Healing Heather-Mugwort Mead: Its Folklore, History, and How to Make It
Ach and crivens, my brutes! Another mead article? Yes! Not just any mead, though. This is a healing mead! As if the honey-laden nectar of the gods wasn’t already healthy enough. In the olden days of yore, medicinal herbs would be used to enhance both the flavor (as if necessary in a mead) and the healing properties. For various and sundry reasons, of which you are welcome to guess after reading their uses below, I thought I would personally brew one using the perfect ingredients: heather and mugwort. So read on, fair reader, if you’d like to trek down a path of history, folklore, and tasty, tasty mead!
Heather mead has a long and storied life. It and its cousin heather ale have been brewed in Scotland for millennia, being at least 4,000 years old, with archeological finds discovering traces of heather mead being found in tombs. In fact, it was found throughout the entire Isle, lending credence to the British Isle being called the “Isle of Honey” and “Honey Isle of Beli” and “Y Vel Ynys” (which, okay, is the Isle of Honey). Even within modern written records, historians referred to heather meads and ales being brewed throughout the British Isles, noting that heath or “ling" was used, rather than hops to preserve beers. I can personally vouch for its tastiness in beer, being a fan of the commercial version from Scotland’s Williams Brothers and of a version that I’ve homebrewed.
As to its medicinal properties, fraoch (Scots Gaelic for heather) is used for many things:
- It eases the symptoms of arthritis and of gout
- It is beneficial for the kidneys and urinary tract, including its use to help prostate enlargement
- It’s a mild sedative and thus useful as a sleep aid
- It is an antiseptic, adding to the honey’s already existing similar attribute
- It strengthens the liver and gallbladder
- It aids in helping menstrual discomfort and menopause.
Perhaps another of the reasons it was used in the olden days as an additive is the white powdery moss that grows on the heather plant, that the Scots call fog(g), which is known to be a hallucinogenic. With theories abounding that it was used by the Druids to commune with the gods, to just being a nice additional intoxicant after a hard day of sheep raiding, it’s doubtable we’ll ever know its true use as the theories are generally unsubstantiated. We do know that fog is mentioned in conjunction with heather gathering, with writings from the 1600s and 1700s:
“Whar I a whalp had aftimes merry been, an’ careless sportit on the fog sae green”
“The youngsters for days before gathered heather, and in some cases a lot of fog, to make a big smoke.”
“A strong thick white moss, vulgarly called fog.”
The brewer mostly responsible for bringing heather ale back into the modern limelight, Bruce Williams, had it tested by a botanist, who concluded the fog is indeed a narcotic with mild hallucinogenic properties. We do know for certain that fog has the properties mentioned in the older folklore.
As well as its medicinal and flavorful traits, the folklore of heather is interesting. Scottish farmers would carry torches and burn heather around their fields before midsummer to ensure a good crop and to ensure cattle fertility (after all, it’s all about crops and fertility!). The colors of the plant indicate how much blood has soaked into the ground due to clan warfare, with darker colors indicating a particular gruesome amount and white being the color of good luck due to a lack of bloodshed (this particular lore is widespread throughout the Isle, in fact). Scottish brides will carry a sprig of heather for luck in the couple’s future together. Its modern use is as an aid in summoning spirits and attracting fairies to gardens by neo-pagans and Wiccans/witches.
As far as mugwort, it is nearly as storied as heather, with instances of it being used for medicinal purposes and as a preservative all the way back to the early Anglo-Saxon period, and even perhaps as far back as the first millennia BCE. Even into the early 1900s, it has been written that mugwort is used as an addition to table beer (a small or low alcoholic beer made for everyday drinking) that was brewed by British cottagers in the countryside. Being in the same family/genus as wormwood, it is a bitter plant, depending on your tastes. (In fact, from what I can tell they are the same plant, although I found a few botanists who argue this; since it’s not overly pertinent, I’m washing my hands of the issue.)
As far as its medicinal abilities, those too are as wide and varied as heather’s.
- It is antibacterial and an antifungal, like heather and honey.
- It is used to relieve fatigue.
- It is used to ease labor pains, as well as being a known abortifacient (so go easy on the amount if you share your mead with anyone who is pregnant!), and can push back the onset of menopause.
- It is a sleep aid, being a mild sedative, as is heather, but is even used specifically to ease nerves and depression.
