The Science of Happy Hour and Bees
A researcher secures a worker bee with a tiny harness made from a drinking straw. The sociable little creature, industrious and skilled at foraging and navigating, seems to enjoy the diminutive break in her busy day. It’s “Happy Hour,” time for a little nip of a solution carrying measured amounts of ethanol that can mimic the alcohol levels equivalent to those in beer, wine, 200 proof grain alcohol or sugar water.
Twenty minutes pass. As the ethanol takes effect, she grooms less, forgets things, and loses postural control. She sticks out her tongue, becomes wobbly, flips onto her back and wiggles her tiny legs in the air, unable to flip back over. She’s feeling pretty lazy right now, a bit dopey as her senses become increasingly more impaired over time. This one didn’t get mean and aggressive, but some do – just like humans.
Honey bees, like humans, are normally calm and social. Their nervous system closely resembles that of human vertebrates, although their body systems differ a bit. They don’t have a “blood-alcohol level,” because they don’t have blood. Instead, they have hemolymph, which is the equivalent of human blood and can be measured for levels of ethanol over determined periods of time. Our little bee is pretty “toasted” and will suffer from her hangover for more than 48 hours. With too much alcohol, she could have died – just like a human.
In an effort to grasp greater knowledge about the processes of the human brain, Julie Mustard, an entomologist at Ohio State University and Geraldine Wright, a fellow doing her postdoctoral research, joined forces with Brian Smith, Professor of Entomology and Ian Maze, undergraduate student, in this ground-breaking study, presented at the Annual Society for Neuroscience Conference in San Diego during the Fall of 2004. Probing the relationship between neural functions and alcohol, they hope to uncover the facilities that drive alcohol-related human behaviors such as addiction, aggression, tolerance and sobriety.
Bees bear a connection to the future of neuroscience and medicine that is just as important as their link to past legends of mythology and human sustenance. The honeyed halls of history lead to a rich heritage connecting bees with beer – a heritage that rose independently from different corners of the earth throughout the course of civilization in the development of mead, or honey beer.
Bees – The Source of Mead
You will find countless references to mead throughout world histories – references within the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as in the English epic, Beowulf. The renowned Icelandic author Snorr Sturlson, in Prose Edda, weaves a fascinating tale about the creation of heavenly mead by dwarfs who gave it to the giants. The supreme god, Odin, however, stole the coveted mead for his own godly pleasure!
The Greeks, Assyrians, and Aztecs used mead in festivals and as a religious drink. Celtic history speaks of “mead halls” where the followers of a chieftain would gather after a hunt or battle to regale epic tales of bravery and feast on victuals of roasted boar and honey beer. European history recounts the story of Saint Brigid of Kildaire - how she turned water into mead in the royal court of the King of Leister - and Norse mythology that spoke of “Valhalla” where rivers flowed with sparkling mead, while heroic Vikings quaffed from burnished mead horns.
Honey beer has various names throughout the world – mjod (Russian mead), miòd (Polish mead), t’ej (Ethiopian mead), meodu (Mead in Olde English), hydromel (French mead), aguamiel (Spanish mead), idromele (Italian mead), met (German mead), mjød (Danish and Norwegian mead), and countless others. This shouts acclaim for the popularity in style throughout the course of time.
Mead, refined yet casual, fills the gap between beer and wine. It is produced by the fermentation of honey, water and yeast, with optional ingredients added such as herbs, extracts, spices, or fruit. Champagne, sherry, wine, ale, mead, or lager yeasts may be used. These may produce vastly different types of mead, some with characteristics of a fine beer, while others parallel the qualities of wine, from dry styles to those with fruity sweetness.
Braggot is made with malted barley, often with a touch of wheat, to produce true honey beer. You will find the appearance and flavors in this category vary greatly - a world of discovery buzzing with enticing seduction!
Braggot from Magic Hat Brewing Company of South Burlington, Vermont, USA is a hazy, illuminated honey-yellow brew, with a light and pillowy head that disperses quickly. The nose is delicately honeyed, with aromas of chamomile and herbal tea and spices. As it warms, honeysuckle and orange blossoms rise to the fore. Hops are floral in character, while the finish is clean and crisp.
Brother Adams Bragget Ale from Atlantic Brewing Company of Bar Harbor, Maine, USA glows of haze and sunset-copper, with an ivory, wispy head. Flavors are heady and complex, with the character of barleywine – rich, fruity, and uncompromising.
Kuhnhenn Braggot from Kuhnhenn Brewing Company of Warren, Michigan, USA sparkles with orange-walnut tones, and sports a large cream-white head. Deeply complex, this tastes like a Belgian with a backbone of “honey-wine” flavor, while upholding a gueze-like sourness to a dry finish.
Taj is Ethiopian style mead with white wine characteristics. It is the result of the spontaneous fermentation of honey, water and gesho, a type of organic hops that are grown in the Ethiopian Highlands. Ethiopia boasts the largest bee population in Africa, making it the fourth largest honey producer in the world. Not surprisingly, Taj is the national drink of Ethiopia.
Axum Tej from Saba Tej (Honey Wine) Company in Rutherford, New Jersey, USA is pale yellow in color, with no carbonation. It has a luxurious honey nose with overtones of spice. The taste is crisp and fresh, not syrupy, with a dry finish.
Traditional mead is made with honey and water. It is not uncommon to find specific varieties of honey used in fermentation, such as Orange Blossom, Clover, or Wildflower Honey. In this category, mead begins to define itself as a unique style – it may be fermented in a brewery, winery, or “meadery.”
Chaucer’s Mead from Bargetto Winery in Soquel, California, USA glows with the color of 14K gold with no carbonation. The aroma is of sweet sugar and honey, with flavors of intoxicating rich honey, balanced with citrus notes. This may be served cold, room temperature, or warmed – particularly with sweet desserts, where it stands at attention without losing steam. It finishes smooth, sweet and clean.
Judwiga from Apis in Lubin, Poland is a clear garnet-mahogany with no head. Aromas are of honey, fruit, perhaps cherries, and hints of oak. It awakens your tastebuds with the blend of dark fruits and honey, a round palate of bourbon and cognac, and a memorable fruit/syrup finish.
Mead from Cumberland Brews of Louisville, Kentucky, USA glistens as transparent yellow. Its honey nose is unoffensive, and the slight carbonation dances on the tongue. It tastes of a light sweetness, very characteristic of traditional mead.
Metheglin is similar to traditional mead, with herbs, extracts, and spices added. It is derived from the Welsh “myddyglyn,” where it was applauded for its powers of magic and healing. The English word “medicine” has its derivation here. It is common to find such spices as cinnamon, vanilla, nuts and cloves in this style of mead. These have a stronger association to wine than to beer.
Melomel is mead with fruit, and departs more sharply from the beer end of the spectrum in favor of aromas and a taste akin to wine or demi-sec. Within this category are varieties such as Cyser (an apple melomel) and Capsicumel (a chile pepper mead).
Mead has remained a drink of sustenance and pleasure throughout the history of civilization. Its magical powers are celebrated, even today, in the endurance of our word, “honeymoon.” In ancient Babylon, a newly married couple would consume mead every day for a moon cycle, to ensure male offspring. In the same spirit of sweet beginnings, we celebrate love with the sweetness of a honeymoon. A touch of mead, with all its variety of style, can only add to your sumptuous pleasure!