hist-brewing: Early Mead

Mike and Laura Angotti angotti at world.std.com
Tue Jun 17 18:57:56 PDT 1997

Good Day to everyone:

Since the discussion of early mead fits right into one of my (and my
husnband's) areas of study, I feel that I must put in my opinions based on
our studies.  Sorry to jump in late in the game, but we were out of town for
some time...

First I must agree with the person (phil) who said that taking Digby too far
is not a good idea.  A case in point: Digby appears to have invented the
strong bottle (I read this in a bibliography of him htat I did not then copy
and have not found since), allowing drinks (possibly even carbonated ones)
to be stored out of contact with air for a long time - this probably had a
significant effect on the types of drinks that could be made and stored.  In
the end, Digby probably contains a great deal that is relevant to earlier
times, but it is extremel;y difficult if not impossible to definitively
track one or another recipe among the hundred or so back to any given period.

As for early meads, there are a few points to be made.  My opinions here are
based on some 18 or so pre-1610 recipes we have found, about half of which
we have made, in addition to other materials in our library including early
passages on the character of mead.

We currently have on hand 6 recipes for mead dating from the 14th century,
of which we have made four.  I know this is a bit later than the original
1000-1300, but I know of no earlier recipes (if you discount going as far
back as the Romans).  These recipes use a variable amount of honey.  The
recipes come from England (4), France, (1), and Germany (1).  At least four
of the recipes are for wealthy middle or for upper class persons.  Of these
recipes, one (already mentioned) is from Menagier de Pairs, two are in Curye
on Inglysch, one is from Das Buch von Guter Spisen (German), and the last
two are from an English (probably medicinal) manuscript.

A quick rundown of these recipes:

Wurzburg mead from Daz buoch von guoter spise (1345-1354) (translated by
Alia K. Atlas, 1994)  "He, who wants to make good mead, warms clear water,
so that he can just stand to put the hand in.  And take two maz water and
one honey". The total boils for about 30 minutes (not much loss of liquid).
Therefore the end honey added is about 4 pounds per gallon, an ale yeast is
used.  The resulting mead is quite sweet, ameliorated by the addition of
hops and sage as the spices.  It is meant to be drunk within 6 weeks of
finishing fermentation.

The Bochet from Menagier: We have made this, and the resultsing mead is not
overly sweet due to the presence of the spices.  It lasted for about 6
months before going.  I do not have all my notes in front of me, but we
found a definition of sester from about the right time and place that with a
modern pint gave us just under 3-1/2 lb/gal honey.  Again we used an ale yeast.

Mead from Curye on Inglysch (mead and Fyn Mede & Poynaunt):  The two recipes
here are less clear.  The first is a straightforward mead recipe, which has
no clear measurements.  Since the recipe calls for letting it stand only a
few days before drinking, and uses the honey boiled out of pressed combs
(plus a quart of pure honey), we concluded it was probably very light,  We
redacted the recipe as about 1 lb honey per gallon.  When we used this same
assumption for the apples and spice version (the second recipe) we got a
spicy and sharp mead (poignant or piquant as the recipe says) with a life of
only a month or so.

The last two recipes are from a 14th century English manuscript.  These both
use the same base, with one being a plain mead, and the second a mertheglyn
(with hyssop, rosemary, centory, thyme, etc.).  This recipes calls for 1
gallon honey to 4 gallons water, or about 2-2.5 lb/gallon.  This recipe,
similar to the Curye calls for one week fermentation before drinking. This
comes out somewhat sweet, very active, and quite tasty.

So, in all, we have four recipes with relatively low honey (2.5 lb/gal or
less) and two with moderate to high (3.5 to 4 lb/gal).  I don't think there
is enough sample to draw conclusions about the general meads made, only
enough to say they did vary.  Not surprisingly the latter two are quite
sweet and the other four are tart.  One recipe does not state a fermentation
or aging time, the others give very short times (a couple of days to about
2.5 months).

I think it is important to realize that it appears that meads in the cited
1000-1300 time frame were made with bread/ale/beer yeast rather than wine
yeast.  Several respondants have talked about wine strength meads,which we
do not believe were at all common (and may not have been purposefully made
at all).  Instead when talking about early meads, the discussion should be
primarily revolving around ale/beer.bread yeast.  when your max alcohol is
in the 4-6% range it will require a lot less honey than the 10-12% typical
for wine yeasts.  

The basis for this conclusion is a study of the aforesaid recipes in which
about a dozen specify a yeast source.  6 generically call for 'yeast' or
'barm', three call for a yeast source specifically from ale, beer, or bread.
and three call for previously used fermentation vessels ("some roundlet",
"vessel in which something has fermented", and "vessel in which beer has
fermented".  Based on etymology of the words used (and not used) from my
OED, the places and times under consideration, and the lack of mention of
any yeast source in all wine making tracts I have read (they appear to have
relied on wild yeasts), I conclude that it is extremely unlikely that any of
these specific references were referring to yeast from a wine source.  In
fact there is only one of these recipes where wine yeasts could plausibly be
the fermentors, one of the recipes calling for a used vessel also uses the
word 'must' which can be used EITHER as a generic term or as a term specific
to wine.  

When you think about some of these issues from the standpoint of a low
alcohol yeast (beer/bread) rather than high alcohol (wine) they change
significantly.  My superficial examination of Digby counts only one recipe
specifically calling for wine yeast, and another 8 or so (out of over 100)
using used wine vessels; almost half of the recipes in Digby specifically
call for 'barm' or beer/ale yeast.  This indicates that even in Digby's day,
lower alcohol (regardlese of original honey content) meads were most prevalent. 

Furthermore the language of the early texts does not indicate or plainly
state anything about trying to make a "strong" (high alcohol) or "small"
mead (low alcohol) as they do for beers. This seems to indicate that the
intention is not to produce a certain degree of alcohol but merely to
achieve fermentation. Putting this in social context it is easy to see that
the objective is not to produce the 20th century paradigm of "booze" ;
rather the intent is to produce a pleasing beverage that has some shelf life
and certain "physical/medicinal" properties. It is not until the time of
Hugh Plat and later Digy; that writers concern themsleves with the alcohol
content. Thus one could conclude that this was an awareness and interest of
their time. 

The debate of how much honey was really available in the middle ages is one
we have talked about a lot. Keeping in mind that they destroyed bee hives to
recover honey, a beekeeper once told us the annual yield from such hives was
not too much above 2-3 pounds.  Another thing to keep in mind whe talking
about honey is that in later years (around 1600) at least three grades of
honey were recognized.  Life honey runs from the combs of itself (once the
combs are cut open), the second grade is recovered from crushing combs, and
the third from boiling what is left with some water.  It seems reasonable to
expect that this would have carried through earlier, but also reasonable
that our well-to-do people whose recipes were written down would be using
the better honey.  Our conclusion was that honey was certainly available,
but not in enough volume to make lots of strong mead for all.

As this is now quite long enough, we will close.  I hope this proves

Questions anyone?

Laura and Michael Angotti
angotti at world.std.com
Arlington, MA

To unsubscribe from this list, send email to majordomo at pbm.com containing
the words "unsubscribe hist-brewing". To contact a human about problems, send
mail to owner-hist-brewing at pbm.com

More information about the hist-brewing mailing list