AFRICAN HISTORY OF MEAD
An excerpt from Chapter 10, The Art of Mead Tasting and Food Pairing
Mead has been made and drunk in Africa for a very long time, possibly as long as 20,000 to 40,000 years. Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes probably made mostly quick meads or short meads, which would be ready to drink within a matter of a few days or weeks, and would have both made the water safer to drink and the evening more pleasant.
African traditions for drinking mead include life milestones such as naming ceremonies for infants, weddings, and burials; at rain-making ceremonies; at festivals and social gatherings, and to seal the deal when settling disputes. Meads are also used as medicines, especially when various barks and herbs are included. Honey, including the alcohol made from it, is an important source of calories and the B-vitamins made by the yeasts (Steinkraus, 1996). African homebrew and traditionally-made meads and tej are typically cloudy or hazy, sweet, and often drunk while still fizzy and actively fermenting.
Tej is a small but highly visible subset of the larger class of African meads. Tej comes from Ethiopia, where it is considered the national drink. According to the Saba Tej Company of Rutherford, New Jersey, Ethiopia produces more honey than any other country in Africa and ferments 80% of that honey into Tej.
Most Tej is produced through homebrewing, but many small companies make commercial versions. When travelling in East Africa, look for the local tej bets—these are local neighborhood pubs specializing exclusively in tej. They are often brewpubs, with the tej made on the premises, and the regular clientele often coins a descriptive name for a particular bet’s tej, for example, Edme Ketil (Age Extender), or Gedel Gibu (Go to Hell), apparently implying that the alcohol content is so high that one would fall down flat after drinking just a flask or two, according to addisfortune.net. For now, one can only dream of a future day in the U.S. when one can wander into a meadpub in any city and the only alcohol on the menu is a selection of house-made meads!
Recipes for traditional Ethiopian meads most commonly include gesho, a shrub-like tree that is a member of the buckthorn family. Its twigs and branches are used much like hops in modern beer making. Gesho both bitters and acts as a preservative and is still used in Tej today. Some Tej recipes additionally use various other local herbs, fruits, and spices, but this is the exception. For an authentic presentation, decant a bottle of Tej into a Berelè, a round-bottomed flask or decanter used exclusively for serving Tej.
The Ethiopian toast is “Le tenachin!” ... to your health!