hist-brewing: Re: oxidation and mead

Mike and Laura Angotti angotti at world.std.com
Thu Jun 13 13:58:50 PDT 1996


Hello To all,

Since the making of mead is one of my primary interests, I will happily jump
into the discussion of aging times for meads.  Please note that as a member
of the SCA my primary period of interest is pre-1600, although I study up to
about 1650 or so.

Patrick O'Hearn asks about the effects of oxidation and wooden casks.
Wooden casks are not an area where I can claim particular expertise, but I
will add to what others have said in that when early recipes calling for the
use of wood casks for mead, they often specify used casks (probably
previously used for wine).  I also will not really address the chemical
aspects of oxidation. I am currently becoming more convinced that oxidation
was less of a concern than changes in flavor of brew due to the specific
ingredients and combination or the generally poor sanitation surrounding the
production conditions for alcoholic beverages (as opposed to the storage
conditions).  

For those of you who read SCUM (an SCA brewing periodical), the following
discussion contains some information from an article which will appear in an
upcoming issue.

In the modern day we can make meads which are drinkable anytime between a
couple of weeks and many years from brewing.  The oldest I have drunk was, I
believe, about 10 years old.  The youngest was only a few weeks old.

I have on hand 15 recipes for honey-based alcoholic drinks dating from the
14th century to about 1609.  These recipes come from 9 sources.  One recipe
has no data on fermentation or aging time. Five recipes call for the mead to
finish working and age from no time up to 2 months.  In the other recipes
(nine) the specified fermentation and aging times run from a few days to 6
months.  Based on this sample, with no times over 6 months, we can conclude
that meads pre-1600 were drunk after relatively little aging. Another piece
of this puzzle is that the yeasts used in these recipes, when specified, are
bread or beer/ale yeasts.  There is no recipe which specifies the use of
wine yeast, although recipes calling for used containers may have therefore
utilized wine yeasts remaining in the barrels.

Yet when we look at Digby (1669), with over 100 recipes for meads, there are
aging times called for of up to several years. I see that Chuck Graves notes
the long aging times were all for bottle aging.  I will note, however, that
the vast majority (by very rough count 80%) still call for fermentation plus
aging of up to 6 months.

By the way, looking at the contemporary wine trade, spoilage was a major
concern, and most wine was meant to be drunk before the next vintage
appeared (Hugh Johnson, 1989, Vintage: The Story of Wine).  Period texts on
the properties of wines cite aging times of 5 to 10 years, but these seeem
to be the exception.  Many texts include ways of 'helping' wine that has
begun to go bad.

It is my contention that the longer aging times seen in some recipes in
Digby are the result of technological changes in the early 17th century.  We
have made meads from five of the pre-1609 recipes and all taste very good at
the specified ages, and some do not last very long at all, even with modern
sanitation and bottling.  This is what leads me to believe that actual
oxidation may be less of an issue than other aspects of technique and
sanitation.

Bottles in which beverages could be reliably stored out of contact with air
for long periods were developed and became popular during the first half of
the 17th century (Johnson, 1989).  In fact, it was Sir Kenelm Digby who
invented a strong bottle which could be used for the long-term storage of
even sparkling beverages.  While drinks could be stored for long period of
time in casks, I am inclined to believe that the nature of the production
processes and ingredients made this a risky business at best.  As a note I
have seen at least one recipe (can't remember where right now) that
indicates a limited time to drink a brew from the time the cask was broached.

I think that long aging times were the exception rather than the rule until
at least the latter part of the 17th century.  Of course, as an impatient
brewer, I like this, it means I get to drink my stuff sooner ...

Any questions, comments?

Laura Angotti				In the SCA:	Morgaine ferch Cadwr
angotti at world.std.com					Barony of Carolingia, East
Arlington, MA

Note:  Although I am the one to post, due to a current availability of time,
none of my knowledge would be what it is without the work and contributions
of my husband Michael (Muiredach O'Siadhail) in all of these areas.


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