hist-brewing: spontaneous ferment mead

Dan McFeeley mcfeeley at keynet.net
Wed Jan 17 12:53:03 PST 2001

Chuck's statements on show meads might make some people cautious, but it
shouldn't be overlooked that prior to our modern era, *all* meads were 
show meads.  In a very broad sense (maybe too broad  :-), show meads made
without boiling the honey must are anachronisms, pointing to the years
before the Medieval period when boiling seems to have been first introduced.
Pliny the Elder's recipe for mead, for example, about 70 AD, does not
recommend boiling the honey must.

Roger Morse has been a large influence in how we go about meadmaking today.
The literature prior to 1950 shows experiments with various nutrients to
aid the fermentation but it was Morse who brought it all together and
introduced new ideas based on reported problems in nutrient level and
buffering in honey.  A 1995 _Zymurgy_ article by Dan McConnell and Ken
Schramm titled "Mead Success: Ingredients, Processes and Techniques,"
one of the most succinct and comprehensive articles you can find on 
meadmaking, is strongly influenced by much of Roger Morse's ideas on

Along the way, however, Morse introduced a lasting image of honey in
*negative* terms, i.e., as something fragile and deficient that needed
rescuing.  It's very significant that his published works show no 
citations at all of the research of John W. White jr., although he
shows some awareness of White's work.  Seeing honey in a positive image
is recognizing it as a biological product in its own right, highly 
variable according to floral source.  White's research into the properties
of honey underscores this positive image of honey, something you can work
*with*, rather than something needing control with modern technology.

In spite of the success of Roger Morse's methods, the negative image of
honey inherent in his ideas has skewed how we perceive meadmaking.  You
can see this in his master's thesis for Cornell University when he first
began his research into mead and meadmaking.  He begins by citing mead's
legendary status as the beverage of kings and then points out the 
incongruity with the meads being produced in the U.S. prior to the 
1950's.  They were generally too sweet, high in volatile acidity due
to poor sanitation practices, and flawed with off flavors needing long
aging.  Awful stuff, certainly not fit for a king!  Morse addressed the
problem by researching the literature, using that as a base for developing
formula and methods for correcting the deficiencies in honey causing
problems in fermentation.  In doing so, he overemphasized a negative
image of honey while downplaying its positive aspects.  He did very
little research into the methods of the meadmakers themselves, not
considering whether or not it was problems with the methods being used
instead of problems with honey itself.  To read Roger Morse's published
works, you would think it was nearly impossible to make a show mead.

An article by Jace Crouch titled "The Great Yeast Test," published in the
Fall 1990 issue of _The Meadmakers Journal_, gives a different picture
altogether.  Seven meads were made in Crouch's experiment, four of which
were show meads, the other three made with chemical adjuncts.  Crouch
reported that the natural meads started almost immediately and with great
vigor, finishing out in three weeks.  Oddly, the chemical meads were sluggish
in comparison.  At sampling time, the natural meads were preferred over the
chemical meads, including people who were first time mead tasters.  The
natural meads were singled out as having cleaner taste, brighter color and
purer aromas.  Even after a year of aging, the chemical meads had a harsh
edge and the flavors were more bland in comparison to the natural meads.
The chemical meads seemed to reach their peak in about nine months and then
rode a plateau while the natural meads, Crouch reports, started out well
and continued to get better.  The flavors of the natural meads achieved a
harmonious blend which the chemical meads couldn't match.  Others eschewing
the use of chemical nutrients are no less than Brother Adam, who said they
would harm the delicate nuances of the honey.

I've had the opportunity to taste Chuck's meads, and they're everything
he says they are.  What I've observed in all his meads, regardless of
style, is a remarkably clean flavor profile with no off flavors whatsoever.
They are drinkable upon clearing and bottling, not as young meads needing a
little more time, but as enjoyable beverages in their own right.  It's very
clear that Chuck has mastered the art of making natural meads, possibly in
ways reflective of the ways fine meads were made prior to the advent of
chemical assistance.

This is where the historical relevance of a well made show mead comes in.
I'm doubtful that this is a modern phenomena, meadmakers throughout history
have had this ability to make good meads, likely by discovering and 
rediscovering old methods.  The fact that it can be done strongly suggests
that it could be and was done.  It's well known that old recipes are short
on details and thereby misleading.  They were meant for people having prior
expertise in mead and wine making, who could read between the lines,
interject their experience and make the recipe work. 

Meadmaking may have fallen upon hard times during the period Roger Morse
investigated, but the negative image of honey he tacitly assumed in all his
research distorted this picture, making it impossible to see honey and
meadmaking in anything other than a negative image.  It's my guess that
meadmakers who successfully make good natural meads have a positive image
of honey, gained from long experience of working with different honeys and
learning both intuitively and through study, the ways and means of making
a good fermentation work better.  

Dan McFeeley
mcfeeley at keynet.net

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