hist-brewing: Early Mead

Mike and Laura Angotti angotti at world.std.com
Tue Jul 15 17:10:46 PDT 1997


After some delay, I am writing in response to Jay Connors response to a
posting I wrote last month.  In particular he addressed some questions about
yeast and recipes I want to respond to.  With some cutting and pasting...

At 02:30 PM 6/18/97 -0400, you wrote:
>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. 
>...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%,

Some scientists will tell you alcohol fermenting yeasts include two species.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces uvarum are names for top
fermenting and bottom fermenting yeasts.  To be precise with terminology we
should not use the term family, as it is a 'higher' level classification
than we are dealing with.  But that is neither here nor there.

Chihuahua's and St. Bernards are also the same species.  Same species does
not mean interchangeable, and does not mean that all characteristics are shared.

My study of scientific literature, popular literature, and my experience
tells me that alcohol tolerance in yeast is a fact not a myth.  The
scientific literature indicates that alcohol tolerance is a primary factor
in choosing yeasts for commercial fermentation.  Yeasts are characterized,
sold and used based on their alcohol tolerance.  No it is not an absolute
when you are dealing with multiple generations of millions of creatures, but
it is a pretty solid guideline.

> It is also unlikely
>that there were any pure strains of yeast in use anytime before the 19th
>century, and yeast mutate rapidly. 

No, strains were not pure, but continual use of one strain (as for instance
by using yeast frmo hte last batch to fuel the next) would enforce some
continuity, or at least a fairly consistent mix would/could be obtained.

The more interesting question (to me) which I deduce here is whether it is
reasonable to assume that earlier yeasts had the same tendancies (beer-weak,
wine-strong).  This is a very good question, and one I cannot answer with
certainty. It is perhaps incorrect to extrapolate the tendencies of modern
yeasts to 500 years earlier.  However, our stated conclusion is based on the
physical evidence (from making the meads) which has to date supported the
contention that they turn out well when fermented to a lower alcohol
(through manipulation of both time and yeast), as well as the understanding
that these recipes call for short fermentation times which tend to be
associated with beer/ale/bread yeasts. 

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

I disagree strongly. Not that that is what you see to be the case, but that
it is so.  Yes, there are significant variations from batch to batch and
maker to maker. Even with these variations in mind, the recipe is still the
single greatest determining factor in how something will taste.  You cannot
start with ingredients and directions for stout and make Budweiser.

I go back to the four recipes from the 14th century we have made (and cited
previously). We have made some of the recipes a number of times, and tasted
results from others using the same recipes.  No, they do not taste the same,
but most flavor variations appear to be primarily from flavorings (amounts,
source, freshness).   

>Jay Conner
>Greatferm

Laura Angotti
Angotti at world.std.com


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