hist-brewing: Early Mead

GREATFERM at aol.com GREATFERM at aol.com
Wed Jun 18 11:30:04 PDT 1997


It seems to have become a part of contemporary mythology that ale yeast has
no alcohol tolerance. Both ale yeast and most wine yeasts are of the same
family, saccharomyces cerevisiae, and this is the traditional family. Today
they are selected and bred for particular characteristics, but this is a
modern development. An ale yeast today will not be selected for alcohol
tolerance, because this is irrelevant to brewers, but in fact it is not all
all uncommon for an ale yeast to have an alcohol tolerance of 12%, and there
is no reason to think that this is historically unusual. It is also unlikely
that there were any pure strains of yeast in use anytime before the 19th
century, and yeast mutate rapidly. It would seem probable that if there was
enough fermentable sugar in a mead to make 12% alcohol, there would be at
least the one yeast cell necessary to take full advantage of the potential. 

If a mead finishes sweet, this is most likely a result of vitamin and mineral
deficiency or the presence of fatty acids, rather than the yeast used.
Temperature and acidity will also affect the process, and certain herbs and
flavorings, (cinnamon, for example) are somewhat toxic to yeast. 

In any event, the process is more important than the "recipe". You can take
exactly the same "recipe" , and make either a sweet or dry mead,  just by
procedural variations. The local water also has its effect. That's why Burton
was known for Ales, and London for Porters. 

Finally, meads are notoriously fickle fermenters. I have known meads to take
two weeks to ferment, and I have seen them take two years. Apparently bees
pick up something, from certain flowers, at certain seasons, which retards
fermentation in certain yeasts. The long slow fermentations are so slow that
the mead will often clear and be quite drinkable before it is completely
"finished", and I suspect many ancient meads were consumed that way. 

So....I wouldn't regard a recipe as showing you anything definitive about
mead. 

As my old Philosophy professor used to say, "Its the style, not the stuff,
that stupifies."

Jay Conner
Greatferm

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