hist-brewing: spontaneous ferment mead

Dan McFeeley mcfeeley at keynet.net
Tue Jan 16 08:57:14 PST 2001


On Mon, 15 Jan 2001 Chuck Wettergreen wrote, in part:

>But, historically speaking, I have wondered just how did
>they do it back there in the mists of time? Where did they
>get their yeast?  Did their mead spontaneously ferment, like
>a lambic? so I did a couple of experiments.

Interesting experiment, and I think it does point to historical
antecedents.  The osmophilic yeasts in honey do quite well at heavy
concentrations of sugar, but can't survive in a diluted honey must.
They're specifically adapted for a high brix environment.  All those
stories about the discovery of spontaneously fermented mead from old
honey combs in a rain filled log are not likely to be true.  Meads
would ferment much more easily if the yeast were introduced from
another source, as in Chuck's experiment.

Archaeological artifacts showing meadmaking activity are rare, but it's
been my observation that they have always been "metheglins" (if that word
can be correctly used for these ancient meads, see below), with added herbs
or cereal grains.  Traditional meads were known in Greco-Roman times or
celebrated in the Irish mythological cycles, but seem to have been unknown
or extremely rare during Neolithic or Mesolithic times.  I think this
strongly suggests that these ancient meadmakers had first learned to
introduce yeast from other sources and later (perhaps much later) began
making what we would call traditional mead.

The similarity of words for "mead" in the Indo-European language group
has been used as an argument for the antiquity of mead, however, James
Fraser (author of _The Golden Bough_) pointed out in his 1920 paper
("Linguistic Evidence and Archaeological and Ethnological Facts") that
the common use of the word for "mead" in Indo-European languages does
not necessarily indicate that the word itself stood for what we think
of when we use the word "mead."  Fraser is correct here in pointing out
an etymological fallacy of backreading our concepts and images of "mead"
into the interpretation of archaeological artifacts and paleolinguistics.
Words for "mead" more likely indicated a honey based fermented beverage,
and would include what we would call metheglyns and honey ales.  The
broadness in what was meant by "mead" likely came about because of the
fermentation methods of introducing yeasts from adjunct ingredients.
 

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Dan McFeeley
mcfeeley at keynet.net


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