- Lastly, it is used as a cure to rid the body of intestinal worms, which is exactly as sexy as it sounds.
The folklore of mugwort does not disappoint. In Roman Britannia, occupying soldiers would put mugwort in their sandals to keep their feet from tiring. In Wales, it was tied to the left thigh of women undergoing difficult labor, although it was necessary to remove immediately after birth to keep the mother from hemorrhaging. In post-conversion Germany and Holland, it is considered sacred to John the Baptist, who presumably wore a girdle of mugwort (maybe it was imported from Europe into the Middle-East or perhaps John traveled about into Asia). For this reason, the plants are gathered on St. John’s Eve and are used to protect from demonic possession and disease.
However, my favorite bit of folklore regarding mugwort is that it was given to us by the god Woden. Its name is given as mucgwrt in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charms and is the oldest of herbs (note: the loathsome one is thought to be a plague, and is certainly not the Christian devil):
Remember, mugwort, what you revealed
What you established at the mighty proclamation
“Una” you are called, oldest of herbs
You may avail against three and against thirty
You may avail against poison and against contagion
You may avail against the loathsome one who travels through the land
Now here, as a reward for your patience during my rambling, is the recipe!
- 2 gallons water
- 5 pounds honey
- 2 ounces heather tips
- ½ ounce mugwort (I found a one ounce bag, but only used half – it was my first time using it and I didn’t want to over bitter the mead)
- 2/3 teaspoon yeast energizer
- Yeast (see below)
- Sanitizer (your choice)
During Brewing Directions:
- Sanitize everything!
- Heat water to 160 degrees Fahrenheit (I have made other meads with no heat, but with the addition of heather and mugwort, keeping the must on this heat was necessary)
- Add honey and yeast energizer and stir until dissolved
- Add mugwort and stir for a few minutes
- Add heather tips and stir for several minutes (the heather is going to be very messy and will take up a lot of room in your boiling pot, so make sure you use one considerably larger than would be necessary for two gallons of water)
- Remove from heat and cool to 75 degrees Fahrenheit
- Pitch yeast – For this particular batch, I used an ale yeast called Burton from White Labs, because it adds the flavors of apple, pear, and clover honey. My final gravity was a bit above 1.10, so will have a final ABV of around 13%. Usually this yeast would not handle such a high gravity product, but as I only made a two gallon batch, and these ale yeasts are made for five gallon batches, it worked fine. If you make a full five gallon batch, you would need two or three such yeasts or a mead/wine yeast.
After brewing, I left the mead in its first carboy (fermenting container) for 6 weeks and then transferred over to another carboy for secondary fermentation. This allowed the removal of the heather tips that still remained and also removed the sediment at the bottom. After another six weeks in this secondary fermentation unit, I siphoned it over into a spigot bucket (which is a bucket with a spigot at the bottom to allow easier filling of bottles). I let it sit for a few hours to allow the remaining sediment to settle and then filled my bottles. Once again, make sure you sanitize everything before you start working with the mead!
I am currently allowing the mead to sit. It will need to age for several months before it is ready to drink and will even then continue to age. With such a high ABV, aging allows it to mellow, and it will also bring out other flavors.
However, I did keep a half pint out and drank it at bottling. It definitely needed to age, but it still tasted fantastic! The mugwort gave it an interesting bitterness and the heather gave it a unique Scottish flavor (there are historical indications that the Norse brought heather brewing into Scotland and Ireland, although it does seem that archeological evidence indicates it was already extant).
That’s it! I hope you enjoyed the road through history and folklore into the actual creation of a specific healing mead. On a final note, as with anything like this, the notes I’ve given are not from medical journals and so take what you want from the lore, but it is not given here as a set in stone science. Perhaps most importantly, if you have any worries about allergies or general reactions at all, then don’t use it unless it’s approved by your physician. I would hate for Midgard to lose any of you.
Wassail and Slainte!
Further Reading and References
Culpeper's Complete Herbal (Nicholas Culpeper)
The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants: A Practical Reference Guide (Andrew Chevallier)
Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation (Stephen Buhner)
Brewing Mead: Wassail! In Mazers of Mead: The Intriguing History of the Beverage of Kings and Easy, Step-by-Step Instructions to Brewing it at Home (Robert Gayre and Charlie Papazian)
The Compleat Meadmaker (Ken Schramm)