s patient explanations of methods and recipes, it goes well beyond that. Even if you weren’t planning on making any mead, his condensed explanation of Norse mythology and what it has to do with meadmaking is intruiguing, as is his section on Viking games and peppering of his extensive knowledge of Viking culture throughout.
Of course, one of my favorite sections is on Viking and Anglo Saxon drinking vessels, which includes a lot of info on drinking horns that I had never heard before.
As you may come to expect by now, Jereme hasn’t left any stone unturned when it comes to the physical, spiritual, and holistic process of making mead. This naturally shouldn’t leave out a conversation about bees, apiaries, and our extremely delicate and critical relationship with them, which is here as well.
While he focuses mainly on Viking culture, he often mentions many other mead-drinking cultures from around the world, and includes many recipes from non-Norse traditions. He also includes recipes for meads that act as tonics for coughs and colds, as well as cooking meads infused with savory flavors like garlic.
Magical, Mysterious Mead
The book’s main goal seems to be the promotion of the magical over the sterile in terms of meadmaking. His communion with the earth and his ancestors runs deep, starting with equipment handed down from his father and only going deeper with Jereme’s stress on entering into new batches with the proper attitude of appreciation and excitement of the magical gift that is fermented drink.
Once a mead is ready to drink, it’s time to thank the gods with the enjoyment of life, hearth, and community. Just as the front section is filled with historical treats, so is the back, but this time we learn about games played by Vikings, traditional attitudes on drinking in general, and how drinking mead has remained ceremoniously sacred throughout the centuries.
Besides all of the additional interesting historical and analytical content this book delivers, it also delves deep into wild meadcrafting, which is how the Vikings did it. Jereme has a talent for making the notion of using wild yeast and zero sterilizers seem excessively sane, accessible, and achievable, despite what most 20th century meadmakers would have you believe.
“For all I care, we could be talking about bacteria and yeast that can be seen under a microscope just as much as faeries and pixies frolicking playfully just out of the corner of our eye. As far as I’m concerned, they’re one in the same.” – Jereme Zimmerman
If our main motivation in bringing mead (and drinking horns) back into the mainstream is to reconnect with and rediscover our ancestry, we need to listen to this guy. While we may have brought mead back, in its current clinical and sterile state it’s lost its mystery and magic. Fortunately, Jereme is telling us exactly how to bring that magic back.
Although the general mead making formula, when you get right down to it, is alluringly simple (water+honey+yeast+time=fun), as a beginner looking to the underdeveloped disarray of online mead resources that just now seem to be getting a little more organized, it helps to have a guide like Jereme who talks respectfully but authoritatively, explaining even basic concepts without seeming condescending.
He makes it clear that we shouldn’t be unsafe with our cleaning and handling of equipment, but that being overly safe and killing every living thing may be just as bad. I don’t want to give away too much of one of my favorite parts of the book, but he explains that before people knew it was yeast doing all the fermenting, they believed it was done by magic that required very serious reverence. The beings that made their honey-water into something so much more were part of the family, and were passed down from generation to generation on sacred stirring sticks.
In essence, very old wild yeast was (is?) a treasure worth passing on to your son. If the Vikings had bleach, those yeast strains would have been toast.
While I’ve come across many meadmaking resources online that explain how important it is to make sure all the wild yeast in the air never touches your batch, Jereme patiently and respectfully disagrees, and explains exactly how to create a wild yeast starter from the wild air in your very own neck of the woods.
One thing I particularly appreciate about this book, however, is that he offers alternatives with equal care and respect. He details each common strain of commercial yeast and explains the character its likely to take on, as well as the recipes in which it performs best.
After spending lots of time explaining how to start mead with wild yeast, he goes on to explain different styles of mead while offering several of his favorite recipes, always expounding cultural, historical, and personal context.
Starting the Quest
Even if I never ever made any mead, I’d still be glad I read this book for all I learned from it about the mead community of the past and present. Fortunately, I do plan on starting my first batch soon, and feel much better equipped to take risks and enjoy the process while crafting a quaffable result. I’ll try and let you guys know how it goes.
I’m pretty sure if Jereme could tell us one thing right now, it would be “You’re a Viking–You can do this!”